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Wind power mirages

By Pastor Jay Dennis
web posted October 25, 2010

We Americans are often told we must end our "addiction" to oil and coal, because they harm the environment and Earth's climate. "Ecologically friendly" wind energy, some say, will generate 20% of America's energy in another decade, greatly reducing carbon dioxide emissions and land use impacts from mining and drilling.

These claims are a driving force behind the cap-tax-and-trade and renewable energy bills that Congress may try to ram through during a "lame duck" session – as well as the Environmental Protection Agency's economy-threatening regulations under its ruling that carbon dioxide "endangers human health and welfare."

It is true that we are commanded to be good stewards of the Earth and resources God gave us. We should conserve energy, use it wisely, and minimize harmful impacts on lands and wildlife. But we also need to safeguard our health and that of our neighbors, preserve jobs, and help poor families build wealth and improve their standard of living. I want all children, not just mine, to have a better future.

Heaven knows I'm not an engineer. But Robert Bryce's readable book, Power Hungry, has opened my eyes and helped me appreciate what it really means to be good stewards – and why we depend on hydrocarbons for 85% of the energy that keeps our homes, businesses and communities running smoothly.

Bryce points out that we are no more "addicted" to fossil fuels than we are to food, housing and clothing. It's simply that fossil fuels give us more abundant, reliable and affordable energy, from less land, than any alternatives we have today. They enable us to have jobs, hospitals, cars, schools, factories, offices, stores – and living standards better than royalty enjoyed a mere century ago. As fossil fuel consumption increases, so does agriculture, commerce, mobility, comfort, convenience, health and prosperity. 

Oil, natural gas, coal and gasoline also give us huge amounts of energy from small tracts of land. One oil well producing just ten barrels a day provides the energy equivalent of electricity from wind turbines on half of Delaware, according to Bryce.

Wind-based electricity is unreliable. It's available only when the wind is blowing enough but not too hard. It can add to our electrical grid, but can't be depended on to power a business or operating room. And no factory or city can get by just on wind power – not in my lifetime, anyway. Wind as a primary or dominant energy source is simply a mirage.

Wind turbines actually generate electricity only seven hours a day on average – and 2 hours a day on sweltering Texas summer days and frigid Minnesota winter nights. That means every watt of wind power must be backed up by gas-fired generators that kick in every time the turbine blades stop turning.

And that's just the beginning.

Wind turbine farms need ten times more steel and concrete than a nuclear, coal or gas power plant for the same amount of electricity. You also need thousands of tons of raw materials for the backup generators and the thousands of miles of new transmission lines to get the electricity to cities hundreds of miles from the wind farms. All these materials have to be dug out of the ground someplace.

All that mining and manufacturing is powered by fossil fuels, which requires more mining and drilling. The backup power plants have to be running constantly – and then roar to full strength every time the wind dies down. That's like having to stop your car repeatedly for red lights along miles of highway: idling and then gunning it to 55 mph over and over. That uses huge amounts of fuel and emits enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and pollutants. In the end, we barely reduce America's CO2 emissions – and may actually increase them.

Finally, even with billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies, wind-based electricity is far more expensive than power generated by coal, natural gas or nuclear plants. That hurts families, sends business costs skyrocketing, and means people lose their jobs.

I'm not opposed to wind or solar or biofuels. I just don't like it when our politicians, news media, environmental groups and government officials aren't honest with us about these tradeoffs. Companies get fined for deceptive advertising. Politicians, journalists, eco-activists and bureaucrats should be held to the same standards.

Telling the truth is a basic moral principle. So is being a good steward of the Earth and its resources, by considering all the facts, the environmental impacts, and the harm to jobs and families from needlessly unreliable and expensive energy.

America can't afford to shut down the fossil fuels that make our jobs and living standards possible – or slap huge new climate change taxes on them – before we have a real alternative to replace them, not just mirages. ESR

Jay Dennis is senior pastor of the 10,000-member Church at the Mall in Lakeland, Fla., and a senior advisor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

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