Friday, June 29, 2012

The Irony of Progress

Windmills on Lake Erie, 2012

Progress is so hard to predict. It can destroy you if you don’t see it coming. And, as the wind turbines lining the southwestern shore of Lake Erie demonstrate, you can get in trouble if you get too far ahead of it.
It’s funny how something as seemingly benign as wind power can get people so riled up. For some, wind powered energy generation is an ultimate green technology. It’s clean, sustainable and leaves no adverse legacies. Better yet, the technology’s been proven and is in use in all kinds of terrains around the world.
For opponents, wind powered energy generation is thought to be ugly, noisy and, at least according to the people who live on Cape Cod who’ve been trying to keep wind turbines out of Nantucket Sound, harmful to fish and foul.
The real problem with wind powered energy generation, of course, is not any of the above. It’s that we’re so early in the process of accepting it in the United States that we’ve jiggered the energy system to make it exceedingly expensive.
Wind power is like desalinating salt water. Desalinization technology has been around for some time. Cruise ships, for example, use it all the time. Yet millions of people around the world who live adjacent to oceans and other large saltwater bodies go without dependably water for household and agricultural use because the cost of desalinization is so much higher than the cost of importing water.
I was very impressed to see a line of wind turbines along the shore of Lake Erie during my recent visit to Buffalo, New York. I threaded my way through old industrial neighborhoods (and a terrific new network of lakefront public parks) to get close enough to photograph the turbines.
The first irony of these turbines is that they’re located on the former site of a Bethlehem Steel mill, once the 4th biggest steel mill in the world. Big Steel is long gone, made too costly by smaller, cheaper and more flexible steel production technology. In its place along the Buffalo waterfront is one of the latest forms of energy generation that’s actually just a new twist on a concept older than steel itself.
The second irony of this elegant array of windmills is that they’re apparently in danger of being turned off. On the day I visited they turned gently in the steady wind that blew off Lake Erie. The made no discernable noise.  Even lazy seagulls flew among them without being struck by the giant white vanes.
This installation was the pet project of a former New York Power Authority president. After he left office nobody has stepped up to continue championing this billion-dollar project. The Buffalo News reported, “The ...wind turbines lining a stretch of Lake Erie...could have generated about 500 megawatts of clean energy, enough to supply about 130,000 homes.” [That’s almost two-thirds of the Buffalo Metropolitan region’s households.] “It would have reduced pollution by reducing the state’s reliance on power plants that run on fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas.”
But it turns out the electricity generated by these turbines costs three times what it costs to generate electricity in plants fueled by coal and gas. I’m willing to bet that if you factored in the health, safety and environmental costs of fossil fuel plants there’d be greater parity between wind and fossil fuels.
But that’s not how the bean counters and the politicians in coal-producing states look at it. So it’s anyone’s guess whether wind power will be taken seriously in this generation. 
In the meantime, I hope the New York Power Authority doesn’t turn off these turbines. 


  1. It's so true--I hear this same kind of thing over and over from our students. Everything is so much more complicated than it seems like it should be. And yes--a lot of people hate the wind turbines. I have no problem with them, but many really do.

  2. Sadly, power sources have become like flags worn by competing camp kids. Color wars is a common theme throughout American history. We seem to have a limited mental capacity for processing complexity. Red fish-blue fish. Black or white. Wind farms or XL Pipelines. This issue is exceedingly frustrating because we have debated the relative merits of renewable energy as the Parts Per Million of carbon in our atmosphere have reached 400. This debate underscores our dinosaur-like mental capacity as we all turn into fossils. Hmmm? Sounds like a source of oil!