Pollution From Wind Power? - I Don't Think So

One of the arguments I used to laugh at the most over inflated Pentagon funding went like this: "Sure, a billion dollars for the XYZ weapon system is a lot of money. But if we end the XYZ weapon system-building program and don't build it, it'll cost two billion."

Say what?

Now that same spurious logic is being deployed against renewable energy sources. In a recent article published in The Wall Street Journal, Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argued that switching away from fossil fuels to wind energy has actually increased pollution. The obvious inference is that not using wind energy will therefore reduce pollution.

It seems fair to ask then: If we use no wind energy at all, will we eliminate pollution entirely!!??

Bryce's wacky assertion is based upon a report from the Western Energy Alliance, which was formerly known more tellingly as the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. Earlier this year, this worthy group produced a detailed report that concluded the government's requirements for power companies to begin switching to renewable energy sources for generating electricity had actually increased the level of air pollution in Texas and Colorado.

How can that be so, you might well ask?

At first blush, the answer seems plausible enough: When coal and natural gas plants are operated flexibly, rather than steadily, so as to "fill in the valleys" in the inevitably fluctuating amounts of electricity produced by wind-driven generators (winds naturally come and go, gusting then dying away), they tend to operate less efficiently. Thus, they burn more coal and natural gas, thereby increasing air pollution. Isn't that obvious?

This article was later cited by the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank based in Washington, DC, to further bolster the right-wing talking point that wind power is overrated and even counter-productive to the goal of environment improvement.

In the article, Bryce went so far as to question whether wind energy would ever make a significant contribution to reducing air pollution, and he argued that natural gas is a better energy source for electrical generation, compared with wind, for those truly concerned about the environment.

But the Western Energy Alliance's explanation is false, and reality has begun to reassert itself with the release by the American Wind Energy Association of figures coming directly from the U.S. Department of Energy. In actual fact, the figures show that carbon emissions have dropped steadily in Texas and Colorado as more wind-powered electrical generators have come online, even if they don't operate as steadily as the Western Energy Alliance's coal- and natural gas-powered generators.

According to "20% Wind Energy by 2030," a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratories, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, the reduction in emissions from building more wind-powered generators will be huge. And there will be other significant environmental benefits, such as water conservation, as well.

Other studies project that air pollution is likely to fall dramatically, perhaps by as much as 25 percent, as wind-powered generators ramp up to fill more of the nation's need for electric power.

So next time you hear someone argue that wind-power increases pollution and fossil fuels are better for the environment, give them a big smile, as you would to the prattlings of an adorable but totally misinformed child.

More later ...

Photo credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratories, U.S. Department of Energy