High and Hidden Costs: There is Nothing Free about the Wind

October 9, 2010 08:03

An island off the coast of Maine, suddenly became loud and unbearable when utilities operating three new wind turbines flipped the switch to “on.”

THE FOUNDRY at Heritage Foundation

What was normally a peaceful, quiet way of life for residents of Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine, suddenly became loud and unbearable when utilities operating three new wind turbines flipped the switch to “on.” A recent New York Times article reports that some Vinalhaven residents are learning “the hard way” that wind power has its costs.

While residents welcomed the arrival of the turbines in late 2009, it is apparent that they did so with certain expectations. Those expectations came from what schoolteacher Sally Wylie call an understanding that the turbine noise would not be discernible.

Though wind farms produce emissions-free energy (when the wind is blowing), they bring certain costs with them. One cost—the wearisome low-frequency noise emitted by enormous blades—is evident by these complaints from Maine and from other homeowners all over the country. Complaints filed in 2008 by a Pennsylvania couple and a Wisconsin family forced to vacate its farm are just two examples of the financial and physiological damages of the whooshing turbines.

The deceit in this story runs deeper. According to the Times article:

Turbine noise can be controlled by reducing the rotational speed of the blades. But the turbines on Vinalhaven already operate that way after 7 p.m., and George Baker, the chief executive of Fox Island Wind—a for-profit arm of the island’s electricity co-operative—said that turning the turbines down came at an economic cost. “The more we do that, the higher goes the price of electricity on the island,” he said.

So wind power turns out to be more expensive than proponents would argue. But isn’t wind already more expensive than our more conventional sources of electricity? Isn’t that why it supplied less than 2 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2009?

In a word, yes.

The Energy Information Administration’s lists the levelized costs of various sources of electricity per megawatt hour projected for 2016 (in 2008 dollars). In 2016, both onshore and offshore wind are more than double the cost of conventional coal, and these costs don’t account for the billions of dollars needed to build new transmission lines as well as the backup power necessary when the wind isn’t blowing. This notion that “because wind is free, once the manufacturer builds the windmill, the cost of electricity generation will be cheap” is completely false.

One possible solution to the noise produced by windmills is to require developers to leave buffer zones between residents and the wind farms, which a piece of legislation in Vermont is proposing. But if wind is to help propel us toward the Obama Administration’s goal of doubling U.S. renewable energy generation by 2012 or having 20 percent of our electricity come from renewable sources by 2020, then more wind farms will likely be constructed near homeowners. More noisy turbines mean more lawsuits filed about noise and potential decline in property value.

Clearly not all “green” energy is good once it actually gets going. Higher costs, hidden costs, and the disruptive noise that accompany wind turbines indicate that wind enthusiasts are not telling the whole story.

Emily Goff is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm

Co-authored by Nick Loris.

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