Why Aren't Those Wind Turbines Working?

Green Illusions book cover

Why Aren't Those Wind Turbines Working?

Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of
Environmentalism; Ozzie Zehner

Book review by R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

Back in the late 1990s, on a nine day vacation—a trip which included driving a rented Subaru from Ft. Collins, Colorado to San Francisco—I experienced a painful epiphany. My road trip included many dazzling sites: the Collegiate Mountains, Dillon Pinnacles and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, as well as vast tracts of breathtaking scenery across Utah and Nevada. Toward the final stretch of this sightseeing voyage, I crossed from Nevada into California by way of Reno and Lake Tahoe, and from there, climbed up into the Sierra Mountains.

Then I saw it—and though I was fully aware that such places existed, my early life in northeast Florida and southeast Alabama still made it a shock to see: a vast tract of rugged, hilly land populated by enormous wind towers. The farm of turbines stretched as far as one could see toward the south and the north, following the crest of elevation. The wind was brutal that day, for I had felt the power of surging gusts against the little Subaru wagon for an hour as the road took me higher. Surely this was genius, an engineering marvel, and a potent example of mankind harvesting the power of nature with minimal impact to the land, air or water. Genius. I even stopped and took photographs of some of the first towers I encountered, standing in the brisk wind which at times forced me to maintain balance by leaning against the car.

But there was something strange: nearly two thirds of those gargantuan fans were motionless. Still others moved at glacially slow speeds. Only a handful seemed like they were truly rotating in tandem with the power of that muscular breeze. It was incongruous and perplexing. A little later, at a small restaurant-convenience store, I asked an employee about what I had seen. “I’m surprised any of those fans are moving,” she said with a laugh, “those things stopped working not long after they were built. The newspapers said that the turbines cost more to repair than to erect.”

A man sitting on a stool nearby chimed in with “And when they wind stops blowing, so do those machines.”

So much for the audacious engineering of humankind. Such has been the nature of the great forty-year quest for the holiest and greenest of grails—that of alternative sources for a nation and a world increasingly dependent on fossil fuels.

For Americans the problems related to energy have been straightforward and as old as the Baby Boomer generation: oil and coal are dirty, producing air and water pollutants and generating greenhouse gases which damage the atmosphere. Hydroelectric is costly on the front end and carries vast environmental impact. Nuclear power—especially in light of the recent catastrophes in Japan—looks more menacing than ever despite it reliable output. Natural gas employs intrusive and dangerous forms of extraction which disqualify it from being labeled green.

Even energy hawks and political conservatives agree that our dependency on imported oil puts us at continuous risk strategically and economically. Even after the shortages and gasoline price spikes of the 1970s—shocks which were partially responsible for a decade of economic stagnation and inflation—the U.S. continued its dangerous addiction to oil supplied by politically unstable countries.

So why maintain the addiction or the status quo? Why not roll up our sleeves, get the extension ladder out of the garage, and install those solar panels on the roof? Why aren’t we driving those electric and hydrogen cars of the future, now?

Well, perhaps because it’s not that easy.

A provocative new book by Ozzie Zehner, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism (University of Nebraska Press), illustrates the follies found at both ends of the energy spectrum, from the much-talked-about “clean” technologies supported by major corporations and ballyhooed so frequently in the media, to the mercurial success and dubious output of tempermental and often unreliable energy sources often embraced by members of the environmental movement.

Zehner spares no one and offers little quarter for the hawks or the doves.  Arcadian, idyllic green energies suffer mightily under his examinations.

Biofuels, produced through a process by which grain harvests like corn are converted into marketable fuels, reduce edible food output and have triggered food shortages and riots worldwide. Further, biofuel production requires enormous tracts of land, putting rainforests, wetlands and woodlands in danger of being clear cut. Countries like Brazil fought hard for their energy independence after the 1970s, but the result has been deforestation on an epic scale. But many in the U.S. seem fixated on corn—especially elected officials—because of the all-important early role that Iowa plays in presidential elections.

Wind power, perhaps the most enchanting of the alternative energy fetishes, has done little to prove reliable. The cost of erecting the structures is high, and resistance to their presence near homes and neighborhoods is consistent with opposition to other blights on the scenery—cell phone towers and power lines—to name but two. The most effective turbines must be extremely tall, which means costly night-lighting to warn aircraft. There are even health and safety factors: the turbines and fans produce an annoying high-decibel noise, which can carry for thousands of yards, and on occasion the blades can detach, sending lethal metal projectiles soaring hundreds of feet. In wintery climes, ice routinely forms along the blades, which means that the shards of ice eventually sling off, posing more hazards to cars, homes, buildings and people.

As a matter of routine, wind power produces far less than its promised output, even in “normal” conditions. And the wildly unpredictable weather patterns of the last decade have lowered even that modest output, or, in some cases, put the wind turbines out of commission.

By some measures, solar holds the greatest promise, but its deployment into residential markets has been slow to non-existent. Solar panels are expensive and costly to install, and the core truth is that it may take years—even decades—for their cost-saving effects to be realized by someone in a typical American house.* Conversely, construction of an out-of-the-box atypical home is still limited to the mega-rich or to the eccentric. And again, Mother Nature has a way of bringing the reality check to the table sooner, rather than later. Higher than average tornado, hurricane and hail activity over the central, southern and Atlantic states in the recent ten year period has wreaked havoc on solar panels and driven insurance costs skyward. Still, perhaps largely as a marketing stunt, some companies and businesses have installed solar panels on the rooftops of buildings and manufacturing facilities, but these have been famously inefficient and cost thousands of dollars to maintain.

Hydrogen fuel cells in automobiles showed such promise in the popular press that California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched an ambitious taxpayer-supported program to develop an entire commuter artery lined with alternative fuel cell filling stations to support cars which would run on hydrogen—essentially the same technology developed by NASA in the early years of the space program. But hydrogen, despite the fanfare of the auto makers and the enormous media attention, has lagged in real-world deployment. It is costly to process and handle since it requires storage at extremely low temperatures—and early prototype cars were prone to “leaking” large quantities of water condensation when the vehicles were idle or parked. Nevertheless, California surged ahead with what seemed—in the mainstream press—to be the progressive wave of the future.

Ultimately, those hydrogen vehicles and that highway lined with recharging stations became the proverbial pipe dreams. The costs associated with making the process a reality were simply too great, and in the end, over-budget and years past the projections, only a handful of fueling stations had been built. Schwarzenegger, and later President George W. Bush, became noticeably less enthusiastic. Stock prices of companies whose primary business plan linked them to hydrogen collapsed, and hydrogen fell into such disfavor that it has been called a hoax and a scam.

Other potential energy sources being explored by both science and entrepreneurial communities include the truly exotic—from temperature differential devices deep in the oceans, to wave and tide harnessing machines, to extraction of heat and fuels produced from the waste byproducts of termites.

At the other end of the spectrum there are those familiar sources of power. The traditional models all have varying forms of reliability, but—as Zehner argues—none can be sustained indefinitely, and none are without environmental or human risk. Nuclear power, while generally reliable—has been tied to the societal whipping post in North America ever since the catastrophe at Three Mile Island. Horrific mishaps in Russia and in Japan remind us that there is a worst-case scenario always lurking behind those clean white cooling towers. Newer, technologically advanced reactor designs exist on paper, but the staggering costs of building new nuclear plants to those “safe” standards make it unlikely a new facility will be built in the U.S. anytime soon.

Hydro-electric, deemed generally safe, is nevertheless viewed with even harsher disdain by environmentalists. Aside from the forced movements of people and sometimes entire towns, dams displace animals and disrupt natural ecosystems on a vast scale. Accompanying the construction of any dam is a dizzying, mind-boggling array of land-use, property-rights and legal complexities which cost taxpayers millions of dollars. And, as in the case of biofuels, many millions of acres of food-producing land are erased. Further, water rights are an often prickly and emotional issue for everyone affected—most especially those downstream.

Then there is the sticky and controversial matter of natural gas and the practice known as fracking, in which high pressure water is used to crack though layers of rock to release previously untapped sources of gas. The hazards are now famous and the health consequences, perhaps, serious. Just last week, amid much industry fanfare, General Electric announced its intentions to enter the natural gas marketplace and develop mechanisms for gas extraction, though company press spokespersons were unclear on whether they intended employ fracking as a principal tool.

Though it may not be for every reader, Green Illusions is a readable handbook on the logic and illogic deployed in our energy thinking, and, regardless of your position on the spectrums of politics or environmentalism, this book is a useful history of energy exploration.

The first half of Zehner’s book is a primer on the variants of energy-production—from the familiar to the exotic. Along the way he offers detailed and approachable explanations of how each of these technologies came into existence, and how—over time—our hunger for ever larger supplies of energy makes the chase a never-ending quest. Zehner also illustrates how the relationship between politicians, industry and the media means that there is scripting on an epic scale. Reporters are often impatient with scientific details, and look instead for easy-to-digest bullet-points and thumbnail explanations.** Politicians know and understand this journalistic frailty—for they too are frequently unwilling to drill down into the complexities of technology—and seek instead to co-opt media attention through green-friendly photo opportunities. Utility companies, technology giants and energy firms spend many millions of dollars on marketing and media to spin their story in the greenest light.

Predictably, a three-way dance ensues between business, politicians and reporters—much of the output of this choreography simply for show. A politician running for re-election might find embracing a green technology even more useful than kissing babies. Sloppy reporting means that the public gets only half of a nuanced, complex story. Industry reps feed this hungry mechanism with morsels designed for easy consumption. The public is left thinking that there is progress on a large scale and that economic benefits will surely follow.

Zehner illustrates how nearly every new form of energy production has, at some point, been embraced as the surge of the future, often touted in the popular press and ballyhooed by politicians in near-utopian language: we can have dazzling economic growth and unlimited energy to fuel improved lifestyles. Over time, of course, these models of paradise collapse. Zehner shows us how these tracks lead to disappointment.

But Zehner’s harshest, most thought-provoking chapters examine consumption—especially material and consumer avarice—as a byproduct of ceaseless, endless marketing and advertising. How much energy could be saved simply by not shopping? How would eliminating advertising to children improve our lives? Instead of questing for the perfect low-impact energy source, how could we impact our lives simply by reducing our consumption? And Zehner asks provocative social questions as well. How do women’s rights factor into a greener world? How do we honestly address the pressing issue of overpopulation in a world economy increasingly linked to growth and construction? Zehner makes a noble effort to answer these complex and sometimes emotional questions. Not all readers will like all of his answers or proposals.

Part of what makes this book valuable is its direct provocations: it assaults our cherished notions and our sacred shibboleths about energy and consumption. There is something here to rankle both the energy hawks and the green doves, but Zehner greatest success is that he challenges readers on both sides of the ecological and political aisles to do their own thinking.

*Not long after I purchased my house in the fall of 2004, a small regional company attached a brochure to my front door offering a free estimate on the installation of solar panels on my roof. There was no obligation, so, I took the bait and had these fellows draft a proposal for the installation of panels sufficient to operate my water heater and a modest level of other household current. Even after the state and federal tax breaks were factored in, the upfront cost ran into the thousands of dollars for me, not including the purchase of an extended warranty, a hail damage warranty and the increase in homeowner's insurance. I mulled over the estimate for several days, and finally came to the conclusion that I would not see genuine savings from those panels for at least 19 years. Instead, I upgraded the insulation in my attic: that improvement, I knew, would yield immediate and measurable results.

**I, too, am one of those writers frequently impatient with complexity--just ask my web designer.