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There has been much debate recently about subsidy in the energy industry and for wind energy in particular.  According to the EIA, in 2007, wind energy received $724 million in federal support.  That’s a lot right?  Well, that same year fossil fuels received $3.2 billion in subsidy.

These figures only take into account the direct subsidies. We often overlook the hidden costs, sometimes called “externalities” related to energy generation.  To get a full accounting of how much the taxpayer subsidizes energy we have to look at these externalities, and chief among them are damage to human health and damage to the environment.

Burning fossil fuels releases many dangerous compounds that cause lung damage, asthma and premature deaths from air pollution, birth defects from mercury fallout, and damage to buildings, timber harvests and ecosystems from acid rain.  The National Academy of Sciences, in a report requested by Congress, calculated these damages at $120 billion a year in the United States.  These costs are very real and they are not reflected, or “internalized” in market prices.  In effect, they are a hidden subsidy for polluting energy sources.

Coal plants are the biggest source of such external, or “hidden” costs, with domestic non-climate damages alone averaging $62 billion annually, equivalent to 3.2 cents per kWh.  Climate-related damages from coal power plants are estimated to range from 0.1 cents to 10 cents per kWh. The cost for cleaning up after coal then ranges from 3.3 cents to 13.2 cents per kWh produced.  This is in addition to the billions of dollars in direct subsidies.

In comparison, wind energy is clean.  There are no hidden costs—a wind turbine produces no harmful chemicals so there’s no disease or birth defects, no damage to our environment.  Like the rest of our electricity sources, it gets a subsidy, to the tune of 2.3 cents per kWh.  But that’s a real bargain compared to coal.  Between the subsidies and the health and environmental damage, coal costs 3.5-13.4 cents per kWh.  That means the direct and indirect subsidies for coal are at least 50% more, and perhaps 5 times more, for coal derived electricity.

National Academy of Science: Report Examines Hidden Costs of Energy Production and Use

U.S. Energy Information Administration: How much does the Federal Government spend on energy-specific subsidies and support?

With much of the industry at this week’s WINDPOWER Expo in Dallas—including National Wind, check us out at booth #407—we thought this might be a good time to run down a variety of recent wind energy stories.

  • First up, a new study has been released by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that adds to their 2008 study, 20% Wind by 2030. On the surface, this new study isn’t quite as sexy—it’s title, after all, is the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study—but it’s conclusions are just as promising.

    A bit of background: The WWSIS study was conducted to investigate the potential impact of a significant addition of wind and solar energy to the power system of West Connect, a series of affiliated utilities throughout Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Specifically, the study focused on the feasibility of the group generating 30% of its load from wind energy and 5% from solar. The study concluded that achieving such a high penetration is feasible and would require only a few key change to current practices. Chief among these changes would be creating better systems for aggregating renewable energy over large geographic areas—thus reducing overall variability—and scheduling energy disbursements at more frequent intervals.

    The study mentions a number of the benefits to the Western states should they implement West Connect’s plan. Most strikingly,”operating costs drop by $20 billion/yr, resulting in a 40% savings due to offset fuel and
    emissions.” While this drop in operating costs does not include the cost of constructing a wind farm, it illustrates how much money a wind farm can save over fossil fuels while operating.

  • In other news, “Ontario’s chief medical officer of health says there’s no evidence that the noise from wind turbines leads to adverse health effects.” While Dr. Arlene King offers that some people living near turbines may experience headaches or sleep disturbances, she concludes that wind turbine noise is not sufficient to cause hearing loss or other health effects. While this shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular readers, it’s always nice to receive validation from someone with Dr. King’s credentials.

  • Former President George W. Bush was the keynote speaker at this week’s WINDPOWER conference. He was apparently well received—”The audience welcomed Mr. Bush enthusiastically, giving him standing ovations at the beginning and end of his speech,” the article states—and spent much of the talk discussing signing Texas’ renewable portfolio standard in 1999 when he was governor, and about the country’s need to transition to renewable forms of energy. He said he’s enjoying retired life, living back on his ranch and being out of the limelight.

Well that about wraps it up. Keep your eye on AWEA Into the Wind blog for more updates on the WINDPOWER expo.

Wind farms are good stewards to the environment and procedures are in place to protect wildlife populations.  In fact, wind farms can save as much as 600 gallons of water per megawatt of energy generated when compared to fossil fuel generation. Turbines also take up only a 1/2 -1 acre of land permanently and they emit no harmful C02 emissions.

On the contrary,  fossil-fuel generation disturbs the environment greatly. It wastes water, emits harmful CO2 gasses, and destroys the land through continuous mining.

In fact, 39% of today’s 6 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions originate from electricity generation.  Electricity generation accounts for 48% of our nation’s water withdrawals, amounting to nearly 738 billion liters per day. Coal mining is expected to destroy nearly 988,000 acres of land annually.   Also, coal mining, oil spills, acid rain, and oil platforms built along the Gulf Coast are all known causes of wildlife mortality in the U.S. A 2004 study in Nature forecast that a mid-range estimate of climate warming could cause 19% to 45% of global species to become extinct.

( Facts from the Department  of Energy’s 20% Wind Energy by 2030 Report)

Although concerns have been raised about the potential risk wind turbines have on wildlife, most notably bird and bat populations, the facts reveal that wind turbines today have little impact on wildlife if developers follow stringent siting standards.  The chart below shows that bird fatalities range from 100 million to 1 billion annually and it is estimated that for every 10,000 bird deaths, less than one death is caused by a wind turbine.

Out of 10,000 bird deaths, less than one is caused by a wind turbine.

The wind industry has taken this issue very seriously and mitigated problems related to the country’s earliest turbine installations. Improvements in technology and industry siting standards have drastically reduced impacts on bird and bat populations.

Standard industry siting standards have evolved over the last decade to steer clear of local migratory bird populations and topography, such as ridges, where birds frequent. The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, a coalition formed by the Bat Conservation International (BCI), the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy (NREL), conducts research that has helped change siting standards to avoid migratory paths.

Technological improvements have also helped protect bird populations. In fact, a new radar system, called the MERLIN SCADA system, uses advanced radar technology to detect bird migratory flight paths. This technology provides real-time bird mortality risk mitigation and is the first of its kind in the world. Most often, a bird’s flight path is well above the hub height of a turbine, meaning it will not be harmed. However, sometimes flight paths are lowered due to storms and high winds.  The MERLIN SCADA system can detect avian flight patterns in these instances and automatically activate mitigation reactions, including idling the turbines when appropriate. Scientists at Pattern Energy Group developed the MERLIN SCADA radar system and its first implementation occurred on a 283 megawatt wind farm along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The MERLIN SCADA system uses advanced radar technology to protect migratory birds.

Enhancements in turbine technology design have also helped significantly reduce the potential impact turbines may have on wildlife. Turbine towers are no longer designed as lattice structures that encourage bird nesting. Today’s turbine towers are sleek, steel mono-tubes and turbine blades are larger and spin slower.

Overall, the industry is very proactive in developing preventative measures to protect wildlife populations. Wind energy was established on ecological principles and values and its goal is to uphold these ideals in all aspects of its development.

Technological improvements, research, and stringent siting methodology speak to the industry’s commitment to environmental protection and safety.

A new study released by the UC Berkeley Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology found that electric cars could account for up to 64% of light vehicle sales by the year 2030. However, for this growth in electric cars sales to occur, the car batteries must be owned separately from the car itself, the study found. This subscription model is roughly equivalent to a cell phone contract, where users own their car but lease their batteries from a third party on a pay-per-mile basis. Because customers do not have to own the batteries, the upfront costs of purchasing electric cars are reduced, making them more attractive investments.

Better Place, a leading electric vehicle service provider, is developing a business model similar to this system. In their model, Better Place owns the car batteries, and the customer pays a subscription to use and charge the batteries. The subscription gives drivers access to Better Place’s system of charging stations. This system makes battery charging easily accessible, both in the customer’s home and public places. Better Place’s service further includes battery swapping stations to make long distance travel possible with current battery technology.

The UC Berkeley study’s author, Thomas Becker, predicts that such a change in car ownership could create 350,000 new jobs and reduce total emissions to 62% of 2005 levels—assuming electric vehicles are powered by clean sources of energy—while saving $205 billion in health care costs related to harmful emissions pollution from combustion engines. Furthermore, the estimated total cost of owning such a car is 10¢ to 13¢ a mile cheaper than a gasoline powered car, saving consumers thousands of dollars over the lifetime of their vehicle.

This report nicely compliments a recent study conducted by Professor Mark Jacobson at Stanford. In his report, Jacobson found that wind power is the energy source best suited to power the U.S. vehicle fleet. His research showed that a country-wide fleet of electric vehicles powered by wind energy would reduce carbon and pollutant emissions from the auto fleet by 99%, saving 15,000 lives a year from vehicle-exhaust-related deaths.

Even with excitement about upcoming plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius, sales of plug-ins and hybrid plug-ins are expected to make up significantly less than one percent of total vehicle sales for the next few years. It’s clear that the country has a long way to go to achieve energy independence, but it’s no less clear that a country-wide fleet of electric vehicle would be an incredible step forward toward that goal. If only 24% of light vehicles in the United States were battery-powered, oil demands would be reduced by 3.7 million barrels a day, equivalent to the amount of oil imported from Venezuela and the Persian Gulf every day. Were wind power to provide the energy for every American vehicle, our oil demands would again drop many times over.

The American Wind Energy Association recently blogged to set the record straight regarding wind energy’s alleged high cost compared to nuclear power. AWEA responded to a post on the Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital energy blog, Going Nuclear: GOP Energy Plan Draws Heavy Flak, which discussed the merits of the Republicans’ proposed energy plan that calls for the construction of 100 new nuclear power plants. The WSJ blog post argued that costs related to wind power were considerably higher than those associated with nuclear power. AWEA countered, writing

Last year, wind proved its mettle as an affordable means of adding clean, reliable electricity to the grid, accounting for 42% of ALL new generation added in the U.S. Wind’s relatively short construction time (months rather than years) and modularity (it can be built incrementally) improves affordability even more since wind projects do not tie up capital for years. In contrast, we haven’t seen a new nuclear facility built in nearly a generation.


Climate Progress, an organization that offers a progressive perspective on climate policy, researched the cost of nuclear energy and concluded that nuclear power is too expensive to be a legitimate source of energy. Referring to a Keystone Center study partially funded by the nuclear industry, Climate Progress reported that “estimated capital costs for nuclear [are] $3600 to $4000/kW including interest.” On average, wind farms cost $2300/kW, making wind projects substantially cheaper than nuclear plants. This price will drop further as turbine manufacturers improve efficiency through mass production.

Neither the WSJ’s numbers nor the estimates provided by Climate Progress account for the cost of disposing of the nuclear waste created by atomic energy. Before the Obama administration scrapped plans for building the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, cost estimates had reached more than $92 billion over the 150-year lifetime of the storage facility, unadjusted for future inflation. The White House has not yet announced a new strategy for disposing of nuclear waste. Wind energy, of course, does not require the disposal of hazardous waste that will remain radioactive for thousands of years.

Furthermore, nuclear power plants do not benefit surrounding communities the way that National Wind’s community-based wind projects do. National Wind’s model offers landowners a financial stake in the project and involves them every step of the way in the decision making and planning process.

The National Academy of Sciences recently released a study claiming that wind energy could provide more than 16 times the total electricity consumption in the United States.

The study, titled “Global potential for wind-generated electricity” and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that a linked, world-wide network of 2.5 MW land-based wind turbines could produce 40 times the total global consumption of electricity and five times the total energy consumed in all forms. For the purposes of the study, it was assumed that the turbines operate at only 20% capacity, although wind farms built in the United States in 2004 and 2005 averaged a capacity factor just shy of 36%. (National Wind’s projects typically average well above that.) The study also excluded turbine placement in densely populated areas, heavily forested areas and areas often covered in snow or ice. It also does not account for off-shore wind farms.

The study also looked at CO₂ emissions worldwide and found that the top four emitters of the pollutant–China, the United States, Russia and Japan–could replace the entirety of their electricity consumption with wind energy, therefor eliminating the emission of CO₂ in generating electricity.

Of course, the study presents more of a theoretical “What if?” rather than a feasible plan for renewable energy expansion. The idea of filling any available space worldwide with wind turbines is impractical, but it does serve to highlight the amount of wind energy available across the globe. Any pragmatic and environmentally conscious energy policy will include a variety of renewable energy options, but this study illustrates how vital a role wind energy can play.

Listen to a Scientific American podcast about the study here.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) joined over 220 other companies and organizations in signing a letter to Congress endorsing a national renewable electricity standard (RES). A national RES will provide the long-term policy commitment needed to require businesses to invest in clean, renewable energy. Legislation introduced in to the House and Senate would require utilities in every state to generate at least 25% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

Implementing such a standard could ease many of the nation’s current problems by putting Americans back to work, building up the economy, lowering the cost of living, and reducing negative environmental impacts.

The proposed RES would add nearly 300,000 jobs to the economy according to a new study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The jobs, created in fields as diverse as management, manufacturing and construction, would add to the 85,000 jobs the wind industry already supports. Additionally, the 25%-by-2025 scenario would prompt roughly $263 billion of capital investment in the economy and provide an estimated $13.5 billion of income to landowners.

The American consumer would in turn see economic savings. A 25% RES would lower annual natural gas prices by about 4.1%, and average electricity prices would be reduced by as much as 7.6%. These reductions would be achieved by diversifying the energy supply, producing more energy from domestic sources, protecting consumers against price spikes, and reducing demand for foreign natural gas.

Besides the economic benefits, an RES is also a strong step in tackling emissions that cause global climate change. A national RES would help reduce dependence on fossil fuels, decreasing environmental degradation from the extraction, transportation, and burning of fossil fuels.

The study conducted by UCS highlights countless benefits of an RES and comes at a crucial time in the national debate over such legislation. The letter, along with the momentum it has gained, urges Congress to adopt a national RES this year. House and Senate committees plan to consider energy legislation, including a national RES, later this spring.

According to a recent survey from the Saint Consulting Group the number of Americans who support wind energy is on the rise. A full 82% of Americans surveyed this year said that they would favor wind energy developments in their hometown. This percentage is up from 76% last year. The greatest acclaim for wind power comes from the Midwest, where a massive 86% of respondents said that they would be supportive of wind development in their communities.

Why might the number be on the rise? One likely explanation is that all the recent press on energy issues has brought a heightened sense of awareness of how the American economy benefits when power is generated locally. According to the Saint Consulting Group, support for all kinds of local power generation is increasing, suggesting that Americans are becoming progressively more in favor of improving America’s energy independence and energy security.

Another likely reason for the augmented support for wind energy is that people are becoming more aware of the potential human and environmental consequences of global climate change. Research conducted at the end of 2008 by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication showed that 72 percent of Americans felt that global warming was personally important to them. Furthermore, an impressive 90 percent of Americans said that they would be willing to undergo economic losses if the United States were willing to act to reduce climate change. For instance, 72 percent of respondents said that they would support an initiative to increase the average annual household electric bill by 100 dollars if it meant that 20% of their electricity would come from renewable sources.

These figures are particularly significant when compared to a 2007 Gallup Poll that showed that only 60% of Americans believed that global warming was starting to occur. People are increasingly realizing how wind power can contribute much needed rejuvenation to the current economic and environmental situations.

While previous research has shown that support is often not as high when wind projects are actually proposed in communities as when they are theoretically suggested, it is nevertheless encouraging that Americans are increasingly thinking about the benefits that wind energy provides. Furthermore, it is important to note that projects developed by National Wind generally face very little opposition, if any, due to our strong emphasis on community involvement, from project founding through operation. Local community members are key stakeholders in our projects financially and also provide significant input via regular advisory board meetings and landowner forums during the development process. Non-community-owned wind projects, on the other hand, often face opposition because they fail to offer landowners these benefits.

Most people have heard about how wind energy is one of the cleanest ways to generate electricity. But what exactly are the specific environmental advantages to wind energy?

Wind-powered electricity generation provides significant environmental benefits because it produces neither emissions nor toxic waste and uses much less water than conventional fuel sources. For example, per kilowatt-hour produced, wind uses 1/500th the amount of water coal utilizes and 1/600th the amount of water nuclear utilizes. This ensures water security for residents living near wind turbines and for farmers who need water for irrigation.

Wind energy displaces pollutants that are associated with conventional energy generation. These pollutants include mercury, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides. Mercury contamination causes developmental problems in children while particulate matter and sulfur dioxide result in increased incidences of acid rain, smog, asthma and heart problems. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that if wind power represented 20% of the United States’ electricity generation, over one third of the deleterious emissions that normally enter the atmosphere from coal fired power plants would be prevented.

By capturing the power of the renewable resource of wind, turbines emit no greenhouse gases while operating. This helps mitigate threat of climate change and its associated effects. A 2004 study in Nature estimated that a moderate increase in global temperatures from climate change could result in the extinction of 19-45% of the world’s species. Furthermore, rising global temperatures contribute to increasingly volatile and unpredictable weather changes such as increased tropical storms, wildfires, and rising sea levels that threaten low lying areas.

National Wind has 1,300 MW of wind in development in Minnesota. If constructed, these projects would displace about 3,251 short tons of CO2, 20 short tons of NOx, and 421 short tons of SO2 annually, while providing enough power to generate electricity for 379,000 households.

That’s more than enough power to provide clean electricity for Minnesota’s three largest cities combined and to prevent 1.8 million tons of coal from ever being used. That’s a lot of clean energy!

Wind energy in the United States currently produces roughly 17 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. This amount is equal to powering approximately 1.6 million average American homes for a full year. Generally, a usual one-megawatt turbine generates enough electricity for 300 homes.

Wind turbines are efficient and one way to simply measure overall efficiency is to examine the “energy payback”. Energy payback is the amount of energy it takes to produce a particular amount of energy. The energy payback of time for wind is very comparable to conventional plants, if not better! In a recent study, the University of Wisconsin-Madison identified the average energy payback of Midwestern wind farms to be between 17 and 39 times as much energy as they consume compared to generation of 16 times for power plants and 11 times for coal plants. Remember, they also produce electricity from a natural, renewable resource without emitting any greenhouse gas emissions!

As far as operating costs, wind energy tends to be more expensive than other traditional power technologies in up-front, capital costs. However, rapid price fluctuations and supply problems are significant issues for fossil-fuel generated energy. But with no fuel costs involved for wind energy, along with the low operations/maintenance cost across a wind farm’s life span, this renewable energy source is now very competitive with traditional ones. Furthermore, with the Production Tax Credit (PTC), state-of-the-art wind power plants can generate electricity for less than 5 cents/kWh, which is also cost-competitive with other fossil-fuel generating energy sources. For example, the new wind farm being built near Lamar (MN?) by Xcel Energy will save consumer $4.6 billion in their power bills!

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