In 1962, songwriter Bob Dylan composed “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” It was a Vietnam War protest song suggesting the ambiguous answer to ending war and living in peace and harmony was “blowin’ in the wind” — somewhere.
Today, wind power is an important part of our nation’s electricity generating system and it will be essential in the decades ahead. The question is how much of it can we reasonably produce to meet our nation’s growing electrical demands?
While people support wind power they aren’t hip about seeing thousands of additional acres lined with rows of 500-foot “wind mills.” The protests against are growing and now stretch from Vermont to California.
In Vermont, a group of 24 bipartisan legislators introduced a bill which would ban wind projects over 500 kilowatts. Since the average single industrial turbine has a 1.5 megawatt capacity, new wind farms would be toast.
Last year in California, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban large wind turbines in the county’s unincorporated area. Board Supervisor Michael Antonovich told the Wall Street Journal “wind turbines create visual blight” and contradict the county’s rural dark skies ordinance in areas such as the Santa Monica Mountains.
In Washington, protesters tried to stop the small family-owned Whistling Ridge project on wind swept, logged-over timberland near Bingen. The 50-turbine project was tucked away behind the hills and out of the visual impact area of the Columbia River Gorge. In fact, only a handful of residents would see a few wind turbines when looking out their back windows.
That project is in limbo.
In the Northwest, drivers on our east-west interstate highways see miles of wind turbines on what was once unobstructed open prairie. In fact, the nation’s second largest wind farm, Shepherds Flat, covers 30-square miles along Interstate 84 near Arlington, Oregon.
The good news is Shepherds Flat produces enough electricity each year to supply 235,000 households and reduces carbon emissions by the equivalent of taking 200,000 passenger vehicles off road. By contrast, its power output is one-quarter of Grand Coulee Dam.
If America is to double its current wind power production to 10 percent by 2020, it will need many more wind farms the size of Shepherds Flat. Setting the goal of 30 percent by 2030, as the U.S. Department of Energy envisions, is pie in the sky.
The pertinent question for wind advocates is where are the acceptable and available sites where the airsteam is powerful and consistent enough to turn turbines? Remember, many of the prime locations are already developed and in production.
Wind and solar power generation needs to be augmented with power plants which produce electricity at all hours of the day and all year around. Today, that consistent production comes largely from coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydropower plants.
The good news is the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports the cost of wind-generated electricity has fallen by two-thirds in the last six years. Costs of wind generation has been a formidable barrier.
Despite costs and growing siting problems, American wind power now supplies electricity to the equivalent of 19 million typical American homes.
In Washington, the two largest utilities, Puget Sound Energy and Snohomish County PUD, both use about 8 percent wind power to serve their customer’s electricity needs. Seattle City Light reports 4 percent of its electric power comes from wind. Meanwhile, in Oregon, the legislature and governor are getting out in front of possible citizen initiatives by phasing out coal-fired electricity for Pacific Power and Portland General Electric, while ramping up generation from altnerative sources.
The bottom line is our nation needs electricity from all sources. The key is to continue to make all energy sources more environmentally friendly and affordable.
In reality, answer to our energy future is only partially “blowin’ wind.”
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.