Government and Energy

Recently there have been news items both in Canada and the US about government and industry groups trying to pass laws to displace zoning, ecological protection and other inconveniences from the rush to implement wind turbines — the current snake oil solution that will save western civilization from itself.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not basically opposed to harvesting the wind to generate power. It seems like a good idea in an intermittently windy area like where we live. Just when I do the economics for the turbine, tower, necessary engineering studies and of course the batteries to buffer the fluctuations, the payback time extends past the probable extent of my life — so what was the point again? But I digress.

Seems to me we have had these issues before when nuclear energy was touted as the savior of society. Everybody, especially government, seemed pretty happy to let the implementation drag on and on and the costs for all the legal filing grow until according to one study the fees were 90% of the cost of the plant. But despite Chernobyl and Three Mile Island it is still the cheapest and safest way of producing electricity with the least environmental consequences. Ask the French, or even Ontario… it is not the cost of nuclear that threatens to push electricity rates into the sky. But during all of this I do not recall hearing of government and industry trying to legislate all those picky little rules out of the way, to push projects through over the objections of all those NIMBYs. [And I am not ignoring the issue of nuclear waste, just think it represents an opportunity for some bright lad or lass to look at it as a resource instead of a waste stream. Could it be an energy source through (perhaps) thermoelectricity for remote areas?]

But here we have industrial wind development occurring all over North America — the number of projects and the speed with which they are being deployed reminds me of a teenager on his first heavy date. All that can be thought of is getting to home plate as quickly as possible. Everything else is secondary.

What is interesting about all of this is that pretty much everywhere the locals not part of the project are screaming, citing health issues, destruction of wildlife habitat, violation of international treaties on bird migration and so forth. And of course the only places these things seem to go is wildlife preserves and rural vacation areas. And this is slowing the deployment and causing other inconveniences for the developers and governments all eager to be ‘green’, or so they say.

But now we have things like the Ontario ‘substitution process’ (and similar in other places like Wisconsin) where the government is talking about cutting the locals completely out of negotiations. If a developer wants to put a wind farm in a local wildlife refuge the concerned and affected parties are just excluded — and all those picky little issues like zoning, compliance with environmental laws and treaties are just bypassed. Problem is that if these things do real damage, as some anecdotal evidence suggests, there is no long term research to help understand what the true costs and impacts are. So if 20 years from now someone realizes that thanks to this deployment we have just wiped out the rural owl and bat populations and now new insect pests are affecting our health and food supply — it will be too late. Extinction is forever and it seems to be something that man as a species is pretty good at.

So my question is simple — what has changed to make this stuff so important that the process and protection of law just gets in the way? It cannot be the cost and reliability — wind power on an industrial scale is much more expensive than nuclear (the wind is free but all the infrastructure to make it usable on a continental scale is not, especially when considering how little power is actually generated) — but much more uncertain (in Ontario, published results show there are times when the wind stops all across the province simultaneously). One reads of areas (Texas for example) having to scramble to keep from losing the grid (i.e. August 2004 blackout) when the wind drops suddenly during a period of rising demand. If I built this stuff there would be batteries for protection, but not in industrial generation — those turbines directly feed the grid. I understand that the utilities are quietly keeping conventional fired plants going to backfill under these situations, but if they have to do that, where is the greenhouse gas savings? But once again, I digress. I am still looking for the answer as to who profits now? And why is this so important that it trumps the rule of law.


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