February 11, 2005
Wishes and Horses for Africa
“I would promote wind for power, not damming more rivers,” says actor Ed Begley, Jr. It’s low-cost, renewable, inexhaustible, eco-friendly and emits no greenhouse gases.
If banks and energy companies financed wind energy projects, they’d help protect wildlife and habitats, “instead of hurting the Earth for oil,” intones the Rainforest Action Network.
If America devoted a mere 1% of its land area to wind turbine farms, it could generate 20% of its electricity from wind, asserts the American Wind Energy Association.
And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
Sadly, equine mirages don’t make sound energy policy. They may generate good sound bites, political polemics and fund-raising appeals. But they don’t generate much electricity.
In the United States, wind power accounts for less than 0.1% of the electricity produced by renewable sources. The hydroelectric projects Mr. Begley opposes generate 99% of all US electricity from renewables and 11% of all US electricity. It’s easy to see why.
Wind energy is unreliable. Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate, and electricity produced on windy days cannot be stored for use during calm periods.
That means expensive gas-fired power plants must serve as backup, standing idle most of the time, but ready to kick in whenever the wind dies down. Otherwise brownouts and blackouts disrupt whatever depends on the wind-generated electricity: homes, schools, hospitals, assembly lines, offices, shops, traffic lights. Wind can supplement nuclear, hydro, coal, gas or oil power – but it’s not an alternative.
Wind energy is expensive. England’s Royal Academy of Engineering and Scotland’s David Hume Institute found that wind farm electricity costs twice as much as nuclear or fossil fuel power (including facility decommissioning costs). Similar cost imbalances apply in the US, but subsidies, special tax treatment and laws requiring utilities to purchase wind-generated electricity mask its true costs, notes energy consultant Glenn Schleede.
Wind power is land-hungry. A single 555-megawatt gas-fired power plant in California generates more electricity in a year than do all 13,000 of the state’s wind turbines, journalist Ron Bailey has calculated. The gas-fired plant requires a mere 15 acres. The turbine forest impacts 105,000 acres.
Generating 20% of America’s electricity with wind (what it currently gets from nuclear power) makes for good PR or barroom banter. But 1% of the United States is the state of Virginia –23,000,000 acres – whereas all the nuclear plants in the USA take up only 73,000 acres.
Wind farms ruin habitats and scenic vistas. Because most are located along escarpments and mountaintops, noisy, monstrous turbines the height of the Statue of Liberty destroy aesthetic values. Even wind energy advocates like Senator Ted Kennedy morph into vocal opponents when wind farms are proposed for Cape Cod or other sites in their own backyards.
Wind turbines kill. The growth of wind power represents “an imminent threat” to hundreds of bird species, to millions of birds and bats along West Virginia’s Allegheny Front, says Congressman Alan Mollohan (D-WV). His concerns are echoed by the Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Bat Conservation International and Center for Biological Diversity. Just in Northern California’s Altamont Pass, wind turbines kill thousands of birds every year, including 1,000 eagles, hawks, owls and other birds of prey, in violation of bird protection laws, they stress.
Now wonder wind plays a near-zero role in the United States and Europe. To impose this energy mirage on Kenya, Uganda, India, Bolivia and other impoverished nations would be a human and ecological disaster.
In those destitute lands, 2 billion people still don’t have electricity. Nearly a billion struggle to survive on less than a dollar a day. In India alone, 150 million households rely on firewood, dung and agriculture waste for cooking, analyst Barun Mitra points out. These fuels are 20 times less efficient, 20 times more polluting, than electricity or natural gas.
As a result, four million children and mothers worldwide die every year from lung infections. Millions more perish from unsafe water, malnutrition and disease, in regions where clinics and hospitals are few and often have electricity only intermittently, if at all.
These communities desperately need abundant, reliable, affordable electricity – for basic necessities that wealthy countries take for granted, to create economic opportunities and jobs, and help them end the vicious cycle of foreign aid, corruption, poverty, disease and early death.
But in the name of protecting the planet from dams, fossil fuels, global warming and development that might lure people away from “indigenous lifestyles,” Western activists continue to block energy projects. In their view, wind and solar are the only “appropriate” sources for these nations.
The Rainforest Action Network and International Rivers Network pressure banks and energy companies to abandon hydroelectric and fossil fuel projects, and support only renewables. Friends of the Earth is “proud” that it’s stopped over 300 hydroelectric projects. The Earth Island Institute longs for the day when Africa’s poor made clothing for their neighbors “on foot-pedal-powered sewing machines,” and says “once they get electricity, they spend too much time watching television and listening to the radio.” Lavishly funded by foundations, governments and corporations, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and dozens of other activist groups likewise wage war on life-giving technologies.
But even if the Serengeti were blanketed with wind turbines, and millions of African birds were sacrificed annually to these Cuisinarts of the air, its poor families would be lucky to get a lightbulb and radio for their mosquito-infested huts. Sustained development, modern schools and hospitals, offices and factories, and hope for the future would remain beyond reach. Developing nations should not have to accept this. If “human rights” mean anything, they should begin with the most basic one of all: life itself.
Caring people everywhere need to do more to encourage corporate CEOs, directors, shareholders and “social responsibility” officers to resist environmentalist pressure and help bring modern technology to the world’s poor. Without an adequate energy generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure, vast regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America will remain mired in abject poverty, and millions will continue to die.
Religious, civic, political and minority leaders … Republicans and Democrats … human rights commissions and organizations … aid agencies and charitable foundations … the United States, Canada, European Union and United Nations – all need to support developing countries’ fundamental right to infrastructure, and prosperity.
The world’s poor long to have a few of the blessings we enjoy – and to see a rebirth of compassion, common sense, balance and human rights in environmental policies. Surely, it’s not too much to ask.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise and the Congress of Racial Equality, one of America's oldest civil rights organizations, where he was a panelist for their 2004 Martin Luther King program. All three are non-profit public policy institutes that focus on energy, environmental, economic and human rights issues. His 25-year career includes tenures with the United States Senate and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Paul has spoken about energy, health, economic development, climate change and environmental issues on many college campuses, at a wide variety of policy forums, and in the media, and has testified as an expert witness before the United States Congress. He has also spoken, debated and keynoted discussions on eco-imperialism, malaria and corporate social responsibility at Delft Technical University (Netherlands), Kampala International University (Uganda), Yale University and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Driessen holds a BA in geology and field ecology from Lawrence University and a JD from the University of Denver College of Law. His book, Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death, is in its second American printing and has been published in Argentina, Italy, India and Germany.