Charles Komanoff


Komanoff op-ed in Berkshire Eagle, "Wind Power Works"

Berkshire Eagle
January 8, 2005

Wind power works

By Charles Komanoff


WHAT IS it worth to keep mountaintops and ridges in the Berkshires free of windmills? Conversely, what is it worth to put windmills there and in effect keep fossil fuels in the ground by tapping a combustion-free power source instead?

Though I live in New York City, I know that these questions are being debated in Berkshire County towns where "wind farms" have been proposed -- and similarly around Nantucket Sound, on the New Jersey coast and in dozens of other places being eyed for wind turbines.

They're big questions, I think. Whether wind power is allowed to grow into a major power source is a vital issue. So are related questions concerning human beings' responsibility to nature vs. our entitlements and expectations.

I generally come down in favor of the windmills.

Earth needs help. True, wild nature is precious, but right now visible action to stop global warming is even more important.

We Americans, who consume so much but whose government is obstructing international efforts to protect the climate, have a special obligation to curb our fossil fuel use. That means vastly stepped-up pursuit of energy- efficiency along with renewable energy sources based on sunlight and wind.

I grew up on Long Island's Atlantic coast. In decades past, when I used to imagine it, the idea of erecting large wind turbines offshore filled me with horror. As a nature-lover, I know what it's like to value vistas of undisturbed ridges above all else. I still clench at the thought of windmills in beauty spots, though I also think they'll be beautiful from afar.

Each of us will appraise close-at-hand scenic beauty vs. the needs of the Earth in our own fashion. But we should all be mindful that each kilowatt- hour of electricity from a windmill takes the place of a kilowatt-hour that would have been generated at a power plant burning coal, fuel oil or natural gas.

This displacement of fossil fuels by wind power occurs because at any moment the size of the electricity "pie" is simply the sum total of demand from homes and offices and other users. Ergo, more supply from wind means correspondingly less call on fossil fuels. Using coal as the benchmark, the proposed Hoosac project in Florida and Monroe, comprising 20 windmills, will displace 36,000 tons of fuel each year -- enough to cover a football field to a height of 15 feet.

Evidently, however, not every opponent of wind power grasps this point about wind substituting one-for-one for fossil fuels. And one vocal Berkshires activist won't concede it even after several months of attempted dialogue.

Last October, around the time the Red Sox were sticking it to the Yankees, I came across the Web site . It had stirring photos of Berkshire fields and forests. It also featured a broadside against wind power, with the startling claim that dependence on fossil fuels and their global warming pollution wouldn't be reduced "one whit" by the Hoosac windmills.

I wrote to the author and asked the basis of this claim. She replied that the need to back up windmills with "spinning reserve" would eat up most of the savings in fossil fuels. When I explained that windmills don't require extra spinning reserve so long as they're not a huge share of the regional grid, she begged off from further discussion, insisting that she was too busy "getting information to people." (Of course, that included misinformation like the canard that windmills don't displace fossil fuels.)

The urgent task of environmentalists is to show the way to an oil- and coal- free future. And the most valuable attribute of environmentalism, as for any social movement, is truthfulness. By denying wind power's role in reducing fossil fuel use, Green Berkshires is failing on both counts.

Charles Komanoff, an economist and environmental activist, has written several books on electricity policy.