Thursday, May 06, 2004

Where It's Windy
Sunday's New York Times covered a wind energy project that may prove as controversial as the proposed wind farm off Cape Cod has. The Long Island Power Authority plans to install up to 40 windmills a few miles off Jones Beach, a popular beachfront close to New York City. They would generate a total of 100-140 Megawatts.

The project is already generating the full range of expected responses from the community, including support from those who see wind power as an attractive alternative to burning fossil fuels, and opposition from those who feel the installation will ruin the view and deter beachgoers. One comment in the article raised a basic issue that is worth more discussion, since I have not seen explained well elsewhere.

The article cites a manager of a fishing company that sees itself threatened saying, "There's enough places on land where they can do this." Are there? I think we've forgotten something our great-grandparents knew innately; you can't put up a windmill just anywhere. There is a big difference between the random, intermittent winds we all experience and the reliable wind patterns that wind generators require. This is further complicated by the fact that it isn't the winds at the surface that matter, but those at the height of the generator hubs, 300 feet up in the air. Pilots understand this distinction pretty well.

Imagine prospecting for oil or some mineral, but with the added wrinkle that the resource is invisible and the amount available varies according to the season and the time of day. There are maps that identify the best wind resources in the country and grade them according to intensity and reliability. This information is essential in deciding where to site a wind installation. In fact, the wind map for Long Island shows "good" wind availability beginning offshore of Long Beach Island and continuing east along the southern shoreline.

The issue of tradeoffs has become a recurrent theme in my blog, and that's where we end up on this project. What do we value, and what are we willing to trade off to preserve it? One critic of this project was quoted saying, "Why, instead, isn't every government building using solar energy and every official driving a more fuel-efficient car?" This statement is framed as a tradeoff, but it comes across as a diversion. Perhaps we should be doing all of that and the Jones Beach wind project, in order to avoid having to build another gas- or coal-fired power plant to run our growing armada of appliances and gizmos. Or are we content to build the power plant and deal with a little more smog and acid rain, in order to keep a beach view? These are the tradeoffs we have to face up to, until we see the sales of air conditioners, electronics, and household conveniences fall, because consumers are no longer willing to pay the hidden costs of the power they consume.

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