Saturday, January 9, 2010

The ethics of wind

I've been discussing wind energy with some of our local folks in Maine who are impacted by new turbine developments. There are quite a few people who live very close to the Mar's Hill, Vinalhaven, or Beaver Ridge sites who are upset by the turbine noise, which is a particularly grating and upsetting kind of noise.

The noise was also somewhat unexpected by the turbine planners. Elsewhere in this blog I've suggested that this is due to the high wind shears we enjoy in Maine. Turbine planning and accoustic modeling systems worked out in Iowa or elsewhere will not necessarily work well in Maine, because of how sheltered our lower level winds typically are, while our upper level wind is quite powerful.

Today I want to write about the ethics of turbine and other energy impacts. The discussion I've been having with these folks is moving me towards a kind of deontological theory of power production responsibilities and responsibilities for the impacts of power.

We all use energy, and very few of us get our own. It's very expensive in cash or time to get your own energy using generators, wind turbines, solar panels, or even the humble woodlot, and so most of us prefer to ask power and fuel companies to get it for us.

This has led to the situation where the average Maine residence sits at the end of several pipelines of energy provision systems.

We're talking turbines, so let's talk about electricity, although we could also talk about heat oil and other heat fuel provision pipelines.

We call electricity pipelines power lines, and there are upstream and downstream impacts.

So the mix of coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro dams and incinerator power that is the New England grid's standard mix has these impacts:

coal mines
uranium mines
coal and nuclear power stations
gas and oil wells
oil and gas power stations
incinerators (like PERC
pollution: air, water, and solid waste streams from all of the above
hydro dams in Maine and Quebec (James Bay) and elsewhere
transmission lines, stations, substations, transmission line noise, and electromagnetic interference
impacts from transmission losses
energy security problems: the need to police the Persian Gulf

etc, etc

These impacts are all sited towards the beginning of the power lines or even further upstream or away, at West Virginia mountaintop removal mines, for instance, or at nuclear plants in New York State or gas plants in Connecticut. But the power that is made comes eventually our Maine power distribution lines, where the impacts then seem to become invisible, unheard, unsmelt, unseen.

It appears as if the power comes there without impacts.

Those of us who live close to a facility such as the Worumbo dam or PERC or a wind farm do see impacts.

Those of us who live far away have few.

As a renewable energy wonk, I know we need to begin to make renewable energy to replace fossil fuels that we will eventually run out of, and to reduce the impacts of fossil and other kinds of power. I also know that renewable energy, being dependent on the sun, is decentralized; the sun's rays are scattered across the surface of the planet and you have to have a collection mechanism to gather them into a useful format. Wind energy, which is ultimately solar energy, is similarly distributed, although it is more concentrated in watts per meter square than solar energy is, at least at good sites.

We have begun to call these kinds of energy systems, such as solar PV, or wind, "distributed energy" or distributed generation systems.

The difficulty with all these distributed energy systems is that you take both the environmental impacts and maintenance impacts and redistribute them from the beginning of the power line to the end, the place where they're least expected, based on our current understanding of where the impacts should be.

So like power stations and coal mines, wind turbines also have impacts of noise, visual impacts, and construction impacts.

Turbines also require mines, smelters and factories. They require no fuel while in operation, though, which is a great savings over fossil power. Turbines also last a long time, we know from experience, and can even be fully refurbished. With major refits at the 20-25 year point, turbine lifespans might quite feasibly be forty, even fifty years, and then everything can be recycled and made into a new model turbine.

The ratio of energy made to energy invested is typically 80 to 1. The upstream energy, upstream land use, upstream water, and air pollution impacts of every unit, every KWH, of wind turbine energy produced are much less than those of fossil or nuclear energy KWHs.

But then there's the downstream impacts. These often appear to be larger.

Clearly some portion of Maine's land is now of less use than it was, because of the noisy turbines, at least to the people who live there and can't come to terms with the noise.

I'm not belittling this. It's a major problem. I'm just trying to put it in the whole context.

And although many people are upset, given time, they may come to terms with the turbines or adapt, or other people might come in, more tolerant of noise, and use the residences and land that the current residents consider blighted.

People hate to have to come to terms with impacts like these. The usual result is a planning battle, and an economic battle between those who want to exploit the resource and those who don't. There will be conflict, whether it takes place in Maine, at the West Virgina strip mine, the Nevadan nuclear waste facility, or on the outskirts of Basra.

Weighing all this in the balance, what has actually happened in the power production and distribution systems of Maine now the turbines are running at Freedom, Vinalhaven, and Mar's Hill?

I think the main thing is we moved some of the impacts of energy production, and the conflict, which is significant and difficult to deal with, further downstream, to communities that weren't necessarily expecting to have to be responsible for their share of the impacts of energy production.

Was this fair? I don't know. There are still folks who will escape impacts. Should they compensate those who are impacted? Probably.

Should people be more responsible for energy in general? I generally think so, but I'm not sure how much responsibility we can reasonably expect, given the nature of our society. And this is all very general, while the conflict that results is specific, and often nasty.

But I do know that distributed energy systems will just simply, naturally, unavoidably, do this: move the impacts from upstream to downstream. I also do know that the upstream impacts of the former conventional system are likely greater than the total of upstream and downstream impacts of the more distributed system, now that the turbines are running.

Arguably some American communities should be kept pristine of energy impacts, but which ones? The rich ones? The ones next to parks and preserves? Should we focus the impacts far away, where we can't see them, like Appalachian mountaintop removal mines?

Keep asking questions like this, and combine the answers with an understanding of energy efficiency, as well as fossil energy depletion and a working knowledge of solar, wind, biomass and other renewable energy, and you begin to see that we definitely have to move towards distributed energy and renewable energy, but that means we also have to move the burden of impacts and maintenance further down the cable too, to communities that are not ready for this responsibility.

One similar, currently undistributed burden, for instance, is house maintenance. Currently oil heat is subsidized by our tolerance of air pollution, oil wells, oil pipelines, the constant human and financial cost of our troops in the Gulf and other regions, and a myriad other hidden costs.

If instead everyone using oil heat had instead a duty, well defined, to maintain their house to a proper standard of insulation, we could save an awful lot of fuel, and perhaps even a small number of lives and limbs of servicemen and women lives in ongoing and future middle east wars.

You can see that this view is not rhetorical or hyperbolic. Not if you take a deep breath and give it an hour or ten to sink in.

These are real impacts that hurt the lives of real people. Both the coal mines and the turbines have impacts.

It is just a wider, different view of the whole impact of our energy production and distribution system.

I don't know what the answers are, but I do know we are going to have to figure them out.

No comments: