Where the Wind Blows


This past weekend, I drove back to San Francisco having visited friends in Los Angeles. For months I had been looking forward to a little detour that Erin (our CEO) had suggested. A few months ago, she discovered this pistachio farm, and being the office pistachio connoisseur, I couldn’t think of a better way to break up my long drive.

Three hours after leaving LA and winding my way through the Los Padres National Forest (which was stunning and led to at least one waterfall sighting), I gave up my search for the elusive pistachio sanctuary, and headed home via Interstate 5 and the Altamont Pass.

Altamont Pass, east of San Francisco, is one of three prime concentrations of California’s wind turbines, the others being Tehachapi (south east of Bakersfield) and San Gorgonio (near Palm Springs). Together, these three areas are home to 95 percent (over 13,000 wind turbines) of California’s wind generating capacity.

Having been a city dweller for much of my life, the sight of a wind turbine kindles in me a sense of childish wonder. I think I first saw a wind mill as a child in rural Pennsylvania and remembered being completely mesmerized (you can see from the map above that there are far fewer wind mills in PA than there are in CA). That same feeling of wonder came over me again this weekend, as I looked out over fields of turbines whose blades sliced through the air in an elegant display of high-tech engineering (it happened to be a very windy day).

It seems like wind has resurfaced in the news spotlight this week. Google announced today that it will be investing $55 million in the Alta Wind Energy Center located in the Mojave Desert, part of the Tehachapi wind region. Also, GE unveiled its newest turbine technology at a windpower conference. And as pointed out by blogger Tom Konrad here, two other services offered by 3TIER/Galileo and GE may soon lower the cost of wind power generation, potentially leading to increased wind farm development.

These events coincide nicely with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) last week, during which he declared that “science is back.” Should all this inspire hope that the promises of wind power might be fulfilled this year, or at least indicate that we’re on the right path?

On a less positive but related note, wind turbines continue to upset some conservationist groups. Last week, 56 groups and more than 20,000 individuals sent an official comment letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, declaring that birds deserve mandatory, rather than voluntary, protection from wind turbines. In actual terms, only one-tenth of one percent of all “unnatural” bird deaths result from wind turbine collisions, though certain wind farms, especially very outdated ones, are particularly harmful toward our avian friends. But on the whole, this issue of “wind turbines are bird killers” has been exaggerated in the past (and as pointed out by the NYT, if you’re really worried about the birds, you should be after Kitty the housecat).

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  1. Chris Wise

    It’s interesting that the DOE graphic shows no wind generation capacity in Virginia. Obviously there are some wind turbines in this state but only industrial wind farms (that rely on subsidies of one sort or another) are included. There is a place for small scale distributed energy production facilities including solar and wind that provide power for individual landowners and ‘energy coops’. True energy independence means not relying on foreign oil nor the grid.

  2. Rosie Yacoub

    Oh those silly conservationists….that is tiring and unfortunate to hear coupled with an article about wind power.
    1. concern about the environmental impacts of windpower are legitimate and not constrained to their impacts on birds. The construction and maintenance of these turbines (and solar plants) impacts a larger footprint than natural gas and coal plants for the same number of KW. This IS the downside of sustainable energy. Siting plants on less sensitive land, and mitigating for their impacts is important.
    2.Which tiny percent, and how many members of the avian population is the most impacted is more important than the size of the percentage–that is a pseudo-statistic. My understanding is that the impacts to birds fall disproportionately on birds of prey, which has a downstream effect on rodent populations, etc.; and can not be mitigated for by belling your cat.
    I am happy to see CA’s efforts towards sustainable energy but will rail against any attempt to use that as justification to poo-poo our impacts on the environment. Let’s move forward with our eyes open please.

  3. Tom Harrison Jr

    I am of two minds about the conflict between the interests of conservationists and energy. Both are important. Were we to have thought about conservation in the past, many environmental disasters might have been prevented.
    But I think I have come to understand that there is no means of getting energy that is costless — it is a huge blunder of any of us to suggest that wind or solar (or other renewables) are free. They are no more “free” than oil, coal or gas are.
    One approach would be to account for all the external costs (externalities) we know of — bird kills, destruction of pristine land, noise, maintenance, toxic chemicals and all the other things, many of which Rosie points out.
    But if we do this for wind turbines and solar, let’s also be fair and do a thorough review for other forms of energy. And lets not just think about issues like oil spills, mountaintop removal, nuclear waste, and even just good ol’ pollution. Let’s also be sure to consider things like expected impact on climate and the resulting costs to society, political stability and their costs to society, and lots of other things.
    Well, of course lots of economists have tried, but they get all tied up trying to predict based on uncertain estimates. I mean who knows — maybe having a lot of wind turbines in the way will affect weather by slowing down the wind? Or maybe it will be hard to predict the effect of significantly changed climate — will there really be major weather events and flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes?
    This is the issue: if we asses current costs in $/kWh without factoring in all of the costs, both measurable, predictable, and less easily predictable, we’ll always end up on the side of the status quo because it’s far easier to account for that which we’re already doing, than that which we want to do but aren’t as sure of.
    In the end, all the estimates I have seen from DOE and most other sources conservatively predict costs which I believe people should be able to grasp these days: floods, storms, tornadoes, forest fires,droughts, and so on — these are all very real and present (if only in their most benign forms, as of yet).
    And if we do account for things like climate, everything I have seen suggest that it overwhelms most other costs. For example, comparing loss of avian life from turbines is one cost that may be compared with loss of numerous other species from other causes.
    And if we’re being self-interested (a seemingly fatal flaw of our species), the loss of life and welfare arising from the status quo exceeds almost anything we have imagined.
    It’s just that this fatal flaw is outweighed only by one other: we’re really, really bad at caring about anything but the immediate present.
    Birds today vs. earth tomorrow. Hard call.
    Tom Harrison Jr