Windy Disinformation

The timing of Jimmy Glotfelty’s July 17 article, “Wind Power’s Success Doesn’t Stop Opponents’ Urban Legends” — in which he attacks me for what he calls “recycled, questionable diatribes” about the wind-energy industry — couldnt have been much better. Much better, that is, for my side in this controversy.

Had Mr. Glotfelty read the news lately, he would have noted yet another large public demonstration against wind energy. The anti-wind protest on Monday in Lowell, Vermont, attracted some 150 angry people who blocked a road in an attempt to halt a controversial 21-turbine, 63-megawatt project being installed atop Lowell Mountain.

Reporter Jennifer Reading of WCAX explained that the protesters believe the project “will destroy views and lower property values.” She quoted one protester who said he was trying to make the Lowell Mountain project “an example of bad decision making for the entire state so that it doesn’t happen again on some other ridge line.”

Even though a recent article of mine discussed numerous examples of the global backlash against the wind industry, Mr. Glotfelty seems to believe that protesters like those in Vermont, Wales, Ontario, Maine, Wales again, Australia, Massachusetts, Maine again, Denmark, and Ontario again simply don’t matter. Mr. Glotfelty completely ignores the global backlash, despite the fact that National Wind Watch has compiled a list of more than 700 anti-wind groups in some 28 different countries. Turning back to recent headlines, perhaps Mr. Glotfelty is not aware that just three weeks ago, the board of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association voted by an overwhelming majority to impose a three-year moratorium on new wind projects in its region.

Let me turn now to the more central problems with Mr. Glotfelty’s opinion piece. When it comes to wind energy, the discussion always comes back to the same three issues: scale, energy sprawl, and infrasound/low-frequency noise.


Mr. Glotfelty begins his article by saying that I’ve claimed that “wind advocates believe that wind can meet all our electricity needs.” But this is not what I have claimed. In my June 27 article, “Economists Without Calculators,” I said that solar and wind energy “cannot even meet incremental global demand for electricity, much less make a dent in the world’s demand for hydrocarbons.” (And this is easily proven. As I stated in my article, global electricity demand is growing by about 450 terawatt-hours per year. In 2011, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, the total output from all of the world’s wind turbines was 437 terawatt-hours. That amount of electricity was generated from 239,425 megawatts of installed wind capacity. Therefore, for wind energy to meet incremental demand growth for electricity, the global wind sector would have to more than double in size every year. That’s simply not going to happen.) 

No, I’m not expecting wind energy to “meet all our electricity needs,” and I recognize that few rational people are expecting this. Instead, I’m pointing out that wind energy cannot even meet the growth in global electricity demand. That’s a fundamental handicap that no one on the Green Left seems willing to admit, particularly when the same groups on the Green Left continue to insist that we must quit using hydrocarbons altogether.

When it comes to energy sprawl, Mr. Glotfelty dutifully repeats the wind industry’s favorite shibboleth: that wind turbines require only a tiny bit of the land. He goes on to say that even if wind and solar were to provide 80 percent of U.S. electricity, it would require a land area only 55 miles long and 55 miles wide. The best response to that claim was posted in the comment section to Mr. Glotfelty’s piece. Someone named “El Rucio” wrote that Mr. Glotfelty’s claim was “like saying an airport requires only an acre or so, since that’s all the space used by the tires of the planes.”

Mr. Glotfelty also echoes a familiar line from the American Wind Energy Association, saying that, after the turbines are installed, the surrounding land can “continue being used for farming, ranching, or whatever its prior use was.” Note that Mr. Glotfelty doesn’t mention residential uses. And there’s the rub: The problem with the energy sprawl that comes with the wind industry is that wind-energy developers aren’t putting all their turbines out in cactus- and snake-infested locales like Sweetwater, Texas.

Instead, they are increasingly attempting to locate their projects in suburban, exurban, and scenic areas — such as Lowell Mountain, Vermont. And that’s resulting in the aforementioned backlash against the industry. Mr. Glotfelty seems unwilling to admit that there are loads of people who are adamantly opposed to having wind turbines put in their neighborhoods. They don’t want to see the 400-foot-high turbines. Nor do they want to look at the red-blinking lights on turbine towers, all night, every night, for the rest of their lives.

In his attempt to rebut my arguments, Mr. Glotfelty appears to invent his own numbers. He claims that wind energy has provided “about one-fourth of the growth in electricity demand last year.” Huh? Where? Mr. Glotfelty appears to be talking about U.S. electricity use. But domestic electricity use fell in 2011 by 23 terawatt-hours from 2010 levels. Given that, how can wind be meeting a growth in demand?

To reiterate the point of my earlier piece: Wind energy is doing little to meet overall global electric demand, which surged by 652 terawatt-hours last year. Wind-energy production grew by 90 terawatt-hours last year, which is only about 13 percent of the total needed increase. That’s a far cry from the “one-fourth of the growth” that Glotfelty claims. 

On the energy-sprawl issue, Mr. Glotfelty claims my math is wrong. In doing so, he cites data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which says that 7.8 megawatts of wind turbines can be installed per square mile of land. In my piece, I put the power density of wind turbines at about 2 watts per square meter, or about 5 megawatts per square mile. Rather than rely on data from NREL or anyone else, I’ve collected my own data and done my own calculations. I’ve looked at 16 different wind projects that range in size from 40 megawatts to more than 2,000 megawatts. The projects are all over the world: Texas, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Kansas, Ontario, and Australia. In all, more than 5,000 megawatts of wind-energy capacity are included in my sample. The results: The average power density for wind-energy projects is 2.25 watts per square meter. I stand by the numbers.

Now to the most insulting and infuriating part of Mr. Glotfelty’s piece, in which he casually dismisses concerns about the low-frequency noise and infrasound that is produced by wind turbines as being “urban legends that have long since been rebutted.” In fact, these concerns are being taken seriously: On July 10, Canadian health minister Leona Aglukkaq announced that Health Canada will conduct a $1.8 million study “in response to questions from residents living near wind farms about possible health effects of low-frequency noise generated by wind turbines.” A 2001 report published by the National Institutes of Health found that exposure to infrasound can cause vertigo as well as “fatigue, apathy, and depression, pressure in the ears, loss of concentration, drowsiness.”

In his attempt to dismiss concerns about infrasound, Mr. Glotfelty dutifully repeats the claim by the American Wind Energy Association that a January report from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection somehow absolves the wind industry on the infrasound issue. But the authors of the Massachusetts report did not interview any of the homeowners who’ve left their houses because of turbine noise. Instead, they did a cursory review of the published literature.

Shortly after the Massachusetts report came out, Jim Cummings of the Acoustic Ecology Institute, a nonprofit organization that tracks noise issues, wrote that the authors of the Massachusetts report “dropped a crucial ball” because they did not “provide any sort of acknowledgement or analysis of the ways that annoyance, anxiety, sleep disruption, and stress could be intermediary pathways that help us to understand some of the reports coming from Massachusetts residents who say their health has been affected by nearby turbines.”

Mr. Glotfelty also ignores the tumult in Ontario, where some 40 families have abandoned their homes owing to wind-turbine-produced infrasound and where the backlash against the wind industry has reached fever pitch. Last July, Ontario’s Environmental Review Tribunal held an inquiry into a proposed wind-energy facility known as the Kent Breeze Project. Although the officials allowed the facility to be built, they said: “This case has successfully shown that the debate should not be simplified to one about whether wind turbines can cause harm to humans. The evidence presented to the Tribunal demonstrates that they can, if facilities are placed too close to residents. The debate has now evolved to one of degree.”

Alec Salt, a research scientist at the Cochlear Fluids Research Laboratory at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has written extensively about the health effects of wind-energy projects. He flatly concludes that wind turbines “can be hazardous to human health.” In a phone interview on Wednesday, Salt told me: “The inner ear generates enormous responses to infrasound at levels you can’t hear.” In a new paper that Salt wrote with Jeffrey Lichtenhan, a colleague at Washington University School of Medicine, the two conclude that “the physiological effects of low-frequency sounds are more complex than is widely appreciated. Based on this knowledge, we have to be concerned that sounds that are not perceived are clearly transduced by the ear and may still affect people in ways that have yet to be fully understood.” They conclude that infrasound and low-frequency noise can result in “localized endolymphatic hydrops,” which is swelling of the inner ear — a condition that can result in dizziness and loss of equilibrium. Those symptoms are common among people who complain about the noise generated by wind turbines. (Salt and Lichtenhan will present their paper next month in New York City at the Internoise conference, which is sponsored by the Institute of Noise Control Engineering.)

If the danger of infrasound from wind turbines is just an urban legend, why did Peter Narins, a distinguished professor and expert on auditory physiology at UCLA, publish a paper in the April issue of Acoustics Today on this issue? Narins and his co-author, Annie Chen, a graduate student, conclude that wind turbines generate “substantial levels of infrasound and low frequency sound” and that therefore “modifications and regulations to wind farm engineering plans and geographical placements are necessary to minimize community exposure and potential human health risks.”

No, this is not the stuff of urban legends.

A final point: Toward the end of his piece, Mr. Glotfelty says that the wind-energy sector is “providing much-needed jobs for American workers.” That may be true, but just how much are those jobs costing? I did a recent analysis for the Manhattan Institute that looked at the cost of tax preferences given to the oil-and-gas industry, and compared them with the ones given to the wind industry. The result: Each wind-energy-related job costs taxpayers between 9 and 39 times as much as a job created by the oil-and-gas sector. Each job in the wind sector costs taxpayers as much as $46,600. And that figure doesn’t count any of the $3.25 billion in tax-free grants that were given to the wind sector by the Treasury Department under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The bottom line is that the wind industry is trying to protect its subsidies. The production tax credit — the 2.2-cent-per-kilowatt-hour subsidy for wind-generated electricity — expires at the end of this year, and Congress appears unlikely to extend it. But no matter what Congress does, and no matter what Mr. Glotfelty says in his defense of Big Wind, the issues of scale, energy sprawl, and infrasound simply will not go away.

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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