Energy in Context

Posted Aug. 18, 2010, at 6:07 p.m.

Criticism of the wind industry has ratcheted up lately. While there are certainly negative consequences to the construction and use of wind turbines, the discussion of these consequences largely has occurred in a vacuum. Until the benefits and downsides of wind — or any new energy source — are weighed against the pros and cons of our current energy policy, such a discussion is nearly meaningless.

A common complaint against wind power is that the turbines, often built on high points of land to maximize the wind, is that they destroy views. There is also concern that spinning turbines cause headaches, sleep disturbances and other medical problems for some who live nearby.

But, what about the health and aesthetic consequences of the country’s dependence on fossil fuels? The mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky are a source of coal. Rather than putting turbines on the ridges, the mountains are slowly taken away, one load of coal at a time, which doesn’t do much for the view.

The burning of oil, gas and coal to fire power plants and cars and trucks are the biggest sources of air pollution in the United States. This pollution is responsible for increased cases of asthma and other breathing problems, as well as premature deaths among the most vulnerable.

Particulate pollution from U.S. power plants shortens the lives of nearly 24,000 people each year, including 2,800 from lung cancer, according to the Clean Energy Task Force.

Another criticism is that wind power is only financially viable with huge government subsidies. Certainly, the generous subsidies and tax credits should be phased out as the technology matures, but again, the large ongoing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry — many of which are hidden to the public — must be part of the equation.

A recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that globally fossil fuel subsidies were 12 times higher than those for alternative energy. Governments last year gave $43 billion to $46 billion of support to renewable energy through tax credits, guaranteed electricity prices and alternative energy credits, the group said in its report, released last month. According to the International Energy Agency, $557 billion was spent in 2008 to subsidize fossil fuels.

And, that’s only direct subsidies. When you add in other costs, such as protecting shipping lanes for tankers and a foreign policy that must curry favor with oil producing countries, the so-called hidden costs (costs that aren’t included in the price consumers pay at the pump) can soar to $3 to $8 per gallon of gasoline.

These financial costs of fossil fuels say nothing of the human toll. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, 131 miners died in the U.S. between 2001 and 2007. Twenty-nine coal miners died earlier this year at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Eleven workers died in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The full environmental damage from the subsequent oil spill likely won’t be known for years.

All energy sources have positives and negatives. Looking at any source in isolation will result in misleading and dangerous conclusions.

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