Cumberland Times-News

Opinion

November 20, 2012

No amount of subsidies can make this work

I read on the Internet today that the wind energy industry is nearly apoplectic over the prospects that their boxcar of subsidies might get uncoupled from the government gravy train.

The Wind Production Tax Credit is set to die a natural death on Dec. 31 this year.

They say that America is the Saudi Arabia of wind and that we will lose lots of jobs if we don’t subsidize this twenty year old infant industry until it can stand on its own. There are a lot of flaws in this logic, but I’d like to focus on one.

Just like we wouldn’t look in the supermarket for oranges from Michigan or apples from Arizona, we shouldn’t be fooled by the notion that utility strength wind is the same in Texas as it is in Maryland.

What that means in practical terms is that there are a handful of places in the country where the wind is strong enough and reliable enough to be depended on to serve our need for utility scale electricity.

As you might guess, these very windy locations are not popular places to build a home or raise a family and they are often far from major population centers.

By subsidizing the wind industry, our government has made it profitable for wind energy facilities to be built in many less than perfect locations.

In 2002 the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory developed a national map showing average wind strength.

Wind resource potential was broken down into six categories: superb, outstanding, excellent, good, fair and marginal with each category represented by a different color on the map.

More than half of that U.S. map was white, which one would assume represented poor. Let me say that again, according to the NREL’s published data in 2002, the wind resource for more than half the U.S. (including almost everything east of the Mississippi) was poor.

You can find a revised version of this map at the NREL site today. The offshore wind resource has been removed to make “onshore” wind look a little stronger.

The white areas have been filled in with green and they no longer use words like “marginal” or “superb” that helped you evaluate the quality of the wind. Despite the artistic changes, the new map tells the same sad, windless story.

We only need to look to our own hills to see the truth of this in practice. There are 10 wind farms in close proximity to Cumberland.

One of the more distant ones, AES Laurel Mountain in Elkins, W.Va., is particularly notable. NOAA has been recording weather data for over 50 years.

Elkins is home to the AES Laurel Mountain wind farm and is the only town in the Allegheny Highlands that appears on their list of weather data for 276 US cities.

On NOAA’s list, only eight in the entire country have a lower average annual wind speed than Elkins.

Those of us who see these wind turbines daily know that, during the summer months, when electricity demand is highest, they often go long periods without turning.

Those of us with stopwatches know that at any time of the year, these turbines rarely turn faster than their slowest speeds thereby generating the smallest amount of electricity possible.

The wind is not something we can fix with better technology. We cannot pass a law or subsidize it to make it blow harder.

Supporters of this form of renewable energy, including our senators and representatives, will have to come to the realization that there is no silk purse hidden in the wind energy sow’s ear.

John Terry

Montrose, W.Va.

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