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Wind turbines outside Sweetwater, Texas; photo by Lori Greig via Flickr
I was startled by this article from Matt Ridley in The Spectator (UK), which argues that wind farms are obsolete and renewables are totally overrated because the world is full of plentiful, cheap, and clean natural gas. It’s been years since I’ve heard anyone in the United States make such a broad argument against wind power or such a boosterish one on behalf of natural gas, except for a handful of people in the oil and gas industry, but even then, they’re usually ecumenical about the portfolio. At the risk of boring American readers, let me offer a few thoughts.

Ridley's premise is that in recent years we have discovered vast new reserves of natural gas and developed technologies that will allow us to access them. Some of these reserves are even in Britain, a country that has increasingly relied on energy imports. In September, for example, a small outfit operating near Blackpool announced that it had discovered a shale play that could have 200 trillion cubic of natural gas—enough to meet Britain’s natural gas needs for the next 64 years, assuming constant demand. Given that natural gas is cheap, relatively clean, and more plentiful, apparently, than we thought, Ridley concludes that the government should stop its subsidies to “green” energy, which is still more expensive than gas, and, in his interpretation, actually less clean.

I agree with parts of this. Natural gas is certainly an important part of the energy portfolio, and the expansion of the extractable supply will profoundly impact the global energy markets. Yesterday, for example, Cheniere Energy and BG Group announced a deal that will see the United States exporting domestic liquefied natural gas for the first time. Natural gas has significant environmental benefits relative to coal, notably that it has a much smaller emission factor. Cheap energy is a public good, and Ridley is right to say that renewables are still relatively expensive; in addition can't rely on renewables for all of your generation.

But Ridley’s setting up a rather stark binary here, and I think he's exaggerating the benefits of gas and the drawbacks of wind. Natural gas combustion emits fewer GHGs than coal, according to most researchers (but not all) and it’s “much, much better than wood,” as he notes (talk about a low bar). It's nonetheless much more carbon-intensive than renewables. The new technologies he cites also have adverse impacts on water. Oil-and-gas people get very indignant when you suggest that fracking might contaminate the water supply. Last week I heard one argue that all those people who were lighting their tap water on fire in Pennsylvania could always have done that, it just never occurred to them to try to light their water before people started fracking in the area. Let's set aside the issue of whether aggressive natural gas extraction has made water more flammable. The bigger problem, I think, is that fracking wastes an incredible amount of freshwater. (Think about it: fracking means pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground with enough force to break up rock formations.) That may not be a top concern in Britain, but Ridley is trying to take a global perspective. He mentions a vulture who was killed by a wind turbine in Crete.

Beyond that, I’m not convinced that fracking or horizontal drilling are as safe as the industry would have us believe. Again, think about it: fracking, “hydraulic fracturing,” means pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground with enough force to break up rock formations. Just a couple of years ago the Minerals Management Service was putting out publications talking about how great it is that advanced deepwater drilling technology has opened up new areas of oil exploration. "Fool me—you can’t get fooled again," as they say. We should proceed with gas exploration, but we should proceed with perspective and a long time horizon.

As for the wind, from what I understand, Britain is wrestling with objections to wind farms that other states have moved past: that they are, for example, ugly, noisy, and dangerous to migratory birds.

The first two are NIMBYism, which doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but does point to the fact that the negative externalities of wind farms are quite localized, as is the opposition to them. Both the ugliness and noisiness objections are debatable. It’s noisy inside a wind turbine, but if you’re on the ground, they’re not noticeably louder than the kind of ambient noise you would hear from your yard.  And this is subjective, but I think the turbines are beautiful in their way. From various angles they look like birds, flowers, or toys, but their form describes their function with the easy eloquence of an ideogram. I love driving around west Texas and seeing a turbine towering over an oil derrick and a handful of cattle: agriculture and energy, tradition and progress, all of it insignificant under the eternal blue sky.

The turbines do clip the occasional bird, but wind farms are not a significant driver of bird mortality, and we do have endangered species protections in the United States that would keep wind farms out of particularly sensitive habitats. And the idea that our traditional energy efforts are better for wildlife is just coy; in the year after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, for example, the Fish & Wildlife Service collected more than 6000 oiled dead birds.

As it happens, since the wind farms have been built in west Texas—over the past ten years Texas became America’s leading wind producer, with a bit more than a quarter of the country’s installed capacity—the complaints about how ugly and noisy the turbines are have largely dissipated. I think it’s partly because people realize they’re not that obnoxious and partly because they realize the benefits. Wind farms are capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive, but they do create some jobs, and some of the capital goes to local landowners who agree to have turbines on their property.

My argument here isn't that wind power is awesome and natural gas is catastrophic. Just the more basic point that every energy source has its advantages and disadvantages. Some of the advantages and disadvantages are more salient than others. Part of Ridley's gripe with renewables, for example, is that he thinks UK politicians are exaggerating the job creation benefits. I agree that's an annoying political habit (they do it in the United States also); energy policy is not a jobs program and no fuel source should be justified strictly on those terms.

With that said, your beliefs about which goals are most important, and which externalities most problematic, will to some extent be informed by context. Fair enough. I think wind power was a good investment for Texas, for various reasons, and I can see how it might be less so for Britain. But Ridley's article is framing this as a stark choice, and I think it's a false one. There are opportunity costs to "green subsidies" and public investments should be considered carefully. But fossil fuels and renewables aren't mutually exclusive; there's no need to describe them that way.
Nick Johnson
11/03/2011 22:00

While I do not agree with Ridley's entire argument-- as many of his complaints about wind energy are fairly exaggerated--, I do believe natural gas is a better alternative. Also in any near future scenario, I don't think the natural gas alternative can be fully realized along with wind energy. This is because wind does not always blow and there needs to be a backup source of energy, which will be coal. While coal plants are much more expensive, coal costs are cheap relative even to natural gas so the power companies will switch on coal plants before natural gas ones to supply the extra capacity when there is no wind. This wind/coal duo actually produces more greenhouse gases than a natural gas only grid.
Is it obvious I work for an oil company? Ha Good read, your interpretation was a little more logical and level-headed than the Brit's.

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Terry
11/08/2011 12:08

Nick-
In fact, when ERCOT requests additional power to make up for drops in wind output, natural gas generators are generally the ones to supply the power. The decision is not primarily economic: gas generators charge more than coal generators. However, gas generators can spin up fast enough to meet the supply drop, while coal generators cannot.
-Terry

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