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Two Myths and One Truth About Wind Turbines

From the cost of turbines to one U.S. senator’s suggestion that “wind is a finite resource”

One concern about wind turbines is that they are noisy, but the Department of Energy notes that at a distance of 750 feet, they make about as much noise as a household fridge. (Pixabay)
smithsonian.com

Wind power has a long history. Back in 900 B.C., the Persians were using windmills to pump water and grind grain, writes the Department of Energy. Still, the windmill's use in generating electricity has produced some incredible myths and misconceptions. Here are a couple of the biggies, along with one big truth:

Myth: Wind power costs more than fossil fuel

Any new technology will cost you, as LiveScience noted in 2008, and often more than existing options. “The initial investment for wind energy is huge,” reporter Michael Schirber wrote then. But developments in wind power technology, coupled with wider acceptance of wind as a method for producing power, have brought the price of wind power on a per unit basis down to a point where it’s lower than building new fossil-fuel power plants.

“Renewable energy has reached a tipping point—it now constitutes the best chance to reverse global warming,” the World Economic Forum’s Michael Drexler told Andrew Griffin for The Independent. “Solar and wind have just become very competitive, and costs continue to fall,” he said. Griffin reported that the World Economic Forum’s recent white paper on renewable energy investment found that wind power today is more affordable than ever before. That paper reported that for the first time, the costs of wind and solar energy were lower than the cost of building new coal or other plants.

Myth (sort of): Wind power is a finite resource

This remark was famously made by U.S. Representative Joe Barton in a 2009 Congressional subcommittee hearing. It got turned into a meme. Here’s the full quote from the hearing transcript:

Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it’s hotter to areas where it’s cooler. That’s what wind is. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I’m not saying that’s going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. 

It was easy to poke fun at a Congressman worried about using up the wind, but as Snopes notes, Barton got the idea from an expert on energy: Carnegie Mellon University’s Jay Apt, who was citing in an article a few papers that did actually point to wind being a finite resource, of sorts.

At large scale, slowing down the wind by using its energy to turn turbines has environmental consequences. A group of researchers at Princeton University found that wind farms may change the mixing of air near the surface, drying the soil near the site. At planetary scales, David Keith (then at Carnegie Mellon) and coworkers found that if wind supplied 10 percent of expected global electricity demand in 2100, the resulting change in the atmosphere’s energy might cause some regions of the world to experience temperature changes of approximately 1ºC.

Truth: Wind power has negligible effects on climate

However, subsequent research has found that wind farms won’t alter the climate outside of annual norms. Their effect is “far less than the long-term effect of greenhouse gas emissions in driving global climate change,” writes Joseph Stromberg for Smithsonian.com.

"There are other plausible environmental reasons why you might be anti-wind power," he writes. "But if you're looking for a more substantive argument against turbines other than the fact that they ruin your view, you'll probably have to look elsewhere."

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