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NIMBYs, Hostages, and the European Wind Wars

Nobody wants a wind turbine in his back yard.
Seriously, would you put a wind farm here? (View of Ferrieres-Poussarou looking toward the Mediterranean Sea.

Seriously, would you put a wind farm here? (View of Ferrieres-Poussarou looking toward the Mediterranean Sea.
Photo Credit: RussP

Those darned Europeans are so attached to their picturesque views.  When it comes to wind power and wind-turbine farms, the honeymoon is over.  The bloom is off the rose.  Rate-payers, homeowners, holiday-makers: if you’re wind, it turns out that Europeans can quit you.

A growing annoyance

It was being reported ominously, two years ago, that the Dutch – the Western world’s quintessential pioneers of wind power – were really starting to be over wind.  Not only is it expensive and unreliable; it’s just so…unsightly.  In the 21st century, we aren’t talking pretty, old-fashioned windmills that creak gently and make the Netherlands look its postcard-landscape best.  We’re talking about those towering monstrosities in vast phalanges that whir menacingly, slaughter birds, and mar world-heritage vistas – all while, who knows, causing cancer to boot.

One year ago, UK Minister of Energy John Hayes caused great rejoicing in the land – probably the first such event ever in human history – by proposing to put a hard cap on the number of wind farms that can be erected in the United Kingdom.  Daily Mail author Christopher Booker pointed out the following at the time:

[T]he amount of power [wind turbines] generate is so derisory that, even now, when we have built 3,500 turbines, the average amount of power we get from all of them combined is no more than what we get from a single medium-size, gas-fired power station, built at only fraction of the cost.

No one would dream of building windfarms unless the Government had arranged to pay their developers a subsidy of 100 per cent on all the power they produce, paid for by all of us through a hidden charge on our electricity bills.

Equally telling are the titles of related stories appended to his editorial:

Nobody wants a wind turbine in his back yard.  U-G-L-Y, they ain’t got no alibi.  They ugly! Problem is, in a place like Europe, offshore wind is in people’s back yards too, just as it is in, say, Massachusetts.  Folks don’t want offshore wind farms too close to shore.  They ruin the view, interfere with the commercial fishing, and make boating and other water activities less pleasant.  They also threaten the UNESCO world-heritage designations of beloved national landmarks, which are usually major tourist attractions and money-makers for local economies.

Moving the wind farms further offshore isn’t a solution, however.  Doing that just makes the electricity way too expensive per megawatt-hour for even the most power-hungry consumer or optimistic utility regulator.  Germany, which jumped into wind power with all 162 million feet, has been finding not only that residential consumers decline to support uneconomic electricity sources by keeping their grid-supplied energy use up, but that industrial users are being priced out of competition with foreign companies that have the advantage of cheaper energy.  In the meantime, overenthusiasm for offshore wind has already produced company closures, major layoffs, and idled capital in the German wind industry: a blow to tens of thousands of workers and investors in an already sluggish economy.

A looming choice

Europeans have a choice to make, and it isn’t going to wait much longer.  The privileged, subsidized position of “renewable” electric power is doing what it was supposed to in Europe:  driving out coal and nuclear power-generation sources.  Literally, it is driving them out: threatening to kill them, by making them impossible to run at a profit.  The reason is that, although coal and nuclear power generation are reliable, where wind and solar are not, coal and nuclear have the operational limitation that they can’t easily be cut back or shut down and then restarted.  They don’t degrade gracefully when demand is low.

Coal and nuclear are superb – reliable and cost-efficient – when they generate the power grid baseline, with natural gas and renewables adding power, either on-demand (gas) or when they can, given the weather conditions (wind and solar).  It doesn’t work the other way around, however.  Coal and nuclear produce too much power, and necessarily must produce too much, in a grid-infrastructure role, to function economically in the role of additional power sources.  It’s against their nature, at least in today’s technological conditions, to only be needed or available sometimes.

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