The story below illustrates the folly of artificially propping up an industry segment that can't compete on its own with other sources of supply.
A breathtaking sight awaits those who travel to the southernmost tip of Hawaii’s stunningly beautiful Big Island, though it’s not in any guidebook. On a 100-acre site, where cattle wander past broken ‘Keep Out’ signs, stand the rusting skeletons of scores of wind turbines.
Just a short walk from where endangered monk seals and Hawksbill turtles can be found on an unspoilt sandy beach, a technology that is supposed to be about saving the environment is instead ruining it.
If any spot was tailor-made for a wind farm it would surely be here. The gales are so strong and relentless on the tip of South Point that trees grow almost horizontally.
Yet the 27-year-old Kamaoa Wind Farm remains a relic of the boom and inglorious bust of America’s so-called ‘wind rush’, the world’s first major experiment in wind energy.
So what went wrong? It started with the late Seventies oil crisis that convinced America it had to look around for other sources of power. For a time, wind power was considered to be a serious alternative to fossil fuels.
Turbines were built across several states, though there was a preponderance in California, where nearly 17,000 sprouted up from the dusty earth.
Nearly all of these were concentrated in three giant wind farms: Altamont, east of San Francisco; Tehachapi, on the edge of the Mojave desert; and San Gorgonio near Palm Springs.
In theory, conditions couldn’t have been better. Each of these are passes that benefit from just the right sort of wind that turbines need — strong and almost continual.
Better still, they were crossed by under-used high voltage lines to take away the power.
But most importantly for the scrum of investors who were thrusting their snouts into the trough, there was the extraordinary generosity of the government.
Between 1981 and 1985, federal and state subsidies in California were so favourable that investors could recover 50 per cent of the cost of a wind turbine.
Paul GIPE, a former California wind company executive, calls what happened next a ‘tax credit frenzy’.
‘The lure of quick riches resulted in shoddy products that littered California with poorly operating — sometimes non-operating — turbines.’
They were expensive and badly designed. Some were far too small to make a difference, others were just clunky machines designed by the aero industry with blades the length of a rugby pitch.
But thanks to the subsidies, it hardly mattered that some of the untested turbines were so sub-standard they barely even worked.
Not to put too fine a point on it, for some wind energy investors it was simply a tax scam.
But as tends to happen with a business that is driven by financial incentives, it lasted only as long as the subsidies. In 1986, the price of oil tumbled and the subsidies started to die out. Suddenly, the wind energy sums didn’t add up any more.And in yet another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, the wind turbines that are operating are surrounded by heaps of bird carcasses killed by the whirling blades.
And just like the gold rush miners who had rushed to the same Californian passes a century earlier, the wind prospectors departed in such a hurry that they didn’t even bother to take down the turbines they had littered across the state.
With so many moving parts to worry about, maintaining turbines is expensive — too expensive when the electricity they could produce was suddenly worth so little.
No one who has driven past one of America’s mega wind farms today can fail to be struck by how few have blades that are turning, even in strong winds.
Unfortunately, the frenzy of windmill building during the wind rush didn’t just ruin the view, but also devastated the wildlife.Conservationists suing to stop production of green energy. Can you say "irony?"
No one noticed until far too late that the 5,000-turbine wind farm at Altamont Pass is on a major migratory path for birds. The National Audubon Society, America’s RSPB, has called it ‘probably the worst site ever chosen for a wind energy project’.
An estimated 10,000 birds including up to 80 protected golden eagles, 380 burrowing owls, 300 red-tailed hawks and 330 falcons were being shredded each year in Altamont’s massed banks of turbine blades — to say nothing of thousands of bats — until outraged conservationists sued America’s ‘deadliest’ wind farm four years ago.
Actually, I don't know which is more ironic. The 'save the birds' lawsuits, or the fact that the obama administration is participating in a plan to pay wind farms in the Pacific Northwest to not produce electrical power.
But I digress.
As a result, (the wind farm) has agreed to grind to a halt for four months every year to avoid causing more carnage during the migration season. Go further south to the Tehachapi pass on the edge of the Mojave desert and you’ll find golden eagle carcasses under the wind turbines, too.
In the U.S., one of the great ironies about wind energy is that the people you might expect to cheer for it most — wildlife conservationists who care about the planet — are its most vociferous critics.
It’s not hard to see why when you glance at the statistics. The American Bird Conservancy estimates wind turbines kill between 75,000 and 275,000 birds each year.Yeah, and it all depends on what the definition of "is" is.
The conservation cause is not the only issue. There are horror stories about turbines falling over, catching fire after being struck by lightning, lethal shards of ice being hurled from the blades, the nerve-racking low frequency noise (like a pulsing disco) and the disorientating strobe effect in sunlight.
While Hawaii has six abandoned wind farms, most of California’s derelict turbines are only now being removed — decades late — after disgusted local authorities threatened to sue.
So how many windmills have been abandoned across the U.S.? It is an intensely sensitive subject for wind enthusiasts, who will quibble that it depends on how you define ‘abandoned’.
‘The key lesson from history is that when the subsidies go, the wind farms go ... It costs too much to maintain them and they just get abandoned.’And maybe the investors followed the easy money to solar companies. But I digress one more time.
The latest figures show U.S. investment in wind energy plunged 38 per cent last year. Experts say there are simply too many turbines out there and not enough people buying the electricity.
Republicans in Congress want to cut wind energy’s 20-year-old subsidy at the end of the year.Why, indeed.
Why, they ask, should the debt-laden country be giving wind energy companies a 30 per cent tax credit, costing taxpayers nearly $3 billion a year, when wind accounts for only 2.3 per cent of America’s electricity and 8 per cent of its pollution-free electricity?
In addition to the economic issues and the sliced and diced wildlife, there's also the aesthetic aspect. Few sights are quite as jarring or upsetting as a line of giant wind turbines stretched across a once-pristine scenic view.
In fact, a proposal to build a wind farm off Cape Cod was met with fierce resistance precisely because it would spoil the view.
... the project drew ... passionate opposition from many of the moneyed and influential residents of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket who don’t want their pristine views disturbed.Typical liberal hypocrisy. We want clean energy, but we don't want it where we live. NIMBY - Not In My Back Yard. (Of course, in Ted Kennedy's case he was probably afraid he'd hit one of the turbines the next time he got drunk and drove off a bridge.)
Big names, from Senator Edward M. Kennedy to Walter Cronkite joined in the long battle.
There are wind farms going up in West and Central Texas. I regularly see semis hauling turbine components headed west on IH 10. I just hope that 20 years from now those turbines aren't rusting, abandoned hulks like the ones in Hawaii and California.
On the bright side, if they are, we can always use them for target practice...