Wind Farms and Public Health

I recall with fondness my time as a congressional staffer, fielding calls from home-state constituents about their concerns and complaints (rarely do people call their congressman with a compliment). One concern I heard from a number of callers over the years was a genuine, intelligently stated concern that high voltage overhead power lines could cause cancer, and what could the good congressman do about this please? I was never able to provide these callers with a good response

Well, Simon Chapman has a response, not to those concerned with power lines but rather to the growing chorus of those concerned with the modern plague of wind turbines. For a plague it seems to be, based on the number of reports from around the globe. I wrote briefly about this issue once, describing how the throbbing of the turbines chopping through the air was driving people batty, but little did I know that turbines were being blamed for far more serious ailments, including cancer, stroke, and even death!

According to Chapman, the cause of these wind farm maladies can be attributed to a single powerful and pervasive vector, anti- wind farm activists:

The European wind industry sees the phenomenon as largely anglophone, and even then, only in particular regions and around certain farms. Many sites have run for years without complaint. Others, legendary for their vocal opponents even before start up, are hot beds of disease claims. So if turbines were inherently noxious, why do they cut such a selective path? Why do citizens of community-owned turbines in Germany and Denmark rarely complain? Why are complaints rare in western Australia, but rife in several eastern Australian communities?

Opponents readily concede that only a minority of those exposed report being ill but explain this via the analogy of motion sickness: it only happens to those who are susceptible. How then to explain that whole regions and indeed nations, have no susceptible people? The key factor seems to be the presence or absence of anti-wind activists, generally from outside the area. (emphasis mine)

It certainly is an entertaining piece, and I have no doubt that it’s true for it’s part. Hey, I just went through a health issue where I didn’t know I was sick until my doctor told me I was sick, and only then was I aware of how really sick I was. But I certainly have no intention of blaming the doctor for bringing the issue to my attention. And while ‘activists’ aren’t by any stretch in the same league as doctors, I’ll withhold final judgment on Chapman’s condemnations until all the studies on wind turbines and health scares are in, right after all the public health studies on cell phones and WiFi hot spots land on my desk. Until then, stay healthy my friends!



Can British Engineers Produce Petrol from Air?

Via the ever-reliable Instapundit, I was awakened from my Friday cubicle-induced stupor by a report in The Telegraph that some blokes may have invented a technology that uses carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere to create petrol, or fuel if you’re on the downwind side of the pond.

A small company in the north of England has developed the “air capture” technology to create synthetic petrol using only air and electricity.

Experts tonight hailed the astonishing breakthrough as a potential “game-changer” in the battle against climate change and a saviour for the world’s energy crisis.

If true, this would be a game-changer; a technology that represents a leap forward in a current pattern of behavior. In this instance, a technology like the one described here could render obsolete our reliance on unstable and unfriendly oil regimes, overcome our stalled efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and turn politics on its head (never underestimate how wedded politicians and bureaucrats are to the status quo).

Now, if you will indulge my soapbox for a moment please, I want to point out the following passages:

The £1.1m project, in development for the past two years, is being funded by a group of unnamed philanthropists who believe the technology could prove to be a lucrative way of creating renewable energy.

While the technology has the backing of Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, it has yet to capture the interest of major oil companies. (bold mine)

I want to make three political arguments: first, profit motivation is a powerful incentive for challenging the status quo, and can (and often does) lead to socially desireable outcomes; second, a free and open market-based economy is the only means of overcoming stale, state-protected, dominant industries; and third, the importance of allowing the investing class (the “evil rich”) to speculate in innovative technologies/industries without fear of suffering punitive taxation is essential to our shared desires for a better world.  The state will never be more efficient or effective at supporting new technologies than the free market.

Where the Federal Energy Subsidies Go

So I’m reading this Yahoo! News story titled “Decades of Federal Dollars Helped Fuel Gas Boom,” and I’m amazed not by the content but rather the tone of the article. The story recounts the federal role in the rise and current economic boom of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the innovative drilling technique that has both opened up vast new natural gas reserves and set off a raging environmental debate. But it recounts this history with a “see, see, oil and gas got subsidies too, so stop complaining about wind and solar subsidies!” snarkiness to it.

A little advice: if you’re going to write with a tone like this, you better be able to bring the goods, and as I’m reading I eventually get to the key paragraph:

But those who helped pioneer the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, recall a different path. Over three decades, from the shale fields of Texas and Wyoming to the Marcellus in the Northeast, the federal government contributed more than $100 million in research to develop fracking, and billions more in tax breaks.

Look, $100 million in research dollars and “billions more in tax breaks” over a 30 year period is a drop in the bucket the way Washington spends money ($10 billion each and every day folks). And as I read the Yahoo story it’s obvious that what they have is a mundane story that they are desperately trying to sex up with a political spin. I get the spin, but it’s really bad spin.

I have a reliable source that reports that our government will spend $150 billion on clean energy technology over the 2009 – 2014 time period. If you want to be snarky, $150 billion is a pretty good angle for dropping some attitude.

It seems that we can’t get away from the attitude and the political posturing in the news this year. So forgive me for calling out Yahoo! News on this story of theirs, because it’s pretty bad.

More War on Coal

So this isn’t to scare anyone, or demagogue the “war on coal.” But here’s some perspective on what it means to lose 36,000 megawatts of coal-fired electricity. From Blue Crab Boulevard (H/T Instapundit):

Look, folks, I am in this field. I have been for more than 30 years. Losing 36,000 MWs of the most cost-efficient generation capacity in the US is a disaster. You have no idea how bad the increases are going to be. They will be disastrous to the individual energy consumers and apocalyptic to large users – those who create jobs.

I shudder to think of what this is going to do to grid reliability as well. A lot of those coal plants help support the grid during disruptions. They regularly provide both energy and MVARs (Mega Volt-Ampere Reactive) that keep the grid from collapsing when large loads are added or lost. (That’s about as simple as I can make it and still be understood.) Losing these stabilizers will make it very hard to hold the grid. I pity the load dispatchers.

Trust me, people, this is a very big, very bad thing that is happening as a direct result of Barack Obama’s war on coal.

Tomorrow, when I awaken from my joyous hangover from Kansas State’s glorious ass-whoopin of Oklahoma (at Oklahoma!) I may add a little perspective to all of this.

200 Coal Fired Plants to Shut Down?

That’s the word according to a report from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. The Daily Caller has the story, saving us the trouble of reading the report:

Within the next three to five years, more than 200 coal-fired electric generating units will be shut down across 25 states due to EPA regulations and factors including cheap natural gas, according to a new report by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

We recently wrote about the loss of 1,200 coal industry jobs. The closure of 200 power plants, and the impacts on the coal industry, is going to cost a lot more than 1,200 jobs. It’s also a lot of electricity. The report states that as much as 36,000 megawatts (MW) of coal-based electricity may be loss due to the the so-called war on coal. By comparison, the Solar Energy Industries Association reports that the U.S. today has only about 5,700 MW of installed solar electric capacity. Although the solar industry is young, and growing rapidly, compensating for 36,000 MW of coal is going to be difficult. I assume that most of it will come from natural gas.

The war on coal, as Obama Administration and EPA critics have labeled the ongoing efforts to control power plant emissions, is gaining traction in the presidential and congressional races. Matter of fact, the state of the coal industry may swing the vote in three big states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. And don’t doubt for a second that folks aren’t willing to make political hay out of this issue:

On Friday, the coal industry caught a slight break as the House voted 233 to 175 to stop the Obama administration’s so-called “war on coal,” passing a bill that would limit the EPA’s regulatory authority over greenhouse gases and limit the Interior Department’s ability to issue coal mining rules.

This House bill isn’t going anywhere, of course, since the Democrats control the Senate. But that’s not really the point (the point is to highlight the issue for political reasons).

Who knows what will happen in November, but regardless of the election I think the future is one where the coal industry continues to shrink, coal jobs continue to be shed, the U.S. loses tens of thousands of MWs of coal-generated electricity, and electricity rates rise.

Ugh. 1,200 Coal Jobs Gone.

Favor of solar? Check. Favor reducing dependence on carbon energy sources? Check. Favor further curbs on air pollution from power plants? Check.

Favor 1,200 men and women finding themselves tomorrow without a job? No. The lede:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Coal producer Alpha Natural Resources said Tuesday it’s cutting production by 16 million tons and eliminating 1,200 jobs companywide, including 400 with the immediate closing of eight mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

No one favors this. No one wants to see hard working people lose their jobs. It’s tragic for them and their families in a way I hope I never, never personally experience.

Crutchfield [company CEO] called it “a difficult day,” but said the shutdowns and layoffs are a necessary part of ensuring Alpha survives in what has become a difficult U.S. market, where coal companies face a dual challenge: Power plants are shifting to cheap, abundant natural gas, while companies like his face “a regulatory environment that’s aggressively aimed at constraining the use of coal.”

The news is tragic, not surprising. We’ve discussed before that coal, for now, is out of favor for strictly economic reasons. And we’ve not been shy about arguing for changes in public policy that would cost coal country precisely these type of jobs. I for one strongly favor an economic/industrial/political transition away from coal and toward distributed (rooftop) solar.

But my point today is that a lot of us labor under the illusion that people can transition from old industry to new industry – from coal to solar, let’s say – and the economic and personal repercussions level out. But that’s simply not true. There is death and there is birth. There is infrequently rebirth, or reinvention: no coal company is going to awaken tomorrow as a solar plant. The marketplace thrives on creative destruction, and solar/renewable energy will rise by stepping on the back of dead coal jobs. We need to understand this to keep us humble, and honest.

I wish 1,200 of my fellow citizens the best of luck today.

Why Are U.S. Carbon Emissions Plummeting?

According to John Hanger, relying on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, carbon emissions are falling back to 1990 levels, something believed impossible only a short while ago. The reason for the falling emission levels? John provides the following:

First and foremost are sharp reductions from electric power production, as a result of fuel switching from coal to gas, rising renewable energy production, and increasing efficiency. Yet, the shale gas revolution, and the low-priced gas that is has made a reality, is the key driver of falling carbon emissions, especially in the last 12 months.

As of April, gas tied coal at 32% of the electric power generation market, nearly ending coal’s 100 year reign on top of electricity markets. Let’s remember the speed and extend of gas’s rise and coal’s drop: coal had 52% of the market in 2000 and 48% in 2008.

I suspect that some of the decrease in emissions is due to the faltering U.S. economy: slower growth results in less energy consumption. I also wonder how much the Obama Administration has had an effect: they’ve been hostile to coal, to say the least. Is this the result? Clearly though the transition from coal to natural gas (due to a number of factors I’ll explore later) has clearly benefited the U.S. in terms of realizing emission targets.

Tapping natural gas from shale formations has its critics, but there can be no doubt that increasing our reliance on natural gas over coal for energy production is a powerful short-term strategy for reducing carbon emissions. I’ve seen a lot of different numbers, but according to the EPA, compared to the average emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides, all nasty stuff.

Over the long-term, our economy still needs to transition toward renewable and clean sources of power. But hey, we celebrate short-term victories here! Plus, it’s good news for your Fourth of July! Now why did I sell those natural gas company stocks?