Wind Energy and the Environment

Wind is clean, renewable, and free.

Did you know that in 2017 wind energy accounted for more of the U.S. electricity supply than solar? I discovered this during Energy Awareness Month this October because I decided to learn about wind power.

After stumbling across Energy Awareness Month a few years ago, I resolved that each October I would tackle an energy project or learn more about an energy-related topic and share what I learned with readers. Some of the topics I have covered include Energy Action Month history, the Clean Air Act, energy savings tips, rooftop solar tax incentives, and a review of the book Reinventing Fire.

This year wind energy is on my mind because the federal government and at least two wind companies are eying the ocean waters off San Luis Obispo County where I live on the California Central Coast.

Just last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it is ramping up efforts to bring more offshore wind farms to federal waters off the United States’ coastlines. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal agency that manages the development of U.S. outer continental shelf energy and mineral resources, published some of their plans in the Federal Register.

Reading these announcements and news articles made me realize that I did not know much about wind energy so I set out to educate myself and share what I learned. You may not think that wind energy is pertinent to your community, but it is when you expand your vision to a society powered by clean renewable energy like the wind.

The intent of this post is to provide you with an overview of wind energy including its environmental advantages and disadvantages and to offer you some ideas for actions you can take to support wind energy if you choose to do so.

Wind Energy Basics

Even if you have never seen a modern wind turbine in action, you have probably seen wind filling the sail of a sailboat or turning the blades of a windmill.

All three are harnessing the motion (kinetic energy) of the wind. The wind turbine uses the wind to produce electricity, the sailboat uses it to propel the boat forward and the windmill uses it to pump water.

If you only have 60 seconds, I think the video below gives a good overview of how an offshore wind turbine works. There are more video links in the resources section at the end of the post.

Like solar, wind can supply electricity for homes, businesses, farms, communities, and power plants.

Solar panels on a home rooftop or wind turbines on a family farm are referred to as distributed energy meaning the electricity is consumed close to where it is produced. If distributed sources send their electricity to the electric grid, an entire community can share the power.

Large groups of wind turbines constitute a wind farm and can supply electricity for an industrial complex or to a utility-scale power plant, which then distributes it to their customers via the electric grid.

Most of the wind turbines producing electricity in the U.S. are land-based. A few have been around since the 1980s like the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm you see as you drive down Interstate 10 on the way to Palm Springs, CA.

Offshore Wind Farm in Ocean Waters off Block Island, Rhode Island
Offshore Wind Farm in Ocean Waters off Block Island, Rhode Island – Photo AWEA

An offshore wind farm is one that has wind turbines in the ocean or a large lake. The first U.S. offshore wind farm did not come online until just two years ago. Rhode Island made history when the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Block Island began sending electricity to the grid in December 2016.

Wind Industry 2017 Highlights

In 2017, wind accounted for 6% of utility-scale electricity produced by renewable energy sources, hydropower was 7%, biomass 2%, solar 1%, and geothermal less than 1%. 1

Wind blowing across the U.S. in 2017 provided more than 10% of the total electricity generation for 14 states, and more than 30% in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Texas had the highest wind electricity generation capacity of any state. 2

2017 Wind Share of Electricity by State Map - Source AWEA
Source AWEA

Unlike coal, natural gas, or petroleum, the wind is a domestic energy source that cannot be exported. The wind industry provides jobs, lease payments for landowners, and property, local, and state tax revenue.

The U.S. wind industry employed 105,500 people in 2017. 2

Workers in a Wind Turbine Manufacturing Plant
Workers in a Wind Turbine Manufacturing Plant – Photo AWEA

Most of the components of wind turbines installed in the United States are made in the U.S. by 500 wind-related manufacturing facilities across 41 states. In 2017, U.S. based General Electric was ranked second in U.S. market share for wind turbine manufacturers. 2, 3

During 2017, over $11 billion was invested in new U.S. wind projects. 2

Next, we will explore some of the environmental advantages and disadvantages associated with producing electricity from wind.

Environmental Advantages of Wind Energy

Burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to generate electricity emits a whopping 34% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. 4 We could bring that figure to zero by transitioning to clean renewable energy, like the wind.

Wind energy is clean (does not produce emissions) and renewable (replenishes itself).

Wind blowing across Earth’s land and waters is free for everyone. Of course, capturing wind and converting it into electricity is not free but once a wind turbine or wind farm is installed, it operates on free energy for 20 to 25 years.

Wind turbines do not spew greenhouse gases and pollution into the air, which is good for your health and the environment.

Another major benefit of wind energy is that wind turbines do not deplete or pollute groundwater basins, rivers, or lakes that tens of millions of people rely on for drinking water and they do not pollute the ocean.

Wind Turbines on a Sheep Farm in Rio Vista, CA
Wind Turbines on a Sheep Farm in Rio Vista, CA – Photo AWEA

Land use for wind turbines and wind farms has pros and cons.

On the plus side, a wind turbine only occupies a small piece of land so other activities like agriculture, ranching, and recreation can go around them.

On the downside, the best place for wind turbines is in wide-open spaces and on ridge tops, which can be in remote places that do not have roads or transmission lines. Building infrastructure disrupts ecosystems and causes pollution and erosion. In the ocean, installing platforms (on the seabed or floating) and undersea cables can cause similar environmental issues.

Environmental Disadvantages of Wind Energy

A drawback of wind energy is that it fluctuates so it may not produce a continuous supply of electricity all the time.

Americans expect electricity to be instantly available 24/7/365 so wind power needs to be backed up with storage or an additional electricity supply source. Battery storage systems add to the environmental footprint of wind systems. If backup electricity is provided by a power plant that burns fossil fuels, it reduces the environmental benefit of wind.

Mining for rare earth metals and making steel and concrete to build wind turbines and platforms has a negative environmental impact including greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and high energy use. The thing is that this can be said about anything that uses these materials so it is not unique to wind energy.

Wind turbines can present a hazard to birds, bats, and marine animals.  Careful placement of wind turbines can alleviate this issue.

Noise might be a problem if you live or work very close to a wind turbine or wind farm.  Noise may also affect nearby wildlife both on land and in the ocean.

Some people have an aesthetic concern about seeing a wind turbine or wind farm in their viewshed, a term I first saw while reading an article about our potential local offshore wind farms.

Yes, wind does have some drawbacks, but they are insignificant when you consider the widespread danger and damage associated with every aspect of the fossil fuel industry.

Wind energy capacity has skyrocketed since 2001 and continues to grow.

U.S. Annual and Cumulative Wind Capacity Growth Since 2001 Bar Chart - Source AWEA
U.S. Annual and Cumulative Wind Capacity Growth Since 2001 – Source AWEA

What Can You Do to Support Wind Energy?

You may not have a wind farm project going on where you live, but you can still support wind energy. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

  • Install a residential-scale wind turbine in your yard.
  • Learn more about wind energy and talk about it with your family, neighbors, and coworkers.
  • If you do have a wind project pending in or near your community, get involved by attending town hall meetings and other events that give you an opportunity to learn about the project and to voice your concerns and/or support.
  • Tell your local and state elected representatives that you are in favor of wind energy and ask them what they are doing to support it.
  • Request that your U.S. senator and congressperson author and/or support a bill extending renewable energy tax incentives.

What am I doing? I am going to find out what I can about the two potential projects off our coastline and get involved in some way.

Featured Image at Top: Wind Turbines with a Rainbow in the Background – Photo AWEA

Related Posts

References

  1. Electricity Explained: Electricity in the United States – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  2. 2017 Wind Technologies Market Report – U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
  3. AWEA U.S. Wind Industry 2017 Annual Market Report – American Wind Energy Association
  4. How much of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are associated with electricity generation? – U.S. Energy Information Administration

Resources

Voting is an Environmental Act

Vote! It’s your superpower.

The environment surrounds you, me, and everyone else every second of every day. If you want a habitable planet to live on, you need to vote for it.

Everyone deserves and needs clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, healthy food to eat, toxin-free places to live, work, study, and play, and an opportunity to enjoy the rest of nature. We share Earth with billions of other living things that need a habitable planet to live on, too.

Earth is a sphere where everything is connected. The environment crosses all property lines, state boundaries, and international borders. When you vote with the environment in mind, you have the power to affect environmental issues in your community, county, state, country, and even around the world.

In this post, I will attempt to demonstrate how voting impacts the environment by providing a few past and present examples with the hope of encouraging you and other readers to vote in the next election and future elections.

Your Vote Matters

Voting gives you an opportunity to weigh in on who you want to represent you in various government bodies and to participate in deciding whether ballot measures should be approved or not.

Closest to home are local elections. You and other voters in your community choose your mayor (if you have one), city council members, school board members, county supervisors, and special district board members (e.g. water services district) and you vote on local and countywide ballot measures from banning fracking to property tax assessments for services.

In statewide elections, you have a chance to elect a governor and state legislators that are aligned with your priorities and to vote for or against propositions that apply to the whole state like legalizing cannabis, banning single-use plastic bags, or approving bonds to fund water conservation projects.

Participating in national elections enables you to vote for the United States president and members of Congress. The president, in turn, appoints his or her Cabinet, the people who lead federal agencies such as the Departments of State, Energy, Agriculture, Education, Defense, Interior, Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Below are some examples of why your vote matters with a focus on the environment.

“Every election is determined by the people who show up.” ―Larry J. Sabato

Your Vote Matters to Your Community

Water is a constant environmental concern in Cambria the small town I live in on the California Central Coast in San Luis Obispo County.

In November, Cambria residents will vote for two of the five seats on the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) board of directors that oversee our water supply, wastewater treatment, fire protection, and parks and recreation.

This election is a big deal because in 2014 current and former board members decided to build an emergency water reclamation plant to filter brackish groundwater and re-inject it back into the local watershed to supplement our water supply. The facility was built using a temporary emergency permit at a whopping cost of $13 million.

Ratepayers are now saddled with an environmentally unsound plant that cannot be operated without expensive rework and perhaps never. Even though our water bills have doubled, much-needed infrastructure repair and replacement projects have been put on the back burner by the board.

The decisions that the CCSD board make directly affect my family and me so voting for the candidates that I feel will do the best job is important to me.

Your Vote Matters to Your County

San Luis Obispo County voters will have the opportunity to vote on Measure G-18, which would prohibit new petroleum extraction and ban all oil and gas well stimulation treatments (e.g. fracking) on land within the unincorporated area of the county.

This ballot measure is the result of a coalition of San Luis Obispo County residents who are concerned about the oil fields already operating in the county and that want to put a kibosh on future expansion.

Members of Coalition to Protect SLO County Delivering Protect Our Water Initiative Signatures to San Luis Obispo County Courthouse
Members of the Coalition to Protect SLO County Delivering 20, 473 Protect Our Water Initiative Signatures to San Luis Obispo County Courthouse

Oil extraction uses a tremendous amount of water. Some of it is reclaimed and treated, however, toxic oil wastewater is also injected into aquifers underlying the county, which may be needed at some point in the future to provide drinking water or to irrigate the agriculture fields and vineyards in this rural area. Drinking water wells near the oil fields are at risk of contamination.

Protecting our water is of paramount importance to me. I also believe that we need to get off burning fossil fuels as soon as possible and power our society with clean renewable energy so I think this measure is a step in the right direction.

Your Vote Matters to Your State

This year, California voters will go to the polls to elect a new governor to replace Governor Jerry Brown Jr. who is leaving office after serving longer than any other California governor. Besides balancing the state budget, Governor Brown has positioned California as an environmental leader in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and changing over to clean renewable energy.

Will our new governor keep the momentum going, stall it, or actively try to thwart it? It depends on who we vote for to lead the state.

Also on the California ballot, are 11 propositions, one of which deals with water (a perennial issue in our drought-prone state). Proposition 3 is a bond measure that could provide much-needed funding for safe drinking water facilities as well as watershed management projects to prevent soil erosion and flooding and to recharge groundwater basins.

Sometimes proposition titles and summaries make them seem better than they are so it pays to read the full text during the weeks leading up to the election.

Your Vote Matters to Your Country

In 2016, a twist in the Electoral College process resulted in Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States even though Hillary Clinton received more votes. From the time President Trump took office on January 20, 2017, until now, his actions have already had a far-reaching impact on the United States and the rest of the world.

Looking at his actions from an environmental perspective, I selected two that stand out as being particularly harmful and dangerous to not only the American people but to people all across the world.

When President Trump appointed Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) he was making good on his campaign promise to overturn and roll back environmental regulations and safeguards while attempting to dismantle the agency founded in 1970 to protect the health and wellbeing of the American people and the environment.

Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general with a long history of suing the EPA, proceeded to repeal the Clean Power Plan that would have cut greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from fossil fuel burning power plants, rescinded the Waters of the United States Clean Water Rule aimed at protecting wetlands that recharge aquifers and prevent flooding, and refused to ban Chlorpyrifos a pesticide known to be a carcinogen.

In July 2018, after months of being hounded for his excessive spending of taxpayer dollars—interestingly, not because he was destroying the agency he had sworn to lead—Pruitt resigned. He was replaced by former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, who is now presiding over rolling back Federal Clean Car Standards that would have increased fuel efficiency of new vehicles and reduced air pollution.

Your Vote Matters to the World

Fulfilling another campaign promise, Trump announced in June 2016 that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, an international agreement signed by 195 countries with the long-term goal of keeping the global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels to minimize the risks of climate change.

A Hand Holding a Tiny City Powered by Renewable Energy
A Hand Holding a Tiny City Powered by Renewable Energy – Photo Credit iStock/ violetkaipa.

The United States should be leading the effort to end the era of fossil fuels and to accelerate the transition to clean renewable energy not isolating itself from the rest of the world.

One can only wonder how much progress the United States could be making on the environmental front if every eligible voter had voted in 2016. We have another chance in 2020.

I hope the above examples adequately illustrate how voting affects the environment, which in turn affects you, me, and everyone else hoping to live on Earth now and in the future.

Imagine if Everyone Voted

The number one reason many people give for not voting is that they do not think that their vote matters. Certainly, it is your right to vote or not to vote. However, if you choose not to vote, you are still influencing election results.

I was fortunate to grow up with two parents who regularly voted and gave me the understanding that voting is a privilege and a duty of being a United States citizen. I still believe that and I vote.

Even though the candidates that I vote for do not always win the election and ballot measures I am against pass and measures I am for fail, I still feel voting is important. In those cases, I have made my voice heard and provided a data point. In today’s data-driven world, if enough of us create the same data point, politicians will take notice and act accordingly.

Imagine if everyone were to overcome apathy, difficult voting situations (some states make it harder than others), and other reasons for not voting and we all voted in the upcoming election and future elections. We could come together and vote for people who will actively work towards keeping Earth habitable for ourselves, our children, and future generations.

Let’s do it.

If you need help finding information about national, state, or local elections, USA.gov’s Voting and Elections webpage is a good place to start.  Nonprofit Ballotpedia’s Elections webpage also houses useful information and links.  Californians you can find information on the California Secretary of State’s Election and Voter Information webpage.

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” —Wendell Berry

Featured Image at Top: Woman Carrying a “Vote on behalf of your Mother” Sign During a March – Photo Credit Shutterstock/Sheila Fitzgerald

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