John Schaefer: Our grandchildren will thank us for wind power

Our grandchildren will thank us for wind power

The county is deciding whether to issue permits for the Terra-Gen Wind Project, south of Scotia. This week and next week hearings will be held for the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) at the Planning Commission, and chances are hearings will continue on to the Board of Supervisors.

All electricity we use from fossil sources contributes to the climate crisis. Its obvious impacts are clear: the Kincade and other fires, floods in the Midwest, heat waves in the Arctic, and thousands of desperate people fleeing Central America and Africa.

Failure to arrest the climate crisis promptly will doom our grandchildren to a bleak future. There’s no time left to argue whether wind or solar or biomass or hydro or carbon pricing is a best solution; we need them all.

Not just for our grandchildren is pollution-free electricity is a good idea. The state has mandated that all electricity be renewable by 2045, and the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) recently chose to meet that goal by 2025. We can’t do that without the Terra-Gen Project.

The good news is that no place is better suited than Humboldt to take advantage of the need for pollution-free electricity. RCEA already offers us renewable electricity, and their challenge now is to find enough at reasonable costs. We’ll need a lot more to electrify transportation.

There will be environmental impacts from this project, just as there are with any form of electricity generation. Our challenge is to choose the least damaging options. After solar, wind power is probably the least damaging.

But neither solar nor wind power can supply all our electricity needs, so a broader mix is needed: biomass, hydro, battery storage, and carbon pricing. Absent expanded wind power, we’ll burn more natural gas.

Wind farms provide good jobs, both in construction and operation. Everyone I’ve met in wind farms (and in solar power plants) loves his or her job. Employed as a research project manager and consultant in renewable energy since 1985, I’ve been around a lot of wind farms over the years.

Based on that experience, I can say that there are potential downsides to having wind turbines nearby. In Minnesota, I heard complaints that construction trucks damaged roads and didn’t fix them. In Texas, ranchers complain that wind operators didn’t shut gates, a no-no in ranch country.

In Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New York, neighbors close to turbines justifiably complain about noise.

Illinois may be the worst case. I passed through Normal, Illinois just this spring and was surprised to see how close to existing homes wind turbines were located.

Residents complain about noise, about red warning lights at night, and about shadow flicker — moving shadows on their homes when the sun is low in the east or west.

Clearly, those wind turbines were sited too close to homes, some at only a few hundred yards.

I have faith that our county planners here won’t fall into the trap that planners did in Illinois. Hearings at the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors will help.

Fortunately, those valid objections to wind power elsewhere don’t matter here. Terra-Gen’s turbines will be high up along the ridges, where to my knowledge there aren’t any homes. Scotia and Rio Dell are far enough away that residents won’t hear anything.

Of course, if residents look carefully they will see turbines on those ridges. One reads complaints about altered view-scapes. I assume complainers want to see nothing different. Turbines located miles away are less visually polluting, in my view, than power poles in front of houses.

To be consistent we might inquire if complainers also want to take down those power lines and forego electricity. I’ll bet that they’d rather not. In my opinion, complaints of ugly future view-scapes constitute uber-NIMBY-ism.

Lawrence Berkeley Lab found that 64 percent of residents living one to three miles from existing wind turbines had positive opinions, with only 10 percent holding negative views.

Another assertion I’ve read is the likelihood of bird deaths, but expressed without any real numbers. Admitting that there will be bird kills, the DEIR addresses that issue better than I can. Of one thing I am sure, however. Terra-Gen won’t cause species extinction the way the climate crisis has and will in the future.

Fire is another potential risk. Fires do rarely ignite in wind turbines, just the way they do in houses, cars, and fossil-fueled power plants. What complicates a wind turbine fire is that it’s usually atop a 300 foot tower. Spectacular scenes of wind turbine fires can be found on the web.

Wind turbines now are fully instrumented, so any ignition — from electrical faults, hydraulics, or overheated brakes — should trigger automatic fire suppression.

Complaints that Terra-Gen is making a profit make no sense in the real world of today. For better or for worse, we live in an economy where investments either yield profits or they won’t occur. Yes, wind investors will make money, but absent that investment the owners of fossil-fueled power plants will make even more. Who are the good guys in that scenario?

In retrospect, local investors might have developed clean, local power sources themselves. I believe there are adequate financial resources in Humboldt County. An example is how local Danish cooperatives invested in their own, smaller turbines, 35 years ago.

A question is how to deal with transmission line risks. The issue is how to weigh possible fires against the certainty of climate damage.

What are the facts behind transmission lines and fires? The Camp and Kincade Fires began under high voltage transmission lines, in both cases because 60-year old equipment failed. In both cases PG&E apparently knew of the need for repair but failed to do anything. Terra-Gen’s new transmission line will be built to higher standards, and we can hope that recent fires will encourage PG&E to be more attentive in the future to maintenance.

Massive concrete foundations will remain after wind turbines are taken out of service, perhaps 30 years from now. I fear we may not have conquered the climate crisis by then, so that turbines installed in 2020 will be replaced by others in 2050. Whatever new equipment is installed then will be embodied in new nacelles, probably mounted on existing towers and on existing foundations.

Thus, Terra-Gen’s massive foundations and slowly rotating blades will forever serve as monuments to Humboldt County’s foresight in addressing the climate crisis. I predict our grandchildren when viewing them will thank us for choosing a livable future.

John Schaefer worked in the utility industry for 40 years, 30 of those in renewable energy. His first job in California was in construction with PG&E, when he says it was a better company. He holds an engineering Ph.D from Stanford.



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