A National Research Council report released this month says that by 2020, less than 2 percent of the United States’ total carbon emissions would be offset by wind energy development. Rick Webb, a senior scientist at UVA’s Department of Environmental Sciences, contributed to the report. He thinks wind energy’s negative impact may far outweigh its negligible benefits.
Environmental science prof Rick Webb says wind may not be the answer to global warming woes.
C-VILLE: How did you get involved in the wind energy issue?
Rick Webb: My involvement began in 2005, when I became concerned about the industrial scale of wind energy development as it was proposed on mountain ridges in the area. Previously, I would’ve thought that wind energy was a matter of benefits without any downsides, before I realized the size of the turbines, which can range from 400′ to 450′ tall. I also realized that the number of turbines that would have to be built to make any difference at all in terms of electricity supply is just extremely large. For example, Mount Storm Power Plant would require about 9,000 turbines. So you’re talking about 1,000 miles of turbines just to replace this one power plant.
What does that sort of development mean, beyond the obvious aesthetic consequences?
In my point of view, we’re looking at sacrificing our natural landscape for very little benefit. You have to clear the landscape —three to five acres of clearing per turbine. Deforestation has an ecological impact on wildlife that require continuous forest to survive. Birds and bats are also killed by flying into turbine blades. The nearest wind project to Virginia, the Mountaineer Project in West Virginia, came online in 2004. It’s 44 turbines, over five miles long. The range of estimates is that 2,000-4,000 bats were killed in a six-week period.
So is there a future for wind energy anywhere in Virginia?
My basic position is that rigorous environmental assessment needs to be performed prior to any wind development. That being said, it does seem to me that development far offshore could have less of an impact. By far, the most wind resources that would be considered Virginia’s are offshore, but it is much more expensive to develop, and given the subsidies that are basically financing these projects—something like 55-65 percent of the projects are covered by tax incentives and grants—that’s where the money is. That’s why there’s this rush to develop wind.
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