Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Wind -- "slow, costly, often dangerous" -- and awesome

A few months ago the NYTimes did an article on wind power inspired by the now-familiar sight of heavy trucks lumbering down highways and back road bearing a single gigantic wind turbine blade:

Like much lazy journalism, this piece ("Slow, Costly and Often Dangerous Road to Wind Power") tended to slip into the tone of an expose, revealing the shocking truth that moving these big things is -- and I hope you're sitting down -- a little inconvenient.

As demand for clean energy grows, towns around the country are finding their traffic patterns roiled as convoys carrying disassembled towers that will reach more than 250 feet in height, as well as motors, blades and other parts roll through. Escorted by patrol cars and gawked at by pedestrians, the equipment must often travel hundreds of miles [Heavens! Get my smelling salts!] from ports or factories to the remote, windy destinations where the turbines are erected. In Belfast, officials have worked hard to keep the nuisance to a minimum, but about 200 trucks are passing through this year on their way to western Maine, carrying parts that have been shipped from Denmark and Vietnam.
Plenty can go wrong despite months of planning. In Idaho and Texas, trucks laden with tall turbine parts have slammed into interstate overpasses, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs [A car accident on an American road? That never happens.] In Minnesota last year, a truck carrying a tubular tower section got stuck at a railroad crossing; an approaching train stopped just in time. Also in Minnesota, a woman was killed last September when her car, driven by her husband, collided at an intersection with a truck carrying a wind turbine. (After a police investigation, local officials found that the truck driver was not at fault.)
Maine had a glitch of its own two years ago, after a truck carrying a big piece of turbine got stuck for hours while trying to round a corner near Searsport, a port near Belfast that receives many turbine parts from overseas.
I enjoyed this article immensely, despite being shaken by the revelation that if hundreds of oversized trucks drive hundreds of miles each, one or two of them will eventually get into a car accident.

But what I really love is seeing them on the road, the immense size and tens of tons of metal that is only a part of the larger structure. I'm willing to be stuck behind one in traffic any day. I also smile when people who see alternative energy as the enemy tell me that they kill birds, or make noise, or spoil the view. I am buoyed by these complaints, and go forth encouraged.

China builds world's largest offshore wind station, killing birds near you soon.

I am encouraged by these tales of woe because they are symptoms of a larger truth: wind energy is real energy, not speculation, not prototypes, not wishy thinking. And let me say I have nothing against science fiction, speculative research, or dreaming big in general. But I was raised on Popular Mechanics covers that looked like this:

Just to look at those turbines, you know that they never bottled up traffic getting trucked through a Maine logging town. Clearly, they were transported, if they were transported at all and not constructed on the spot out of nanomachines and garbage, by hydrogen-powered skycars. No birds approach those spinning blades; no engineers were hurt of killed building or maintaining them. Because they aren't real. They are a dream.

Americans use thousands of terrawatt-hours of energy every year (42,432 megawatts of that, about 2.3%, is now wind). We are an industrial civilization. And industry is messy, when it takes place in the real world and not on a think tank whiteboard. There are accidents. There are demands on the infrastructure. Parts and structures have to manufactured, transported, and maintained. The purpose of alternate energy is not to escape these physical realities and create utopia; it is to slow the release of dangerous greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and give our civilization a chance to survive in its current form. And that is also my answer to those that reject nuclear out of hand, or insist that CCS is a distraction: We are fighting for our lives here, so act like it.  As a great writer said in another context:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.


  1. I haven't been keeping track. Has anyone at the NYT got upset about the meltdown of nuclear plants in Japan?

    John Puma

  2. Funny they haven't talked about the mega-loads being run along the back roads of Montana to transport crap up to the tar sands in Alberta. The load shown in the picture is just long. The loads bound for Alberta a long, wide (like two lanes wide) and weigh about 100 tons (each) and they want to run around 200 of them. Over scenic highways. Which border world class trout streams.

  3. I live in Alberta, and there doesn't appear to be much discussion of this here. But then we wouldn't - our media are totally supine before the Oil Patch. Ought to be interesting once they get these loads on the highway between Edmonton and Fort Mac, though.

  4. Re CCS, this is of interest, re nukes, this. I have to say I see them both as distractions.

  5. "I have to say I see them both as distractions."

    Perhaps. I don't want to make that call. I want to put a realistic price on carbon emissions, and let the market make up its mind. I don't at this point have any confidence that CCS will, in our lifetimes at least, be any more practical than no-till agriculture and planting trees. Nuclear I suspect will continue to be a major player.

    Check out BraveNewClimate on the right. Very, very anti-global-warming and makes a smart case for nuclear power. I don't think nuclear is the answer, but I do think it can be a "wedge."

  6. That is, the right side of this page, on the blogroll, not the right side of the political spectrum. ;)