An Introduction to the State of Wind Power in the U.S.
By Philip Warburg
Advances in technology, improved economics and broad political support are making wind power a formidable twenty-first century energy resource. Top-ranking Denmark draws 41 percent of its electricity from wind; Ireland follows with 28 percent; the European Union as a whole gets 14 percent of its power from wind.
America's wind farms currently produce 6.6 percent of the nation's electricity. As a share of total power generation, that may sound relatively modest, but the U.S. ranks second only to China in the quantity of power-generating capacity that comes from wind. Moreover, the U.S. has scarcely begun to tap its vast wind power potential. On land, U.S. wind resources are capable of yielding about nine times the nation's power needs. Offshore wind – wholly unexploited to date – could meet nearly twice the nation's electricity demand.
Looking ahead, the Department of Energy has prepared a scenario for 35 percent wind reliance by 2050. While that level of wind generation sounds like major progress, it may be substantially less than is needed for renewable energy resources to be the primary drivers of a net-zero carbon U.S. economy.
Wind Power's Evolution
Wind power has served various purposes in America since colonial times, but it first became available as a source of electricity in the early 20th century, when modestly scaled wind chargers supplied power to thousands of American homesteads and farm operations. Soon, however, a built-out grid brought centrally generated electricity to the nation's rural areas, leaving little room for small-scale wind. It wasn't until the mid-1970s that the Arab oil embargo and a growing interest in renewable energy gave rise to a second wave of American wind power.
In 1978, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) broke open the U.S. power market by requiring utilities to buy electricity from independent companies so long as they could generate electricity at less than the "avoided cost" of new utility-generated power. That law paved the way for America's first commercial wind farm developers. A federal investment tax credit gave wind farms an additional push, particularly in California where a matching state tax credit earned renewable energy investors a 50 percent combined tax break.
These incentives created a super-heated climate for eager wind energy entrepreneurs. Often relying on minimally tested technology, California's early wind farms experienced a high rate of mechanical and structural failure, supplying ample fodder to politicians who much preferred mining domestic coal and drilling for oil and gas.
The federal investment tax credit lapsed in 1985 and the California tax credit ratcheted down over the subsequent two years, slowing commitments to new wind projects. A federal incentive for wind was revived in 1992, but this time it was reformulated as a production tax credit that rewarded the actual generation of electricity. Hampered by repeated delays in reauthorization, the federal production tax credit has nevertheless been a key catalyst to wind power's ascent, reinforced by widely adopted state-level renewable electricity standards that require utilities to increase their reliance on wind and other sources of renewable energy.
The Scaling up and Declining Cost of Wind Power
The average wind turbine today is nearly three times taller than turbines built in the early 1990s. [See Figure 1.] This allows modern wind farms to tap the stronger, more constant winds that prevail at higher altitudes. Because wind power increases as the cube of wind speed, the gains from taller towers are particularly momentous.
A further boost to output comes from development and use of much larger rotors. Applying the formula for the area of a circle (A= π r2), an increase in blade length (i.e. rotor radius) translates into a disproportionate expansion of the rotor's "swept area," a key to determining the amount of wind that is captured and converted into electricity.
Source: Berkeley Lab, 2016
While wind turbines have grown dramatically in size, the cost of building and operating U.S. wind farms has dropped in recent years, making them now fully competitive with the two other leading sources of new power generation: solar photovoltaics and combined cycle gas. According to Lazard, the levelized cost of land-based wind power ranges from $29 to $56 per megawatt-hour; photovoltaics cost from $36 to $46 per megawatt-hour; and combined cycle gas runs from $41 to $74 per megawatt-hour. Nuclear power is much more expensive at $112 to $189 per megawatt-hour.
The Geopolitics of Wind
As a non-carbon-emitting technology, wind power has a big environmental advantage over its leading fossil fuel competitors. Onshore and offshore wind has a life cycle carbon footprint of 20 grams or less of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour. The "cleanest" natural gas power plants – those that use combined cycle technology – produce more than 400 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour. Supercritical coal plants – the least polluting in the industry – generate close to 800 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour.
While attractive to many who see climate change as a real and immediate threat, wind power has developed much of its momentum in relatively conservative rural states [see Table 1]. In 2018, 13 states in the nation's interior region accounted for more than 80 percent of new wind capacity additions.
Source: American Wind Energy Association, 2019
Robust and relatively steady winds in the so-called Wind Belt, from Texas on up through the Dakotas, partially account for the heartland's heavy investment in wind [see map]. Economics are also at play. Not only are many of the 111,000 American wind power jobs located in rural areas, but substantial financial benefits accrue to farmers and ranchers who lease out small sections of their lands to wind developers. Wind farm-generated tax revenues have also aided many cash-strapped rural communities.
Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, AWS Truepower
Watching out for Birds and Bats
Estimates vary, but hundreds of thousands of birds per year are thought to be killed by wind turbines, and those numbers are expected to rise as wind power's use expands.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an Avian Radar Project that helps wind developers identify and steer clear of major bird migratory corridors when siting new wind farms. At some operating wind farms where raptors and other vulnerable bird species may be present, specialized detection equipment and human monitors can halt turbines as birds approach.
While bird fatalities are certainly cause for concern, wind energy proponents urge that they be viewed in perspective. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 365 to 988 million birds die each year by crashing into building windows, and 89 to 340 million die in collisions with cars. Communication towers and electric utility lines cause millions of additional bird deaths annually. And the ravages of climate change caused by fossil fuel burning will wipe out vastly greater numbers of birds as entire ecosystems are disrupted.
Efforts are also being made to minimize harm to bats living near wind farms. Because bats generally fly in low winds hunting for insects, studies have shown that their mortality rates can be minimized by curtailing wind operations during these times – precisely when there are limited economic gains from keeping turbines running. The Beech Ridge Wind Energy Project, located in a wooded area of West Virginia, has been particularly engaged in these curtailment efforts.
Another commonly expressed concern involves noise resulting from wind power, with neighbors' complaints ranging from irritability, headaches and insomnia caused by audible sound to more tenuous claims of inner ear and sense of balance disturbances attributed to ultra-low frequency infrasound. While the transmission of turbine-generated sound can vary with topography and weather conditions, setting a minimum setback for wind turbines from the nearest inhabited buildings and outdoor public spaces is one important step that state and local governing bodies can take to protect wind farm neighbors and reduce public resistance to proposed projects.
Offshore Wind – the Next Frontier
Though well advanced in several European nations, U.S. offshore wind got off to an unfortunate start with New England's hotly contested Cape Wind project. Proposed for shallow waters near upscale vacation communities on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, Cape Wind met with vigorous opposition. Substantially funded by fossil fuel interests, opponents objected to the project's high cost to ratepayers, but the anticipated visual impact of turbines on Nantucket Sound drew particular hostility. Backers abandoned Cape Wind in 2018.
There's new and increasing hope for U.S. offshore wind, with numerous federal leases opening up large expanses of ocean acreage from New England down through the mid-Atlantic. Technology advances, including floating turbines, make it possible to place wind farms in deeper waters, farther from populated coastal areas. Equally important, much lower project costs now make offshore wind a realistic competitor with other sources of power generation. Public concern and official analyses now focus on balancing wind development with fisheries and marine mammal protection and with navigational safety.
The Way Forward
As U.S. reliance on wind power grows, there is an increased need to build enough energy storage and demand response capability to absorb surplus power when it's generated and adjust to shortfalls when they occur. Modernized and expanded transmission also will be required, to manage the flow of electricity from diverse energy resources across broad geographical areas. Prioritizing these investments will be essential if wind is to meet its potential as a bulwark against runaway U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
A future powered by renewables is possible! https://t.co/7mKaxnQB5w— Greenpeace USA (@greenpeaceusa) June 30, 2019
Philip Warburg, an environmental lawyer and former president of the Conservation Law Foundation, is the author of Harvest the Wind: America's Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Yale Climate Connections.
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By Kate Whiting
Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.
These are the world's most bicycle-friendly cities. Statista<p>"The reason we use bamboo to manufacture bicycles is because it's found abundantly in Ghana and this is not a material we're going to import," says Dapaah, one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders.</p><p>"It's a new innovation. There were no existing bamboo bike builders in our country, so we were the first people trying to see how best we could utilize the abundant bamboo in Ghana."</p>
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Supporting Students<p>Besides encouraging Ghanaians to swap vehicles for affordable bikes, Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is helping students save time on walking to school so they have more time to learn.</p><p>Each time they sell a bike, they donate a bike to a schoolchild in a rural community, who might otherwise have to walk for hours to get to school.</p><p>Dapaah knows how transformative a shorter journey to school can be to academic performance. She grew up living with her <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb3joGYmx9A&feature=emb_logo" target="_blank">grandpa, a forester in a rural part of the country</a>.</p><p>"We had to walk three and a half hours every day before I could go to school. He later bought me a bike, so I finished senior high and wanted to go to university."</p><p>The experience inspired her to launch Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative with two other students at college.</p><p>"When we started this initiative, I looked back and said, when I was young, I had to walk miles before I could get to school, and sometimes if I was late, I was punished.</p><p>"Why don't we donate bikes for students to encourage them to study and so they can have enough time to be on books."</p><p>To date, they have sold more than 3,000 road, mountain and children's bikes – and Dapaah says they plan to donate <a href="https://www.entrepreneur.com/video/350343" target="_blank">10,000 bikes to schoolchildren over five years</a>.</p>
Empowering Women<p>The enterprise is also providing local jobs. It teaches young people to build bikes, particularly women and those in rural communities, where jobs can be scarce. More than 50% of people they have trained are women.</p><p>Dapaah says they want to boost the number of people they employ to 250 over the next five years and they are looking to partner with NGOs to build a childcare facility so mothers can continue to work.</p>
Reducing Emissions<p>By promoting a cycling culture in Ghana, Dapaah says they're also committed to reducing emissions in the transport sector and contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.</p><p>"I love the idea of reusing bamboo to promote sustainable cycling. People want to go green, low-carbon, lean-energy efficient," she says.</p>
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By Kristen Pope
Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.
Groans, Creaks, Icebergs’ Calving Splashes<p>Oskar Glowacki already knew that melting glacial ice sounds like frying bacon. As ice bubbles burst, anyone nearby can hear crackling and popping, said Glowacki, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using hydrophones, he and other scientists now can make more nuanced measurements of how a changing climate sounds underwater, from the groans, creaks and splashes of a calving iceberg to the changes in whale songs as the ocean warms.</p><p>Glowacki recently used a pair of hydrophones to study the underwater world of glaciers, publishing his findings in <a href="https://www.the-cryosphere.net/14/1025/2020/" target="_blank">The Cryosphere</a>. He and co-author Grant B. Deane measured glacier retreat by <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/melting-glaciers-sound-like-frying-bacon/" target="_blank">recording the sounds of ice</a> – from small chunks to enormous slabs – falling off the glacier and splashing into the water.</p><p>During the summer of 2016, Glowacki's team placed two hydrophones near Hansbreen Glacier in Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard. For a month and a half, they recorded sounds, also using three time-lapse cameras to collect images – including the "drop height" (how far the ice fell into the water) – so they could compare photos to the recordings. The team created a formula to represent the relationship between the size of a piece of ice falling from a glacier and the sound it makes underwater, also accounting for the pieces of ice falling from varying heights. (Hear an example of the sound an iceberg makes while calving <a href="https://soundcloud.com/user-248456662/iceberg-calving-hansbreen-glacier" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p>
Unlocking Information About Antarctic Ice Shelf<p>Other researchers also are using hydrophones to learn more about crumbling glaciers. Bob Dziak, research oceanographer with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory <a href="https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/acoustics" target="_blank">acoustics research group</a>, captured a massive calving event of the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica with a hydrophone. He published the results with colleagues in <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2019.00183/full" target="_blank">Frontiers in Earth Science</a></p><p>On April 7, 2016, satellite images showed a massive calving event had occurred on the ice shelf. The paper described it as the "first large scale calving event in >30 years."</p><p>However, once Dziak and colleagues delved into the data from three hydrophones deployed 60 kilometers east of the ice shelf, they uncovered a series of "icequakes" from January to early March 2016. He and other researchers believe that much of the ice actually broke free in mid-January to February, but it remained in the same location until an April storm – which their paper described as the "largest low-pressure storm recorded in the previous seven months" – broke the ice free.</p><p>"We suspected that the icebergs broke apart but remained in place – kind of pinned in place – until a major storm with high winds passed through the area and, finally, it was that last push that pushed the icebergs out to sea," Dziak says.</p><p>He and his co-authors wrote that "fortuitous timing and proximity of the hydrophone deployment presented a rare opportunity to study cryogenic signals and ocean ambient sounds of a large-scale ice shelf calving and iceberg formation event."</p>
Listening to Songs of Humpback Whales<p><a href="https://www.mbari.org/" target="_blank">Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute</a> studies the ocean, including its acoustics. One of the institute's projects involves examining the soundscape of California's Monterey Bay, including sounds from animals, humans, weather, and geologic processes like earthquakes. The researchers once even recorded an under-sea landslide. They also focus on recording and analyzing the <a href="http://www.mbari.org/humpback-song/" target="_blank">songs of humpback whales</a>. Male humpback whales' songs can be over 15 minutes in length, and they can be repeated for long periods of time – even hours. Listening to these songs and analyzing them can provide unique insights into the lives of these complex animals.</p><p>"Any time we want to study marine mammals, sound gives us a window into their lives because they use sound for all of their essential life activities, really," says institute biological oceanographer John Ryan. "Communication, foraging, reproduction, navigation – depending on the species, of course."</p><p>Previously, scientists had thought singing occurred only during courtship and mating, but now they think whales may also use song while migrating and hunting. They know song has a crucial role in the whales' lives.</p><p>"There's a whole other dimension to humpback whale song," Ryan says. "It is a mode of cultural transmission in this species. They learn songs from each other. They share songs as a population, and when populations mix and mingle, they learn new ideas, they explore with their song, improvise, and it's a real essential part of their culture."</p>
By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.
Faulty Scientific Reasoning<p>In our <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13527" target="_blank">most recent publication</a> in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.</p><p>Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.</p><p>Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined "results" onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.01.003" target="_blank">ecological context is ignored</a>. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.</p>
Ways Forward<p>So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?</p><p>First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.</p><p>Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.</p><p>Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13126" target="_blank">the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet</a>.</p>
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