Like many other young idealists, I have been a strong believer in the potential of green energy to benefit society. As a younger man, I thought it would be possible to solve the world’s energy problems through renewable energy sources like wind and solar. After all, the sun and wind are so abundant! The initial investment is expensive, but on good days, solar power provides nearly 50% of the electricity demand in Germany. Nearly 25% of Iowa’s electricity is provided by wind power. By investing in renewable energy, our society could benefit economically and prevent unnecessary environmental damage.
My other rationale for support renewable energy was due to my concern that the extensive use of coal, oil, and natural gas was ruining the environment and driving climate change. I thought that lack of political will and misguided subsidies to fossil fuel companies were preventing our society from becoming a renewable energy utopia. However, as I’ve learned more about the world, my naive idealism has been tempered into a more realistic world view.
During Michigan’s 2012 elections, there was a proposed ballot initiative that would have required 25% of all of the electricity in the state be produced by renewable energy sources by 2025. While the ballot did not pass, I supported it based on my reasons discussed above.
In one of my recent classes, we staged a debate discussing the costs and benefits of such a policy. Since Michigan is fertile ground for wind energy (and doesn’t get much sun), our debate focused on the pros and cons of erecting wind turbines to meet the renewable energy requirement. The debate tempered my opinions by giving me insight into the costs associated with implementing this sort of renewable energy policy. I’ve outlined the main points below.
Pros of Michigan Wind Energy
- Wind turbines do not emit any carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases while producing energy, helping to offset environmental damage from coal consumption, the main source of electricity in Michigan.
- Once erected, wind turbines pay back their initial energy costs within 1-2 years and their economic costs within 10 years. Harnessing wind energy has many economic benefits, including job growth and offsetting health care costs caused by traditional fuels (especially coal), which are estimated to be over $100 billion per year.
- There is a large untapped potential for wind energy, both on and offshore. that could provide for a large portion of Michigan’s electricity needs.
- Wind turbines do cause environmental damage. Their manufacture requires rare earth metals and large amounts of steel. During construction, land must be cleared for their erection. During use, they can cause bird deaths and bat deaths. The human health costs are negligible compared to coal, but wind turbines can potentially cause stress from exposure to constant sound.
- There are heavy up front economic costs: Wind turbines cost an estimated $1.3-2.2 million dollars per megawatt. In addition, they must be connected to the existing electronic grid. We are still in a recession, so this would be challenging to implement statewide. Who would pay for it?
- Wind is an intermittent energy source. Since the wind doesn’t blow consistently, wind turbines don’t produce energy constantly and need to be used in combination with other energy sources, typically fossil fuels. If the wind stops blowing suddenly, then the other sources need to be ramped up quickly to meet the new energy demand, which leads to a drop in efficiency.
This debate gave me much stronger understanding of energy costs. Wind energy is not the same as “no cost” energy. Wind turbines cause some environmental damage, cannot fully replace fossil fuels, and are costly to produce. Shifting away from fossil fuels also has economic effects. For example, some coal producing towns in the USA, there are few other employers available. An immediate switch away from coal production would push residents deeper into poverty, which leads to all kinds of public health problems and further economic costs (e.g. obesity, lack of access to health care, malnutrition).
After analyzing the costs and benefits, I still think that Michigan should have adopted the proposed constitutional amendment. However, I’ve tempered my zealotry based on a better understanding of the costs. Wind turbines pay off their environmental cost very quickly AND typically pay back their invest cost after about 10 years of operation. Wind turbines do kill birds and upset migration patterns, but these environmental perturbations are small compared to the hundreds of square miles of land spoiled by mountaintop removal and the loss of whole ecosystems to the poison of coal waste products.
Wind energy could provide a large portion of Michigan’s energy demand (up to an estimated 23%), as well as offset some of the massive human health costs of using coal power. However, a switch to renewable energy would require a time lapse before it could be inplemented. In the interim, we need to figure out how to bridge the gap between current energy policy and future clean energy goals.
I came away from this experience with a better understanding of our energy choices. The options are not free (renewables) and expensive (fossil fuels); instead, we must pick from a spectrum of possibilities that have different costs and benefits.
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