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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Harvest the Wind

Air Date: Week of
Vestas, a Danish wind energy company, opened a factory in China to supply local demand. (Photo: FlickrCC/EnvironmentBlog)

Wind energy has great potential in the United States but suffers from a lack of support. Phillip Warburg, author of “Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability,” tells host Steve Curwood, wind should receive the same financial backing as fossil fuels.


CURWOOD: The U.S. government is now on track to slash funding for clean energy by 75 percent from its peak in 2009, and wind power will take a direct hit. At 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour, the current federal wind production tax credit makes it competitive with natural gas power generation. But unless a number of minds change in the U.S. Congress, that subsidy will be gone with the wind by the end of this year.

That prospect will be a mistake for America, says Philip Warburg. Mr. Warburg is the former president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston and author of the new book, “Harvest the Wind: America's Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence and Climate Stability.” He says we can’t afford to pass up the great potential in wind.

Vestas, a Danish wind energy company, opened a factory in China to supply local demand. (Photo: FlickrCC/EnvironmentBlog)

WARBURG: I think one of the really great things about wind power is that it addresses the overarching challenge of how do we reduce our phenomenally large climate change impact. And wind power, according to the Department of Energy, could be providing a fifth of our electricity by 2030; according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chair, Jon Wellinghoff, could be providing up to half of our electricity by the year 2050. So we’re not talking about a marginal technology, we’re talking about a technology that could significantly displace fossil fuels.

CURWOOD: So you say there’s great promise, but hasn’t this been a boom and bust cycle historically?

WARBURG: Yes it has. I mean our own development of wind power goes back to the 1970s when, under Jimmy Carter, a number of incentives were moved forward to develop renewable energy, solar as well as wind. So we saw a large boom at that point in California in wind power development because there were both federal and state tax incentives available for the wind industry.

When those subsidies expired under Ronald Reagan and under Governor Deukmejian in the mid 1980s, the wind boom in California crashed. What we’ve seen more recently is the ebb and flow of wind power with the ebb and flow of what’s called the production tax credit, which is a subsidy provided per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated from wind.

New turbine parts made in Western China (photo: FlickrCC/Kaj17)

CURWOOD: But still you wind up then with, hey, you might have all these jobs one year, but then next year they’re gone.

WARBURG: Well, once you have wind turbines established and wind farms established, those wind farms need to be maintained, so you’re not going to see an evaporation of all those jobs. You are going to see a retrenchment in the manufacturing and in the development of new wind farms, and that could be a real hit to the wind industry.

But going forward, if we were to be targeting again those goals of 20 percent by 2030 and possibly 50 percent by mid century, we would see jobs well into the hundreds of thousands created by the wind industry.

CURWOOD: And by the way, Phil Warburg, we’re talking about large industrial-scale wind power, we’re not talking about what people can put in their backyards or up on their roof; these are big machines.

WARBURG: That’s correct. We are talking about wind turbines that reach about 410, 420, 430 feet into the air. A single blade is about half the length of a football field, so we’re talking about very, very large machines; certainly not something you’d want in your immediate backyard, but something that can work very well in the American working landscape, and that’s where we see wind as really thriving right now.

In researching my book, I went to many parts of the country that I’d never visited before, including Kansas, Wyoming, Indiana, Illinois, where wind power is being developed on a very large scale, placed in corn fields and soy fields and cattle pastures, and is a very good complement to those farming industries.

Smoky Hills Wind Farm in Western Kansas. (Photo: FlickrCC/ proforged)

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about Kansas and wind. In your book you point out that the word kansa means “wind.”

WARBURG: Yes it does.

CURWOOD: Or more accurately, it’s the Native American term for “people of the wind.”


CURWOOD: And you tell two stories out of Kansas, one in Flint Hill and the other in Cloud County.

WARBURG: Sure. Cloud County is a very remote county, about 140 miles north of Wichita, where there has been farming and ranching since the Kansas Pacific Railroad rolled through there in the 1870s. There hasn’t been too much else.

In 2008 the Meridian Way Wind Farm was established in Cloud County and it has brought hundreds of jobs to the area and it has brought an enormous sense of local pride, so that’s the good news side.

CURWOOD: Yeah, and now what happened in Flint Hill?

WARBURG: The Flint Hills are an area of tall grass prairie, where there is a fairly small group of very adamant ranchers who do not want wind turbines on their landscape. And it’s primarily a visual issue.

CURWOOD: In your book, I see that there is an enormous amount of capacity, in virtually every state of the union. With so much potential, why push wind power down anybody’s throat?

WARBURG: First, there is enormous wind potential in this country. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects that we have about ten times the current level of total electricity production available as wind power that we could be tapping. Now that doesn’t even look at our offshore wind capacity, which is another significant increment. So our wind power resources are very abundant. The question really comes down to siting, and siting is an issue that has to take into account issues such as visual impacts, noise—because wind turbines that are as large as these wind turbines do produce some noise.

CURWOOD: But the question here, Phil Warburg, is why force anybody to take wind who doesn’t want it?

WARBURG: Well, clearly you want to site wind power where the winds are most abundant. And fortunately many of those areas are quite remote. Wyoming, for example, is a very, very wind rich state. It’s also a state with a very small population.

However it’s a state that’s quite distant from the electricity markets that would be interested in buying that wind. It needs to sell that wind-generated power to places like Southern Nevada and Southern California, so you have to build transmission lines, which are an added expense.

CURWOOD: Now sometimes when people are critical of wind they say it kills birds, it’s bad for bats. Technology has changed: the machines are bigger, the blades rotate more slowly now. But still, your figures in your own book suggest that millions of birds are going to die because of wind power.

WARBURG: Today we probably are killing about 90 thousand birds a year through our current wind power fleet. We have to put those numbers, though, in perspective.

If you look at the average annual bird kill rate from household cats, it’s estimated that about a billion birds are killed per year by those cats in the United States. Collisions with buildings kill a hundred million—possibly many more—birds per year. But this is a reality, this is a factor that wind developers are reckoning with, and reckoning with responsibly.

Philip Warburg, author of Harvest the Wind.

There are ways to use radar, for example, to detect incoming flocks of birds. There’s a wind farm in Bulgaria, actually, that has been quite a success story, in that it has an onsite ornithologist. And there was recently a flock of 30 thousand white storks that were approaching the wind farm. At the ornithologist’s order, the wind farm stopped its turbines within five seconds, 37 times in a two-day period, and not a single stork was harmed.

CURWOOD: So tell me, why does China do so well with wind?

WARBURG: China’s a centrally planned economy. When it decides to do something, it does it and it does it with ruthless efficiency. So it’s the world leader right now in installed wind power capacity. Although I have to say that because a lot of the wind farms are owned by state-owned enterprises, the United States is actually generating more power from its wind farms than China is because the wind farms in America are privately owned and there’s an incentive to have them run with maximum efficiency, which does not necessarily pertain to China.

CURWOOD: So, the phone rings, Phil Warburg: it’s the White House. They say, 'We’ve just read your book, "Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability." We want you to map out what America should do now about wind power.' What’s your answer?

WARBURG: I think America first has to develop a vision. For many, many decades we have been substantially subsidizing oil, gas, coal, and nuclear. And people seem to object to the subsidies that are now being provided to the renewable energy industry even though they are a fraction of what we’ve been providing over the decades to these other technologies. Until we adopt a means of taxing carbon so that we are internalizing the true environmental costs of burning our fossil fuels, we are going to have to provide some subsidization for wind to make sure that there is parity in the marketplace.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with me today.

WARBURG: My pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: Philip Warburg is author of “Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability.”



Philip Warburg


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