Wind works for the environment

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July 14, 2015

As a species goes, I would argue that human beings take more than our fair share of the ecological slice of this planet; particularly those of us living in the highly developed world. The good news is that we are developing new technologies that will help us to minimize the size of the ecological slice that we do take – consider it to be leaving enough for our co-residents of the planet, not to mention future generations. 

The difficulty we have is there are no silver bullets to resolving some of the problems we face. In fact, many of these problems have come about  incrementally over the decades by choices we made (or are being made on our behalf). So, while we all live in proverbial glass houses, we cannot let this be a cause for inaction, but rather recognition that, if each of us can incrementally work towards a rebalance, the world will be in a much better place. One area we can start is in the electricity we use – by conserving what we can, and then making sure what we do use is as benign as possible. Fortunately, we are developing renewable energy much faster than many thought was possible. Wind is at the forefront of this revolution, which is not only more benign than other options, such as using gas or nuclear reactors to produce that same electricity, it is also one of the lowest cost sources of new electricity available today.

Wind energy is a non-emitting source of electricity

This is the hallmark of renewable sources of power, and wind is no exception. Opponents of wind argue that wind requires dedicated back up power, such that all the gains that are made are nullified by the wrongful notion that each MW of wind requires an equal MW of backup gas or some other polluting source of power. This overly simplistic argument could not be further from the truth. While it is true that wind contributes to system variability (as do most things that are connected with the grid – our dishwashers, elevators, and industrial pumps all run when people choose, not at the whim of system operators), wind is in fact adding some variability to an already variable grid. Our electricity system is designed and operated for managing these ups and down by using “reserves” – these are designed to account for the constant ebb and flow of all the components on the grid – from power users to power transmitters and of course, to power generators. In short, system operators are already used to dealing with variability; in the same way we can predict how demand will increase in the morning and decrease at night, we are also getting really good at predicting changes in output from renewable resources such as wind. In fact, when added to the grid, wind energy will reduce fuel consumption and GHG emissions alike.

Wind energy does not contaminate, nor consume, fresh water

Unlike most other sources of electricity, wind energy does not require water to operate. Because of this, wind can be deployed in arid regions and areas with scarce water supply and strict water consumption and use regulations (think California). Wind energy is actually net positive with respect to water; because wind is emissions free, wind helps to combat climate change, which poses a significant threat to aquifers due to changes in precipitation patterns and temperature.

Wind energy is easy on wildlife

Wind energy and wildlife are effective dance partners. A recent report from Environment Canada found that avian mortality from wind turbines was extremely low relative to other sources of mortality (windows, cats, climate change, etc.) – as a result, Environment Canada researchers concluded that wind energy is not having any noticeable population level effects on avian populations.

Even in areas where wind energy is facing challenges, such as with respect to certain species of bats, the wind industry steps up and tackles the issue head on.  Wind energy was developed with the explicit intent to improve the environment, and so the wind energy industry has taken a proactive approach to mitigating impacts – including establishment of coordinated conservation efforts and research, such as work undertaken by the University of Calgary, establishment of the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, and participation in Bird Studies Canada “Bird and Bat Mortality Database.” As we continue to better understand how the industry can continue reducing bat mortality, the wind industry’s environmental record will only continue to improve.

While there is still work to do, similar to fresh water use, wind energy comes up net positive with respect to wildlife. Wind is one of the best ways to reduce GHG emissions – and given climate change is one of the biggest threats to birds and bats, there is an overall positive effect from building more, well sited, wind projects.

Low Risk – High Return

While utilities are keenly interested in wind energy today due to its low cost, we should not lose sight of our environmental roots. Wind today presents one of the lowest risk investments that we can make – so while nothing we do is benign, investing in wind is significantly more benign compared to some of our other options.

Featured Photo © 3flow communications inc.

Tom Levy
Director of Technical and Utility Affairs at the Canadian Wind Energy Association