In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a goal of 80% clean energy sources in the US by 2035, a mandate that would include a 700% increase in the generation of non-hydro renewable energy. While solar panels and geothermal heat pumps are promising technologies (more about these in future posts), the renewable source that grabs much of the attention (both positive and negative), as well as taxpayer subsidies, is wind-generated energy. The installed capacity for wind energy generation continues to grow in the US, and current production cost is less than 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, much lower than for solar. But monetary costs don’t tell the whole story.
Many of the controversies surrounding wind-generated energy are evident in my home state of Texas, which has five large wind farms (and numerous smaller ones): Roscoe, Horse Hollow, Sweetwater, Buffalo Gap, and King Mountain. Roscoe Wind Farm, in Nolan County, is the world’s largest, and generates enough power to supply over a quarter of a million Texas homes (which is probably equivalent, embarrassingly, to at least a million European homes, but we’re irredeemably prone to excess). Electricity for the continually expanding city of San Antonio is provided by CPS Energy, which obtains wind-generated power from West Texas (Cottonwood Creek and Desert Sky Wind Farms) and from the Gulf Coast (Papalote Creek and Peñascal Wind Farms). CPS customers can opt to pay higher rates, to purchase renewable energy and offset the higher costs associated with wind-generated electricity. This is promoted as an environmentally responsible choice called Windtricity; I’m trying to decide whether to sign up, as our energy costs are relatively low, and I’d like to support the use of renewable energy sources.
High-voltage transmission lines near Government Canyon State Natural Area
However, there’s Trouble in the Wind-Powered City, Trouble with a capital “T”, which rhymes with “p”, and that stands for “pylons”. Or transmission towers, as we usually call them in the US. Of course the electricity has to be transferred from the wind farms to the cities, often over distances of hundreds of miles. The route from West Texas to San Antonio cuts through the scenic Hill Country, home to unique ecosystems and endangered species, and the site of historic ranches and private country retreats. The pylons divide properties, disrupt and fragment habitats, and fail to be pretty or scenic. They do not bear leaves that change color in the autumn. They don’t provide nesting sites for Golden-cheeked Warblers. No one wants to look at them. NOMBR: Not On My Big Ranch.
Uvalde Bigtooth Maple, Lost Maples State Natural Area
Recently, this issue has come to a head, with the proposal to construct a high-voltage Competitive Renewal Energy Zone (CREZ) transmission line from San Angelo, to the town of Comfort, just west of San Antonio. Ranchers and property owners along the proposed routes protested vehemently, listing beautiful hillside views, historic Native American sites, bat colonies, family ranches, and endangered bird species as potential victims of transmission line construction. Apparently, the Public Utilities Commission listened to these concerns, and an alternate route, which minimized impacts on the ecosystem by following two existing major highways, was considered. And as of January 24, the issue has been settled, such that the lines transmitting “green energy” from the wind farm to San Antonio will be sited primarily along the Interstate-10 corridor, and will be strung on monopoles, rather than on the lattice-type pylons.
Tubular steel monopoles near Helotes, TX
Under the circumstances, I think this is a fairly happy outcome. It’s unrealistic to expect that electricity demands will decrease, in a rapidly growing urban area such as San Antonio. CPS Energy does offer rebates for energy-efficient “green” home construction and renovation, appliances, and installation of solar panels, and encourages energy use reduction measures. But we all still use a lot of electricity, when compared to people who live elsewhere in the world, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
National Wind Watch Website that collates news and information about industrial wind energy farms and issues across the globe.
Fitzgerald, Joan (2010) Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development. Oxford University Press.