Against the Wind
James B. Meigs
Originally published in Commentary, October 2023
Visiting southern New Jersey this summer, I kept seeing yard signs that read “Stop the Windmills—Save Our Coast.” The posters were rallying opposition to the massive Ocean Wind 1 power project 15 miles off the Jersey shore near Atlantic City. That constellation of 853-foot-high wind turbines is supposed to start construction any day now, although delays and financial uncertainties have hampered the project. Ocean Wind 1 is planned to be one of more than two dozen huge wind projects off the East Coast from South Carolina to Maine.
If it ever gets built.
Which it won’t if the residents of South Jersey have anything to say about it. According to a recent Monmouth University poll, support for offshore wind in the state is dropping fast. In 2019, only 15 percent of New Jersey residents opposed such projects. Today more than 40 percent say they’re against turbines off their beaches. They aren’t alone. In almost every part of the country where large wind farms have been proposed, you’ll see signs like the ones in South Jersey.
Wind power is the biggest component of the renewable-energy revolution championed by climate advocates and political progressives. And it’s growing fast. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), wind now provides more than 10 percent of total electricity generation in the U.S., up from about 2 percent in 2010. That growth is partly in response to decades of lavish subsidies from both states and the federal government. President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure deal and Inflation Reduction Act further ramped up subsidies, and the White House has an array of programs to boost offshore projects. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has said he wants the Garden State to be “the nation’s offshore wind-energy leader.” Last year he signed an executive order committing the state to a target of 11,000 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2040.
Clearly, politicians and environmentalists love wind power. And so do the manufacturers, construction companies, labor unions, and others who tap into the subsidy pipeline. But apparently, few people want to live near wind turbines—even if they’re on the distant horizon. Energy analyst Robert Bryce tracks local opposition to wind and solar projects in his Renewable Rejection Database. Bryce reports that more than 400 communities have moved to block or restrict wind power to date. (Solar-power installations also attract opposition.) The resistance doesn’t come just from conservative, fossil-fuel-addicted NIMBYs. Communities are fighting wind projects even in deep blue Massachusetts and California. Often, local branches of the Sierra Club and other green groups lead the charge.
The opponents have a point. Wind turbines may be green in the sense that they make electricity without emitting carbon, but they are pretty rough on the local environment. For starters, the American Bird Conservancy estimates that wind turbines kill over 1 million birds each year. Wind farms also require enormous amounts of land, about 85 acres for each megawatt of power produced. New York City used to get 25 percent of its power from the now-shuttered Indian Point nuclear plant. That plant produced more than 2,000 MW of power on a site of 240 acres. That’s less than half a square mile of land (much of which is left wild). Replacing all that power with wind turbines would require some 265 square miles.
The low energy density of wind also means that it takes a huge quantity of materials to produce each megawatt of power. A land-based turbine requires as much as 1,000 tons of concrete and 165 tons of steel (materials that take huge amounts of energy to manufacture). The turbine blades are crafted from exotic (and non-recyclable) blends of fiber and resins. And the generators require neodymium and other rare-earth metals (which are mostly mined in regions with sketchy environmental protections). After all that investment in energy, materials and labor, the typical turbine will last only 20 years.
By the same token, the economic benefits of wind power are far murkier than backers insist.
Under optimal conditions, wind turbines produce very inexpensive power. That’s great. Wind can make economic sense in areas like Texas and Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plains on a regular basis. But according to the EIA, most U.S. wind farms produce meaningful amounts of power only about a third of the time. The intermittency of wind power (and solar too, of course) is not just a practical challenge, but a financial one. It means power companies must dramatically overbuild energy-producing capacity just to make sure they have enough juice when wind or solar power falters. Usually they turn to gas-fired power plants to pick up the slack. Building all this extra capacity costs money, but those costs are often ignored when renewable backers extoll wind’s low cost per kilowatt hour.
Both the economic and environmental problems of wind are amplified when turbines are located offshore. Imagine the costs of transporting workers and materials to worksites in the open ocean, constructing towers almost three times the height of the Statue of Liberty, and then maintaining all that infrastructure in the harsh marine environment. In a blockbuster 2020 report, Manhattan Institute economist Jonathan Lesser analyzed what he called “the dismal economics of offshore wind.” The industry would likely not exist without myriad subsidies, he wrote. In the end, these subsidies are all funded by taxpayers and electricity consumers. Why do so many politicians support this financial drain on their citizens? Because they are taken in by the promise of economic development. Backers of offshore wind typically produce studies showing how their projects will produce billions in economic benefits. “In reality,” Lesser writes, “the money is transferred from ratepayers and taxpayers to developers—there is no improvement in overall wellbeing.”
And then there are the whales. In January, a dead humpback whale washed up on the beach in Brigantine, New Jersey. Marine scientists said it “suffered blunt trauma injuries consistent with those from a vessel strike.” It was just one of about two dozen dead whales that washed ashore in the Northeast this past winter. Some experts tied the uptick in whale deaths to the surge in pre-construction boat traffic at offshore wind sites up and down the coast. Others disagreed. The media, always reluctant to question the renewable juggernaut, quickly endorsed the latter view. “What’s killing whales off the Northeast coast?” asked CNN. “It’s not wind farm projects, experts say.” Once construction begins in earnest, of course, the potential impact on whales and other marine species will be exponentially higher.
But even when playing with government-subsidized chips, offshore wind development remains a gamble. In a stunning pre–Labor Day call with investors, Orsted, the Danish wind-power giant behind Ocean Wind 1, announced it would be delaying construction on that project and “reconfiguring” two other offshore ventures due to financial pressures. One key problem, the AP reported, is the “failure so far to garner enough tax credits from the federal government.” An Orsted executive said the company had even considered walking away from the project but had decided to continue, at least “as it stands today.” Earlier this year, Governor Murphy signed a bill giving Orsted a new tax break that critics said could add up to nearly $1 billion. The clear implication of Orsted’s recent announcement was that more such handouts might be required to keep the project afloat.
New York and other Eastern Seaboard states are vying with New Jersey in the effort to ride the supposed offshore-energy boom. Other wind developers are already ratcheting up their demands for bigger subsidies as well. And I expect we’ll be seeing more yard signs demanding that we “Stop the Windmills!”
[ www.aweo.org ]