The Pickens Plan: A Windy Salvation?

I woke up in the wee hours of last Sunday morning to the sound of Tropical Storm Hanna tearing at my open window. Groggily, I stood up to admire the force of the storm and found I could barely make out the typically brilliant lights of downtown Boston through the driving rain. The juxtaposition of the raw power of storm winds with the awe-inspiring expanse of city lights reminded me of plans to help replace energy needs with wind power. Too tired to dwell on the matter, I climbed back in bed and let the storm’s unlikely lullaby return me to sleep.

The idea of wind power has been around for centuries — think kites, sailboats, windmills, and the like — but the scale of humanity’s current efforts to harness it is unprecedented. Energy from wind — captured by 410-foot-tall towers with rhythmically rotating 150-foot blades — seems an ideal alternative to burning fossil fuels, and European countries like Denmark and Germany are already spreading their wings — err, turbines — to catch it.

Enter T. Boone Pickens, a man with a big fortune born of Big Oil in the big state of Texas — a man with a very big idea. Pickens wants to transform America into the “Saudi Arabia of wind power,” meeting twenty percent of our electricity needs with a swath of wind farms running down the country’s heartland. While reducing our dependence on foreign oil, the wind farms will free up natural gas for use as automobile fuel and create thousands of high-paying jobs for Americans.

This big idea has a very big price tag — one trillion dollars in private funds to erect the 100,000 wind turbines and $200 billion in government dollars to lay down the infrastructure for the wind power grid. A solid investment which seems more reasonable when compared to the $700 billion-worth of foreign oil we import annually. We can even toss in the $575 billion price tag — to date — of Iraq to sweeten the pot.

Cost is only the surface of the issue, though. Wind farms must be able to handle intermittency — think contending with Hanna vs. feeling yourself sunburn as you hope for a vagrant breeze to blow your Tech Dinghy back across the Charles — and maintain a constant power output. (How many batteries do you need to power Boston, anyway?) They must also contend with aesthetic opposition — the “not in my backyard” folks — while staking out the best wind-harvesting sites. (Otherworldly or elegant, at least wind turbines look better than cell towers masquerading as trees.)

Additionally, there are very valid ecological concerns. As with any renewable energy technology, there’s a carbon startup cost: the CO2 emitted during manufacture of the turbines, in this case. It seems that this carbon debt is neutralized within nine months of operation, however. Meanwhile, there are concerns about the toll on wildlife. Birds and bats can be killed while flying through wind farms; whales and dolphins might be disoriented by sounds from the moving blades transmitted through the water. There’s solid scientific evidence, though, that these impacts are minimal, especially when compared to the effects of skyscrapers and powerlines (on aerial creatures) or offshore drilling (on marine life).

If such evidence didn’t exist, the welfare of many species would obviously be an important concern. Yet we’ve been managing Earth for human needs for so long down — increasing extinction rates by 10,000 fold — that we might as well take it one step farther. The idea makes the tree-hugger in me cringe. But then again, what will become of the birds and whales when climate change takes its toll on their habitats? Better to mitigate the impact on the whole at the expense of the few.

This is a concept our political system has yet to master. Renewable energy — wind power included — has received hefty bipartisan lip service, but Washington seems to think no one will read the fine print. While presidential candidates run adds featuring hands and solar panels, Congress threatens to end renewable energy tax credits, which reward investors for green innovation. Congress is less and less likely to renew the tax credits, which expire at the end of the year, and politics may sabotage the Pickens Plan, among other wind and solar installations. That $1 trillion in private investment will be mighty hard to come by with no tax rewards. After all, if Big Oil gets them, why can’t everyone else?

The moral of this story is that nothing is perfect, nothing will replace cheap oil, and nothing is as clean and white as those GE wind farm commercials. Here’s where we need some of Pickens’ big picture attitude. We have to see wind power as a part — not the entirety — of the solution and move it up the priority list. Fast. After all, something is always better than nothing.

Holly Moeller is a graduate student in the Department of Biology.