This morning Morning Feature will present part two of a two-part discussion digging deeper into alternative energy sources and the tradeoffs they present. Today we will look at renewable energy sources. UPDATED: Bringing it together (More)


UPDATE: A new discussion starts Wednesday with this comment hoping to bring both weeks together (Bridge Fuels and Renewables) and including nuclear power which was missed in the Bridge discussion but which U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu mentioned yesterday as part of the mix. What is the proper mix of bridge and renewables and what should be our goal?


The Tuesday Digging Deeper Morning Feature surveys an ongoing news topic through multiple sources to invite in-depth conversation. Please check back over the coming days for additional comments. This week’s Digging Deeper topic is energy tradeoffs for renewable sources of energy.

Most people are in agreement that we (the global we) need to find alternative sources of energy. Fossil fuels have enormous costs (human and environmental) related to extraction and their burning creates deadly gases that lead to global warming. In the long run, well, there is no long run since fossil fuels are not renewable. When they are gone, they are gone.

Last week we discussed two energy sources, “Clean” Coal and bio fuels (ethanol) which would be more transitional (we cannot and should not use them forever). Today we will discuss two that could be the energy of the future – both are renewable.

So what are the minuses involved in renewal resources? In all of the material I reviewed, those who discuss the drawbacks are always quick to point out “but they are better than fossil fuels”. I think that one could concede that point and still want to make sure that the trade-offs being made are both necessary and right.

Wind Energy
Wind power is “the conversion of wind energy into a useful form of energy, such as using wind turbines to make electricity, wind mills for mechanical power, wind pumps for pumping water or drainage, or sails to propel ships”

Compared to the environmental effects of traditional energy sources, the environmental effects of wind power are relatively minor. Wind power consumes no fuel, and emits no air pollution, unlike fossil fuel power sources. The energy consumed to manufacture and transport the materials used to build a wind power plant is equal to the new energy produced by the plant within a few months of operation. Garrett Gross, a scientist from UMKC in Kansas City, Missouri states, “The impact made on the environment is very little when compared to what is gained.” The initial carbon dioxide emission from energy used in the installation is “paid back” within about 2.5 years of operation for offshore turbines.

Here are the most often cited negatives:

Dangers to Birds and Bats

American Bird Conservancy cites studies that indicate that about 10,000 – 40,000 birds die each year from collisions with wind turbines in the U.S. and say that number may rise substantially as wind capacity increases in the absence of mandatory guidelines. However, studies show that the number of birds killed by wind turbines is very low compared to the number of those that die as a result of certain other ways of generating electricity and especially of the environmental impacts of using non-clean power sources.


In the USA, the Massachusetts Cape Wind project was delayed for years mainly because of aesthetic concerns. In the UK, repeated opinion surveys have shown that more than 70% of people either like, or do not mind, the visual impact. According to a town councillor in Ardrossan, Scotland, the overwhelming majority of locals believe that the Ardrossan Wind Farm has enhanced the area, saying that the turbines are impressive looking and bring a calming effect to the town.


In the United States, law suits and complaints have been filed in several states, citing noise, vibrations and resulting lost property values in homes and businesses located close to industrial wind turbines.

One family’s noise problem

Not long after the wind turbines began to spin in March near Gerry Meyer’s home, his son Robert, 13, and wife, Cheryl, complained of headaches.
They have trouble sleeping, and Cheryl Meyer, 55, sometimes feels a fluttering in her chest. Gerry is sometimes nauseated and hears crackling.

The culprit, they say, is the whooshing sound from the five industrial wind turbines near the 6-acre spread where they have lived for 37 years. “I don’t think anyone should have to put up with this,” says Gerry Meyer, who compares the sound to a helicopter or a jet taking off.


Wiwo…wiwo…wiwo. The sound floats on the winds of Ka Le, this southernmost tip of Hawaii’s Big Island, where Polynesian colonists first landed some 1,500 years ago.

Some say that Ka Le is haunted — and it is. But it’s haunted not by Hawaii’s legendary night marchers. The mysterious sounds are “Na leo o Kamaoa”– the disembodied voices of 37 skeletal wind turbines abandoned to rust on the hundred-acre site of the former Kamaoa Wind Farm.

Changes to Downstream Weather
Wind farms can change surface air temperatures in their vicinity:

The giant wind turbines cropping up on ridges, shorelines and other windy locales across the world affect more than the wind—they are also changing local temperatures, notes a new study. That’s likely because the enormous blades chop up the incoming wind and thereby more thoroughly mix different layers of the atmosphere.

“In a subsequent study that has been submitted to another journal, we found that these impacts are restricted to a small area around the wind farms,” [atmospheric scientist Somnath Baidya Roy ] says, though some modeling studies of wind turbines covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometers suggest such massive wind farms could affect global climate.


Solar Energy
Solar power is “the conversion of sunlight into electricity, either directly using photovoltaics (PV), or indirectly using concentrated solar power (CSP). CSP systems use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. PV converts light into electric current using the photoelectric effect.”.

The Union of Concerned Scientists notes these drawbacks:

Since solar power systems generate no air pollution during operation, the primary environmental, health, and safety issues involve how they are manufactured, installed, and ultimately disposed of.


Materials used in some solar systems can create health and safety hazards for workers and anyone else coming into contact with them. In particular, the manufacturing of photovoltaic cells often requires hazardous materials such as arsenic and cadmium. Even relatively inert silicon, a major material used in solar cells, can be hazardous to workers if it is breathed in as dust.

Land Use

The large amount of land required for utility-scale solar power plants-approximately one square kilometer for every 20-60 megawatts (MW) generated-poses an additional problem, especially where wildlife protection is a concern. Most discussions of land use compare the solar plant needs to other energy generation needs.

Disposal Issues:

Today’s solar PV sector bears striking similarities to the emerging electronics industry of the 1980s, when supposedly “clean” manufacturing plants polluted Silicon Valley groundwater, causing death and illness in nearby communities. The high-tech industry’s failure to plan for safe end-of-life product disposal has resulted in a global flood of electronic waste (e-waste). The U.S. generates an estimated 2.2 million tons of e-waste annually, and this will continue to grow with the industry’s rapid rate of technological change.i U.S. e-waste is currently shipped to the poorest parts of the world for manual disassembly and recovery of valuable scrap materials. It is anticipated that in 30 years the world’s poorest in cities like Nairobi, Delhi, and Manila (and also in U.S. prisons) may be sorting our solar PV waste.

Our own citisven weighed in on e-Waste in Our Earth: If you are reading this …

Increase in the sun’s reflectivity (albedo)
Solar energy that would have bounced back out into space is collected by solar cells, and eventually dispersed as heat when the electricity is used. The Earth’s energy budget may get out of whack:

The Earth can be considered as a physical system with an energy budget that includes all gains of incoming energy and all losses of outgoing energy. The planet is approximately in equilibrium, so the sum of the gains is approximately equal to the sum of the losses.

The heat-islanding effect of solar panels may create more global warming.

I encourage you to follow the links and read the articles.


Here are some questions to get us started, not in any order and not intended to be all inclusive:

1. How much harm to an individual is “okay” for the greater good? Who decides?
2. Is there really anything that is completely without drawbacks?
3. Do we hold out for better wind turbines? What are the tradeoffs for waiting?
4. Are there better technologies on the horizon?
5. Is the disposal issue a big deal or not?
6. What kind of risks are workers being subjected to?


Please share your thoughts and additional links in the Comments.


At BPI our Progressive Agenda is:
1. People matter more than profits.
    • Corollary: Each person matters … equally.
2. The earth is our home, not our trash can.
3. We need good government for both #1 and #2.