If ever there was a time to get off of oil and plug into offshore wind power, it is now, argues Mike Tidwell, a clean-energy activist and veteran journalist with deep roots in the bayou.
But what's the downside of powering much of our economy, including tens of millions of cars, with offshore wind power? What would dozens and dozens of wind farms from New England to the Carolinas do, for example, to birds? After recent images of oil-blinded pelicans and tarred herons in the Gulf, the energy-avian nexus is a particular concern.
Thankfully, beginning with the Cape Wind project, the news is good. A federal environmental impact study, exhaustive in scope, found there will be no significant threats to avian populations from the project. The vast majority of migratory birds fly well above the blades, and most resident birds fly below. The slow rotation speed of the blades further minimizes accidental contact. As a lifelong birder, I was particularly pleased to learn that Massachusetts Audubon--New England's largest conservation organization--supports Cape Wind. By law, all additional wind farms in federal waters will come under similarly intense scrutiny before a single turbine can be installed. Europe's experience with 38 existing offshore wind farms has also shown astonishingly low bird mortality over a broad area and over several years.
What about the visual impacts? How will the windmills look? Here, too, the news is good. Wind industry officials say the vast majority of future East Coast turbines will be roughly 10 miles or more out to sea. This means from the beach each windmill will be less than the size of your thumbnail when you extend your hand fully out from your face. In summer the heat and haze will probably erase even that small image while leaving your beach motel fully powered by the same breeze blowing through your hair. Cape Wind, admittedly, is an outlier here, with some of its turbines as close as five miles to the shoreline. The loud opposition of some local residents is one reason why most wind power developers are now moving farther offshore.
Finally, in terms of conventional pollutants, there's little need to review the obvious benefits of wind power versus oil. It's interesting, however, to consider the worst-case scenario--when something really does go wrong--with each of these energy sources.
For oil, the worst surely happened this summer. Beyond the fuel's direct contribution to climate disruption, it's hard to comprehend a substance so dangerous that a single well can create a spill visible from outer space and capable of rendering much of the Gulf of Mexico biologically dead. Here's a pertinent fact I can't shake from my mind: After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, the ecologically and commercially valuable Pacific herring never returned to Alaska's Prince William Sound. The fishery collapsed, and the herring population never came back. Never.
And oil dispersants--with all their toxicity--were barely used after the Valdez spill. In the Gulf, however, more than two million gallons of Corexit has been released from the air, distributed on the surface, and injected underwater. It's what created the orangish tint in the Gulf for months, spawning the nickname Agent Orange among local people. Long-term effects? Who the hell knows?
And offshore wind power? When Cape Wind is complete you'll be able to kayak out to the windmills and swim around the towers. You'll be able to buy coastal property without fear of ruination by energy. Worst-case scenario? How about a hurricane? Let's say a hurricane blows through any part of the grand line of turbines envisioned along the Atlantic Bight. It knocks down 10 or 20 or 200 of the wind towers. Complete destruction. What would be the result? Answer: A few thousand gallons of benign mineral oil--maybe--which is used in the transformers to prevent power loss due to heat. Microscopic in size, by comparison.
No need for Agent Orange.
Last May, as the oil disaster deepened in the Gulf, I revisited many of the same Cajun people I first met during my hitchhiking odyssey more than a decade before. I arrived in Leeville, Louisiana, just as one shrimper was hugging his wife goodbye, tears streaming down her face. The spill had just put him out of work, interrupting a 40-year fishing career. He was now headed off to work for BP, laying boom along some distant shore. When he would see his family again was unclear.
It's telling that for much of this past summer, TV ads flooded the airwaves along the Gulf coast with lawyers on the screen: "Have you been harmed by the oil spill? Do you have an attorney? Do you know all your rights?" It seems like everyone wants to sue somebody along this long-suffering shoreline. I saw men next to one Louisiana highway putting up a billboard: "Do you have documents you need to destroy in a hurry? Use our emergency paper-shredding service."
The feelings of fear and anxiety and anger are understandable, of course. Oil is an ugly addiction, and it often brings out perverse and ugly behavior, from the war in Iraq to the greed that led to rampant safety violations just prior to Deepwater Horizon's explosion.
And still there's talk among some on Capitol Hill of the "inevitability" of more drilling, which could happen in deeper waters. Even now. Heroin addicts, I've read, will shoot up in their toes when all other veins fail.