Words are wind


From Twin Falls to American Falls, Jerome to Rexburg, a series of anti wind-energy billboards have been springing up around Idaho like mushrooms after a rainstorm. The big blue signboards feature pictures of windmills clustered around the campaign slogan: "Swindle" (the "wind" emphasized in bold red type), below which is written, "not cheap -- not clean -- not for Idaho."

The "Swindle" campaign is sponsored by the EnergyIntegrityProject.org, a relatively new organization that advocates and lobbies against wind development in Idaho on behalf of "ratepayers, taxpayers, and the environment." Other than catching drive-by glimpses of the Swindle billboards, nobody in Idaho's pro-wind energy circles seems to know that much about the group. And it's hard to get a handle from their website just who's behind the EIP, if it has any industry or interest group sponsors, or how the group is funding the "Swindle" campaign, an expensive endeavor, surely.

From its mission statement, the EIP seems a benign citizens' group that's unsure how it feels about wind power in Idaho. Delve a little deeper into their website, however, and it becomes clear that EIP knows exactly how it feels about wind development: It doesn't like it.

The EIP argues that wind energy is "Not clean" because its variability forces dirty coal plants to ramp up and generate more electricity to make up for times when the wind's not blowing, which results in greater CO2 emissions. "The claim that wind could lead to increased emissions has some loose basis in fact," says John Gardner, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Boise State University and the Director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies' Energy Efficiency Research Institute. "There is probably a way to operate grid that would compensate for wind's variability that could increase emissions" — relying on 30-year-old coal plants, for example — "but that would be a really stupid way to do that. I don't think anyone is doing or would ever do that. (EIP) can point to a study but not a legitimate concern."

Indeed, when Idaho needs to accommodate wind’s irregularity, it turns not to coal but to natural gas and the state's robust hydro system. "Idaho power has three natural gas peaking plants that are used when we have the highest demand, and they are used just a few days out of the year," says Ken Miller, Clean Energy Director for the Snake River Alliance. It’s important to remember, says Miller, that even though wind is intermittent, it is always blowing somewhere. Good geographic distribution of turbines is key, he says. "It is not as though wind all shuts off as one."

The EIP also argues that wind power is more expensive than other forms of energy and that taxpayers shouldn't have to subsidize what, in the EIP's mind, is a non-viable energy source. However, according to the Federal Energy Information Administration (EIA), "Electricity generation from wind increased from about 6 billion kilowatt-hours in 2000 to about 95 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010." That's a mighty big growth spurt for a non-viable industry. The EIA also notes that, "Improved technology has decreased the cost of producing electricity from wind." In her 2009 story "Let's get small," HCN contributing editor Judith Lewis Mernit says that, "Electricity generated at big wind farms costs 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, well below the national retail electricity average of 10 cents; with production tax credits, the price drops to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is hard to beat." On a per kilowatt-hour basis, “wind looks pretty competitive," Gardner says, not to mention the fact that it's cleaner. On the other hand, wind really can't compete with on-demand energy resources like coal and natural gas in efficiency terms, it's just too variable a resource. Still, wind is not affected by the price-fluctuations that plague fossils fuels. "Gas prices are low right now, but we are going to start paying more for that someday," says Gardner.

These issues aside, Gardner's biggest problem with groups like the EIP is that instead of supporting in-state research projects that aim to improve wind power and smooth its transition to the grid, they busy themselves pushing emotional hot-buttons. “I think the website and billboards don't help the state of Idaho,” says Gardner. “It’s not a constructive way to talk.” The EIP was one of a handful of anti-wind organizations that lobbied Idaho’s Senate last session to reject an extension of a sales tax rebate for equipment used by alternative energy producers. By a very slim margin, the Senate rejected the extension and the rebate expired in July. Last year, the EIP also backed legislation that imposed a moratorium on wind development in the state. It failed, but just a few days ago, state legislators introduced a bill that seeks a two-year moratorium on wind energy development.

To Miller and Gardner, that is the opposite of small, laissez-faire government, something for which many of the anti-winders fervently advocate. “I don’t understand why these groups lobby against the wind industry in a state that prides itself on being business-friendly,” says Gardner. "That doesn't sound like free-market to me."  What it sounds like, in fact, is a swindle.

Marian Lyman Kirst is a High Country News editorial fellow

Images courtesy of Richard Carlson (Idaho Rural Council) and flickr user slimmer_jimmer