Wind energy and the stewardship of God's creation

April 30th, 2019

Powerful facts

In late March, President Trump made news with several statements about wind energy (also referred to as wind power) that left industry experts scratching their heads. Many industry researchers and media outlets responded by fact-checking his comments in an attempt to set the record straight about this growing source of energy in the United States. While his words may have frustrated some renewable energy proponents, it has also provided an opportunity to shed some light on what turns on our lights.

In an article for The New York Times titled “We Fact-Checked President Trump’s Dubious Claims on the Perils of Wind Power,” writer Brad Plumer addresses three of the most widely reported statements. First, Trump suggested that the noise from wind turbines causes cancer; however, there’s no credible evidence that wind farms cause cancer or other health problems, including nausea and headaches. In contrast, writes Plumer, there’s ample evidence linking pollution from coal plants to heart disease, respiratory problems and lung cancer.

Trump also said that if you have a windmill near your home, the value of your home would go down by 75 percent. While the claim is debatable, it’s at best an exaggeration. A large study across nine states conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2013 found no evidence of home value decreases. However, some smaller studies have found downward trends of the property value of homes near windfarms.

Finally, Trump touched on the reliability of wind power, suggesting that if the wind isn’t blowing, your television will go out. While it’s true that wind must be blowing in order for wind turbines to generate electricity, grid operators use a mixture of energy sources for electricity and have learned how to balance drawing power from different sources as needed. So, even if it’s not windy in your area, operators can switch to other means of energy, such as natural gas or hydroelectric dams, says Plumer.

Capturing the wind

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), people have been using wind energy for thousands of years. As early as 5000 B.C., wind was used to propel boats along the Nile River. By 200 B.C., the Chinese were using windpowered water pumps, and farmers in Persia and the Middle East built windmills out of woven-reed blades to grind grain. By the 11th century, wind pumps and windmills were common throughout Europe. Centuries later, American colonists used windmills to pump water and cut wood at sawmills. By the late 1800s, small electric generators powered by wind were common. In the 1930s, once power lines were built to reach rural areas, windmills became less necessary.

The oil shortages of the 1970s proved to be a wake-up call to the United States and called into question our heavy reliance on foreign oil and nonrenewable energy sources (fossil fuels). In search of new energy sources, the federal government began funding the research and development of large wind turbines in the 1980s. Around the same time, state governments increased incentives for utilities to use more renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy.

After several decades, these efforts are starting to pay off. In 1990, the share of electricity generated from wind in the United States was less than one percent. By 2018, that number was up to seven percent. However, the United States continues to lag behind Europe and China, both of which provide strong incentives to expand wind energy use. In fact, China now has the world’s largest wind electricity generation capacity, according to EIA.

While researching this article, I became curious where my own state, Texas, gets its energy. In Texas, we’re largely on our own electrical grid, and our fuel mix is now 30 percent carbon-free, according to a Greentech Media article published in January. In 2018, 44 percent of our electricity came from natural gas, 25 percent from coal, 19 percent from wind, 11 percent from nuclear plants, and 1 percent from sources such as solar and biomass. In 2019, coal is expected to decrease to 16 percent, while wind will increase to 23 percent.

Proponents of wind energy like to point out that wind is a domestic product, with no reliance on overseas imports. Wind power, however, isn’t without opposition. Some object to wind energy due to concerns for birds and other wildlife who are displaced or harmed by large windfarms. Others consider these same farms and their multiple turbines to be an eyesore.

Respecting skeptics

There are, of course, those who don’t agree about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change or the need for wind power to solve our energy problems. Katharine Hayhoe, a professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, has made it a priority to speak to those who are skeptical and shared her experiences in an interview with Christian Century last year.

When Hayhoe, originally from Canada, moved to Texas, she realized that many people thought climate science was a myth and unimportant to their lives. She began to speak to community organizations and churches about climate change in an effort to begin a conversation about fossil fuels and renewable energy. When invited to speak to skeptical audiences, she says, “I try not only to anticipate but respect the questions they will have. My goal is to communicate that, yes, those are good questions that deserve good answers, so let’s talk!”

Hayhoe pays attention to the root of people’s objections and then tries to connect facts and values to what impacts their lives. For example, she points out that clean energy is good for the economy because it creates new jobs and is important for our health since fossil fuels create pollution that leads to approximately 200,000 deaths every year in the United States. Hayhoe reminds Christians that the Bible calls us to care for others, especially for the poor and suffering. “Climate change exacerbates the problems of hunger and poverty and lack of access to clean water, so for me, I care about climate change because it’s a humanitarian issue,” says Hayhoe.

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