Guest post by Candace Sheppard
A day after a study was released last week about wind turbines killing more than 600,000 bats in the United States in 2012, the Environment America Research Policy Center released its second report about wind energy’s growing environmental and health benefits and the rapid rise of wind energy in the United States. Maybe the timely release of the report was a bit of damage control. Some additional good news about renewable energy came from the group Environment New York, which asserted, in a separate report, that wind power was providing "huge environmental benefits for the state." In its news release, the group claimed that wind energy allows New York state to offset “more than 1, 834,576 metric tons of climate-altering carbon pollution which is the equivalent of taking 382,203 cars off the road.” To put it another way, the group says recent increases in wind energy have helped New Yorkers avoid “1,724 tons of smog-causing nitrogen oxides which contributes to asthma, and 2,130 tons of sulfur dioxide which is a major component of acid rain.”
Wind energy production in New York State is expected to double in the next five years. Photo by U.S. Department of Energy.
Those numbers sound impressive given that New York State, according to the report, is now the 14th windiest state in the U.S. as of 2012.
However, some context is in order. All told, wind energy provides about two percent of the state's electricity, playing a very small role in New York's renewable energy mix, which includes solar, hydropower, biofuel, and geothermal energy. It's also worth pointing out that, according to the state's Department of Energy Conservation, renewable energy only accounts for 11 percent of New York's energy needs. “Wind energy is not a gigantic portion of New York State's energy mix, but it is growing rapidly,” says Eric Whelan of Environment New York. The group's report demonstrates "the environmental benefits that we could capture if we move forward in building more clean energy,” Whelan adds. Those benefits would be greater if there was more investment in the nascent wind industry, say renewable energy advocates. Indeed, the Environment New York report comes just as federal tax credit incentives for wind energy are due to expire at the end of the year. But even if wind energy production is on pace to double in five years in New York, as the report predicts, would the environmental benefits be anything near what nuclear energy has done to reduce emissions in the state?
The CASEnergy Coalition says that nuclear energy already provides nearly "31 percent of the state's electricity, and nuclear energy facilities in the state supply 60 percent of New York's emission-free power." Compared to wind energy emission offsets, nuclear energy in New York has offsets of sulfur dioxides, nitrogen dioxides and carbon emissions that are almost 9 to 14 times greater.
But nuclear also has some big environmental negatives. For example, Whelan points out that "wind and solar don't require massive water consumption like nuclear power." The Environmental Protection Agency says that the downside to nuclear power plants using large quantities of water from lakes and rivers is the impact on marine life. Then there's the nuclear waste issue which has yet to be resolved. No energy source has zero impacts. Both wind and nuclear power affect ecosystems: the former kills bats (and birds) and the latter may be hazardous to the health of future generations. Which of these two energy sources people prefer probably depends on which environmental benefits they like best--or which risks posed by each energy source they are more willing to accept.