Wind Energy & Natural Gas Have More In Common Than You’d Think
We have a lot of energy options, from natural gas to coal, wind, oil and solar each has its risks and benefits. So why do individuals protest some and not others when we don’t have a perfect energy source? In this post we compare wind energy with natural gas.
Look out at the horizon in western Lycoming County, near the Grey’s Run area and you’ll see two seemingly very different energy sources. Nestled between several windmills is a Seneca Resources well pad. Many would have you believe these two energy sources can’t coincide, that we must accept one and reject the other, but all over Pennsylvania it is becoming commonplace to see multiple energy sources in one community. It’s a testament to the diverse energy plan we will need to supply growing consumer demands. And surprising to many, they are not all that different.
When comparing wind energy to shale gas development we must ask ourselves, are they really that different? Sure, one is a large spinning turbine and the other a well bore that goes deep into the earth, but when we look at environmental impacts and the development process of each, there are actually many similarities between the two. Take a look at the Venn Diagram below and some of the overlapping similarities between the two.
Mehoopany Wind Farm
For anyone not familiar with Pennsylvania’s largest wind farm to date, here is a breakdown of the project:
BP Wind Energy is working on a 9,000-acre site in Mehoopany, Noxen, Forkston and Eaton townships.
Securing power purchase agreements with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative and Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative was a key milestone to move the project forward, said BP spokesman Tom Mueller.
“With those agreements in hand, we will be moving ahead with construction planning activities toward a fourth-quarter groundbreaking,” Mr. Mueller said.
With its plan for a wind farm with 90 turbines, each 328 feet tall – just over a football field – with a rotor diameter of 271 feet, the Mehoopany Wind Farm will be the largest in Pennsylvania.
It will generate enough electricity to power more than 40,000 homes annually and is expected to be commercially operational in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to BP. – TheTimes-Tribune.com
Protesting Wind Farms
Many people oppose natural gas development and say we need to increase energy produced from sources like wind and solar. In fact, this mantra is ubiquitous among the anti-natural gas crowd in New York. With this as background, one might ask why a wind farm in Madison, New York would be protested? After reading some of the comments on the Madison Matters website it seemed that many residents in the area didn’t want to look at them all day. Many also felt the noise generated from the spinning turbine would be too much to deal with over time. Another concern has to deal with the amount of birds wind turbines kill each year.
The below comment summarizes some of these concerns- mainly those dealing with visual aesthetics, noise and reported health disturbances. According to the Society for Wind Vigilance:
The health impact of visual burdens cannot be underestimated. An epidemiology study conducted by World Health Organization determined a “bad view out of window” increased the risk for depression by 40%. The same study also demonstrated disturbance by noise and sleep disturbance by noise increased the risk of depression 40%, and 100% respectively. In addition to visual burdens wind turbines create noise pollution which can cause annoyance, stress and sleep disturbance. In light of these statistics it is expected that people may suffer adverse health effects from visual and noise impacts of wind turbines.
I am not highlighting these concerns to promote the arguments of anti-wind advocates, for the fears in this case may also be exaggerated. Rather, the point is to show that each energy source has its trade-offs, and wind is no exception. This is one instance where natural gas development would alleviate some of these concerns, because, while a windmill is a permanent structure, a natural gas rig will be gone in two to three weeks, unless additional wells are being developed from the same pad.
Gas well permitting takes into account native species populations, including birds and bats, so as to provide the least disturbance to habitats, migratory patterns and feeding grounds. Further, the temporary noise from well pads is being lessened by the use of LNG or CNG on site, and in some places the use of sound barriers. Also, additional innovations in compressor station technology is decreasing decibel levels at the property lines.
Does that make one source better than the other? Not necessarily, but it does offer an alternative energy source to wind if these are the main concerns of this community.
Looking at the similarities between gas development and wind energy we can see that both require fairly significant truck traffic. Lets look at the amount of truck traffic for the wind farm going up in Mehoopany, Pennsylvania.
Now, this was just a small look at the operations that go into building these wind farms. The first thing needed is a staging area (where the trucks are pulling out of). This is where all the pieces for assembling the wind turbines are stored. These wide loads are then trucked to location and assembled.
This truck traffic is very similar to that observed during the development of shale gas. In fact, its not uncommon for wind farm construction to require well over 100 truck trips per project. In addition, as the New York Times reported in 2009, often times these trucks have to travel long-distances and along the way can not only clog traffic in towns but can also become involved in accidents. According to the Times:
As demand for clean energy grows, towns around the country are finding their traffic patterns roiled as convoys carrying disassembled towers that will reach more than 250 feet in height, as well as motors, blades and other parts roll through. Escorted by patrol cars and gawked at by pedestrians, the equipment must often travel hundreds of miles from ports or factories to the remote, windy destinations where the turbines are erected. In Belfast, officials have worked hard to keep the nuisance to a minimum, but about 200 trucks are passing through this year on their way to western Maine, carrying parts that have been shipped from Denmark and Vietnam.
Plenty can go wrong despite months of planning. In Idaho and Texas, trucks laden with tall turbine parts have slammed into interstate overpasses, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. In Minnesota last year, a truck carrying a tubular tower section got stuck at a railroad crossing; an approaching train stopped just in time. Also in Minnesota, a woman was killed last September when her car, driven by her husband, collided at an intersection with a truck carrying a wind turbine. (After a police investigation, local officials found that the truck driver was not at fault.)
Unfortunately, when it comes to wind energy, methods such as piping in water to a location to alleviate truck traffic will not be an option, as most trucks are carrying over-sized loads of parts and equipment. Truck traffic is a necessary, temporary impact in both industries, but it is not all bad to see these trucks coming down the road. Like the natural gas industry, this wind farm is also providing jobs for local workers.
Wind energy and shale gas development both use tracts of land to collect an energy source for consumption. According to the NY SGEIS, a natural gas well pad, on average, requires approximately 3.5 acres during development and once the well is producing the site is reclaimed down to 1.5 acres. Once the well stops producing the site will be fully reclaimed. Wind leases and easements are often written to cover long periods of time—30 to 60 years is common, and they can be longer than 150 years in some cases. As we know, wind never dies out so these leases are for long periods of time meaning the land impacts are permanent.
There are similarities between wind energy and natural gas in terms of land use impacts. Specifically, acreage is included in a unit and both natural gas and wind energy have usage agreements that allow landowners to work the land around where infrastructure remains.
The amount of land use impacts between the two energy sources is far different however with wind farms having a much larger surface impact on the land hosting the development. How much land is needed for a utility-scale wind plant? According to Trade Wind Energy.
In open, flat terrain, a utility-scale wind plant will require about 50 acres per megawatt of installed capacity. However, only about 1-2% of this area is actually occupied by turbines, access roads and other equipment. The rest remains free for other compatible uses such as farming or ranching.
This entire energy debate comes down to finding a balance between renewable energy and fossil fuels. Neither one can be fully be cut out and neither, unfortunately, are perfect. As consumer energy demands increase, we will need to continue to use all forms of American energy to move forward into a cleaner, affordable energy future.