The Answer, My Friend, Is Certainly Not Blowing in the Wind—or the Corn

Opinion

This is the last of my articles taking cleantech investing to task sector by sector (keep the hate mail coming, hippies!). The next few will focus on some areas I really like, including storage, solar thermal, water, and others. But first, a bit more constructive bludgeoning.

This is a bit of a “two for one special” looking at biofuels and wind—two forms of clean energy poised to wreck the environment they are purported to save. These dual titans of uselessness are powered by hype and corporate sugar daddies using influence on Capitol Hill in ways that would make even oil company executives blush. The VC community has avoided wind pretty well (with PE and traditional investment firms more than picking up the slack) but man, they have got quite the teenage crush on biofuels.

I’ll note from the top that some of these arguments are the very same ones I have with solar, and they apply to some extent to all new energy technologies. They’re about the cost of potential entry, if you will.

First wind, which has been getting a lot of attention lately, partly due to those late-night TV commercials from Texas oil baron T. Boone Pickens (who seems to have taken the place of Ron Popeil and the rotisserie-oven ads I so love). Pickens has a huge investment in wind and a plan to replace natural-gas-produced electricity that’s so ambitious that even the Sierra Club’s number crunchers find it unrealistic.

Wind power is rather straightforward: build a big propeller and put it up on an even bigger pole. The spinning of the blades generates 1 to 2 megawatts of power per turbine; wind farms generally consist of hundreds of turbines. But behind this simplicity is a highly engineered and heavily maintained system. Much like power from solar photovoltaic cells, wind power has serious downsides—such as being ugly, land-intensive, hugely dependent on subsidies, and unreliable.

How unreliable? Current industry estimates claim wind “can” work 30-40 percent of the time over the course of a year. But actual output is all that matters, and real-world experience shows that annual outputs of 15 to 30 percent of capacity are more typical. The wind just doesn’t blow as often at the right speed as a grid power system needs. The Searsburg wind farm in Vermont, for instance, produces no electricity at all 40 percent of the time.

Wind farms also require huge amounts of land, which is then rendered fairly useless for other purposes. Some wind farm proponents counter this by noting that monstrous wind turbines are actually a tourist attraction. Yes, and what family vacation isn’t built around a three-day drive out to rural Texas to watch giant blades create noise, vibrations, and seizure-inducing strobe effects, while slicing up bats and birds in a manner that would warm the hearts of the Khmer Rouge? Screw Disneyland, kids, we’re going to Uncle Boone’s Wonderiffic Wind Farm for vacation!

And more often than not, wind farms are built in pristine wilderness, on ecologically fragile ridgelines—places that, without the wind farm, might actually be attractive hiking or nature-observation areas. Getting the leviathan-like wind turbines out to these remote and beautiful locations requires huge trucks running over new roads ripped through the forest or prairie.

And at the beginning of this whole circle of destruction, don’t forget that wind turbines need to be manufactured. Football-field-length propellers don’t grow on trees. As with solar, it takes lots of energy to power those factories, which also use huge amounts of mined metals, petroleum-based plastics and lubricants, and tons and tons of concrete. And you ‘d be hard pressed to find dirtier industries than steel, plastics, and cement production and mining.

I know what you’re saying: “Well, every new energy source is going to need manufacturing and industrial development.” I agree, but the point is that we shouldn’t forget to factor that into the overall environmental impact. The oil, gas, and coal industries are already built out. It’s just like looking at the overall sustainability of buying a new Prius, when keeping your five-year-old Celica well tuned and on the road is actually better for the planet.

When you look at the portion of our energy requirements covered by wind power—less than 1 percent—it ends up being the most heavily subsidized of all energy sources. Ed Feo of Milbank Tweed recently noted that two-thirds of the economic value of wind projects come from tax breaks and subsidies from the federal government. And he was being generous, not adding that a wind farm operation can get another 10 percent in breaks from the coffers of state governments. That ‘s quite a racket.

It may not surprise you to learn the wind industry as we know it was structured by a little company called Enron (Enron Wind is now GE Wind, by the way). And investors know it’s just a giant subsidies racket. Navigant Consulting, which advises on renewable energy technology, estimated that investments in wind and solar power in 2009 would amount to $26.6 billion with government handouts, but would fall to $7 billion without them. Ultimately the cost of these tax breaks and subsidies shifts costs from wind farm owners to ordinary taxpayers and electric customers.

And the biofuels industry. Urgghh! It’s little more than a scam perpetrated by … Next Page »

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Mark just helped found a Somerville-based stealth cleantech start-up which recently spun out of Harvard. He is a veteran technology entrepreneur and the former managing director and co-founder of Bang Ventures, an investment firm based in New York with offices which focused on early stage technology investments. Follow @

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