January 14, 2010


In today's world, we face a glut of information. How do you find green facts when environmental myths and exaggerations spread like wildfire? Do you have the tools to distinguish the bull from the cowpatties in this era of sound bites?

I googled “environmental myths” recently, and was overwhelmed by the conflicting information from both “the sky is falling” folks and the climate change skeptics. Many individuals who don't know much about science or nature are propagating these myths. It’s very easy in today's society when many people distrust government or view scientists as manipulating data (as in the recent Climategate debacle).

Many myths and urban legends, however, are based on a small bit of truth. My favorite source to “debunk” myths is FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit website from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Designed to check the facts spouted by politicians, spin doctors, and those seeking to influence politics and policy debates, it won a 2009 Webby “People’s Voice” award for helping folks “cut through the spin.” When they make an occasional error, they fess up to it immediately. Here is one myth they debunked.

The Offshore Wind Energy Myth: There's enough wind power off the East Coast of the U.S. to generate 1 million megawatts of power—all the electricity we now get from coal.

So said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in April 2009. It sounded great since 600+ coal burning power plants (which produce roughly half our electricity) contribute to smog and mercury contamination. But it’s just not true. At least not offshore.

According to Factcheck.org, converting wind to enough electricity to replace all U.S. coal-fired plants would require building 3,540 offshore wind farms as big as the megasized Nysted Wind Farm off the coast of Denmark." That one has 72 turbines, a capacity of 165.6 megawatts an hour, and averages about 66 megawatts an hour.

A Department of Energy spokesperson later clarified that satisfying only 20 percent of U.S. demand (less than half of what coal plants fulfill) would require land-based turbines and related infrastructure that would take up an area slightly less than the area of Rhode Island, plus 119 offshore wind farms the size of the proposed Nantucket Sound facility. Producing enough power to account for all of what is now put out by coal-fired plants in the U.S. would require 3,540 installations of that size, comprising well over 250,000 individual turbines.

So far the U.S. has built exactly zero offshore wind farms. The closest to getting final permits is Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound. The only remaining block is from two American Indian tribes that argue that the turbines would interfere with their spiritual greeting of the sunrise. Cape Wind can only provide an intermittent source of power when the wind is blowing (averaging 170 megawatts per hour). Much of the highest wind energy potential is far offshore, and it could take about 11 years to get other offshore wind farms up and running. However, a Harvard study last year stated that onshore land-based wind farms promise a lot more. “Resources in the contiguous United States, specifically in the central plain states, could accommodate as much as 16 times total current demand for electricity in the United States.”

The truth, unfortunately, is that we’ll need conventional fossil fuels such as coal and foreign oil for the foreseeable future. But more than $500,000 worth of foreign oil per minute in 2009? That’s incentive to generate at least 20 percent of our power from renewable sources by 2020.

Texas power companies set a goal of producing 2000 new megawatts of electricity from renewables in 1999, and reached it in 2005 mostly by wind farms. The world’s largest wind farm, in Roscoe, Texas (200 miles west of Fort Worth) with a capacity of 781.5 megawatts, surpassed the nearby 735.5 MW Horse Hollow wind farm, and began operations--on more than 100,00 acres--in October 2009. Texas now has close to three times as much wind capacity as Iowa, the second-ranked state. More than 5 percent of Texas electricity now comes from wind farms on the open plains.