Philip Warburg explores promise of wind energy

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

When Philip Warburg took over as head of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation in 2003, one of the environmental group’s major advocacy campaigns was trying to get the Cape Wind offshore wind farm moving forward against some formidable opposition.

Through that effort, Warburg began to wonder how and where the United States could make wind energy happen. He set out to explore that question in 2009, travelling through America’s Heartland and to leading wind energy jurisdictions like Denmark and China. The result is Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability (Beacon Press, 2012).

Warburg’s work on energy issues dates back to the summer of 1973, when he led one of the US’s first challenges to nuclear power in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He was president of the Conservation Law Foundation from 2003 to 2009. Previously, he directed the Israel Union for Environmental Defense in Tel Aviv and was an attorney at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC.

WindSight spoke with Warburg to find out more about Harvest the Wind, the people he met through more than 160 interviews and site visits, and the role wind power can play in a more sustainable energy future.

What inspired you to write the book?

I’ve always felt that renewable energy offers enormous promise. We in North America are both blessed and cursed by hugely abundant fossil and nuclear fuel reserves that are not necessarily the resources we should be tapping. They make us very complacent about pursuing a more sustainable energy future. My reason for writing the book was really to explore just how significant wind power could be in shifting us off conventional fuels.

When we look at some European societies, we see that they have learned over time to live within certain limits. Denmark is a great example of an affluent society that has been at the forefront of introducing wind power. Its Commission on Climate Change Policy has come out with a recommendation, which the government adopted, that the country become 100 per cent independent of fossil fuels by 2050. It anticipates that this will be achieved while doubling Denmark’s GDP, and that wind power will provide about 80 per cent of the country’s power by mid-century.

That kind of vision is what we need. Because we live in a society where there has always been the endless frontier, where there’s always been that next horizon to conquer in terms of resource extraction, we don’t really think about how we can live within limits while maintaining a high standard of living.  I think that’s a connection that North Americans need to make, that responsible and sustainable development does not require penalizing ourselves, but rather requires our adopting and furthering the right technologies.

How did you approach the project?

I wanted to write the book from the ground up. I wanted to tell the stories of people whose lives have been affected by wind power, everyone from farmers and ranchers who are hosting wind turbines on their properties to construction crews and factory line workers. I wanted to get a sense of how the people who are most directly affected by the introduction of wind energy regard the technology and what it is bringing to their families and their communities.

What I found really exciting and encouraging was just how animated many of the people who are involved in building wind farms are about the work they are doing. They really take pride in the fact that they are introducing a transformative technology. And as important as the number of jobs created by the wind industry is where those jobs are located. Many are in rural communities that have, for a very long time, seen nothing but a job drain as their farms have become more industrialized and work in the traditional agricultural sector has dried up. And it’s not just the jobs linked to building and operating wind farms; it’s factory jobs too. For all of the rhetoric we’re hearing from Mitt Romney about Barack Obama outsourcing  renewable energy jobs to Asia, the reality is the opposite. We have seen the domestic content of turbines built in the United States rise from about 35 per cent a half dozen years ago to 60 per cent today.

What did you find most interesting about the people and the areas that have embraced wind energy?

What impressed me most  was the pragmatic approach that many people take toward wind power. In places like Cloud County, Kansas, where I started my research, I found a very different attitude about the visual presence of wind turbines on the horizon than I’d encountered in New England with Cape Wind and various onshore projects. I found that people see themselves as part of a working landscape where wind turbines are an enhancement, not an unwelcome intrusion.

One of the things I find most compelling about wind power is its ability to help us curb our greenhouse gas emissions. But I found that issue doesn’t play very prominently in many of the communities where wind farms have sprouted up. That may change as we look at the devastating impacts of this summer’s drought and various other weather extremes that are happening with greater and greater frequency, but by and large, when people talk about the benefits of wind power, they talk about the most immediate benefit to their own farm budget or their own communities. They also talk about energy independence and how important it is to wean ourselves off foreign oil.

What do you think is behind opposition to wind energy? What is the solution?

There are legitimate concerns about the impacts of wind farms on vulnerable bird and bat populations, and about the noise generated by turbines. Those are very real issues that have to be addressed responsibly through careful planning and protective measures. But I think the visual concerns about wind turbines represent an outmoded perspective on where we should be placing our values. We have to develop a 21st century aesthetic that “sees” the very positive contributions that wind power can make to our economic and environmental sustainability. Most of us never see the mountains in the Appalachians where entire ecosystems have been ravaged by mountaintop-removal coal mining. Few of us see the open pit mines in Wyoming and elsewhere that create similar devastation to landscape ecology, and we generally don’t see the endless streams of train cars rolling out of mines and delivering coal to plants located hundreds and hundreds of miles way. I think we have to broaden our vision about the true consequences of the technologies that we’re depending upon and learn to embrace a viewshed that signals sustainability and greater care for our environment.

What did you discover about the ability of wind to meet our electricity needs and what is needed to move wind energy forward to meet that potential?

In a study released in June, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated that we could be getting 80 per cent of our total electricity generation from renewable technologies by 2050. According to this report, wind and photovoltaics alone could be supplying 50 per cent of our power using technology that is commercially available today. Wind power really has become mainstream. It is no longer some kind of marginal, boutique technology.  It is quickly becoming a very significant contributor to our power supply. I think we have to regard it as such and recognize the enormous economic and environmental gains that it can provide.

What are the key messages you’d like readers to take away from your book?

I want readers to see that wind energy is an inclusive technology that invites broad participation by multiple communities, and that it is a profoundly transformative technology that will bring enormous benefits not just to the local communities that host wind farms, but to our society as a whole.

You can find out more about Philip Warburg and Harvest the Wind by visiting his web site, http://philipwarburg.com.