Might as Well Dig Holes

One of the major selling points of wind energy projects is the economic benefits enjoyed by the landowners and developers.  Exactly why the government should be concerned with increasing the income to these private parties is unclear.  Sometimes the local government itself is a beneficiary of a project, and then the project makes sense from strictly a local perspective.  The evidence shows, however, that the decreases in property taxes due to decreases in valuations can, depending on the area, more than offset the project’s benefits stream.  Still, I can see why just from a local perspective a project could well result in economic benefits.

But increasingly larger government bodies – like state, provincial and national governments, are claiming economic benefits in wind projects also.  Instead of direct payments they generally point to increased jobs. I just don’t get it.  If all you want to do is to increase jobs, why not hire people to dig holes and more people to fill them in?  You’d have the jobs, they’d be about as productive, and they would avoid the environmental issues of wind turbines. Hear me out, please.

Both wind energy and hole-digging suck money out of the economy via government mandate.  Wind energy increases the price paid by ratepayers (and often taxpayers also) for the same amount of energy, while hole-digging would increase taxes and/or debt.  Neither activity would exist in a free marketplace.

Ah, but the wind projects produce emissionless energy, which is more than the hole-digging enterprises produce, right?  On this single premise rests the entire basis for the value of green jobs in the wind industry.  But what happens if the premise isn’t true; what if green wind energy has no intrinsic value?

Ah, but green wind energy produces no carbon emissions when it is generated, right?  Certainly that’s a benefit, right? That may be true, but is that sufficient?  The real question should be – does green energy result in a decrease in emissions?  There’s an underlying assumption here that wind energy promoters are not eager to disclose, and that is: can wind displace the generation on the existing grid without adversely impacting the existing grid’s emissions?

Unfortunately, so far the evidence indicates that wind’s variability ends up increasing the emissions on the existing grid, to the point where it isn’t clear if there’s any overall savings at all.

Returning to the economic issue – if there’s no emissions benefit to wind energy then the jobs in the wind industry have no more value than paying people to dig holes.  In fact, quite a bit less, as the turbines have substantial environmental impacts of their own.

In the U.S. the federal government has pushed billions of dollars at wind projects, taking credit for thousands of jobs created or saved.  Never mind that the so far the bulk of those jobs have been overseas.  What difference is there between those jobs and digging holes?

Academicians like to make their musings look more authoritative by using mathematical symbols.  Here’s my authoritative-looking analysis.

Holes:

Dollars spent: $h

Energy produced: ee, where the energy from the existing grid has nothing to do with the holes

Emissions: eh, where the emissions have nothing to do with the holes

People that benefit: bh=$h/ph, where ph is the per person payment

Environmental damage: eh. where eh is zero, assuming the holes are dug in, for example, a brownfield

Wind:

Dollars spent: $w

Energy produced: eh=ee+ew – no change in total, just less of it by existing grid

Emissions: eh-x, where x is the savings due to wind.  So far, x seems to be close to zero.

People that benefit: bw=$w/pw, where pw is certainly higher than ph, so fewer benefit, at least in the U.S.

Environmental damage: eh+ew, where ew is not zero

I know this is facetious, but if x is close to zero and ew is not (and the evidence so far indicates this) why are we doing wind instead of holes?  Aside from giving a little help to our friends, of course…

Update, July 29, 2010

The NY Times published a nice article that looked more closely at the “jobs” argument.  Almost needless to say, their ideas coincide with mine.

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