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Two Conversations the Wind Energy Industry Must Own, And Soon

One of the strongest messages that came out of this week's AWEA Windpower event in Chicago was the urgent need for more unity in the wind industry's message, delivered to and embracing everyone from legislators to the finance community to the general public. And two key parts of that unified front, agreed multiple speakers, must be underscoring the wind industry's true "clean" position vs. other energy sources, and mending fences and reestablishing ties between the wind and environmental communities.

Other typically less-clean sources such as oil and gas have begun citing their own newly "clean" profiles, "but they're not as clean as us with respect to water and carbon," asserted Susan Reilly, president/CEO of RES Americas, in a smaller press-only Q&A after the Tuesday keynote session. The discourse also must embrace the message of climate change. The costs of recovering from Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey are estimated to exceed $70 billion, far outweighing any handwringing over the wind Production Tax Credit, she noted. "If [wind energy] helps us solve the problem of climate change, then we should talk more boldly about that, be more courageous about this being a higher objective for us," she said.

The wind industry also needs to differentiate itself from other energy sources in terms of water usage, which is a significant issue in many Western U.S. states, not to mention various global regions. Not only does wind avoid carbon emissions, it also doesn't use water in its energy production — whereas coal uses 550-700 gallons of water for every MWh produced, while natural gas uses 200-300 gallons/MWh. "In truth we're not doing enough, we need to talk more often about the benefits of wind in that regard," Reilly admitted. Bill Olson, director of Motorola Mobility's office of sustainability and stewardship, noted that water use is now recognized by the Carbon Disclosure Project. If the wind industry can push the dialogue about a "water footprint" with data showing operational efficiencies with water, "eyes will open," he said.

Another area where a united common ground must be established is between the wind and environmental communities. As the wind industry has scaled up, so too have the interactions and potential impacts on the environment and wildlife, beyond the capabilities of the "woefully underfunded" federal agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, observed James Walker, vice-chairman of EDF Renewable Energy. Without clear understanding about the impacts to condor and eagles, for example, "agencies and end-users will be ultraconservative" in their response.

"We're not going to agree on everything," acknowledged David Yarnold, president/CEO of the National Audubon Society. Nevertheless, "we agree on the fundamentals: finding a way to decarbonize the economy." Forty-nine million people identify themselves as "birders," he said. "They're starting from a place where wildlife and protection matters to them. A partnership would be a powerful thing."

Can that deeper partnership between the wind and environmental communities take lessons learned from cooperation in other sectors? Larry Schweiger from the National Wildlife Federation suggested there needs to be a stronger combined voice supporting a carbon tax. "We need to bring this to a different level" he said. "We're not going to win if we're separate; we need to combine to overcome [...] collectively we can do better than we've done in the past."

Yarnold agreed, but the wind industry's commitment to championing climate change "can't be as cyclical as [its] needs for the PTC are," he exhorted. What's needed is "wholehearted, full-throated support for climate [that] has to be consistent." But it's also true the other way around, he said, citing those in the environmental community who are mobilized in the climate change fight but also battle against putting solar installations or wind towers in their communities.

The issue of wind vs. wildlife extends to the nascent offshore wind industry, too, which has enormous as-yet-untapped potential but also many questions about environmental impacts. "We would love to partner with the wind industry on doing that definitive science. It's one place we ought to be national allies" to have a unified effort, said Jose Zayas, director of the DoE's wind & water power technologies office. "This hasn't been the case; the wind industry has been somewhat timid and understandably standoffish, but there's a lot of partnership waiting to happen." As an example, Schweiger pointed to some collaborative work on right whale migratory behavior. "There's a willingness on both sides to work together to move forward quickly," he said.

Lead image: Silhouettes with big blue and yellow bubble via Shutterstock

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