As is common with left-of-center partisans, the standard characterization of those who criticize taxpayer subsidies for wind power tend to miss the mark. They accuse critics of opposing wind power, not wind-power subsidies.
The distinction is critical. A brief article in the latest issue of The Atlantic illustrates the point. Esther Yi briefly describes an attempt to address some of the chief problems with today’s standard wind turbines.
Nobody likes living near wind turbines. They’re loud and obtrusive, and their slicing blades create a strobe-light shadow effect. nimbyism may be one of the reasons that wind energy, despite its many advantages, supplies just 4.8 percent of electric power in the U.S.
But what if turbines weren’t quite so awful to be around—what if, in fact, they were quiet and good-looking? Researchers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have led the development of a “windmill” that converts wind energy into electricity without using any moving parts.
A prototype of the Electrostatic Wind Energy Convertor, designed by the Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo, has a rectangular frame bridged by horizontal steel tubes, which are lined with electrodes that generate a negatively charged field. Nozzles on the tubes spray positively charged droplets of water . When wind blows through the frame, the positive particles are pushed off the tubes, against the force of the negative field . The separation of positive and negative charges generates potential energy that is converted into electricity . Unlike traditional windmills, which convert rotational energy into electric power, this one is silent and is expected to require minimal maintenance.
If critics of wind-power subsidies truly opposed wind power, there would be no reason to expect them to offer anything other than a negative reaction to this news. This observer suspects, though, that wind power critics might tend to offer a more mixed response.
The article says nothing about addressing the problem of wind’s intermittent nature. The wind still blows in ways that do not allow for a continuous supply of energy, meaning that traditional sources are necessary to back up wind energy. The need for a backup source diminishes the purported benefits of wind as an alternative renewable energy source.
But in terms of efforts to address the unsightliness of wind turbines (as well as their propensity for slicing and dicing birds, not mentioned in the article), The Atlantic documents a clearly positive development. The key is to allow this type of innovation to proceed with market-based incentives. As long as wind-power advocates have an incentive to make their product more efficient and cost-competitive, we’re likely to see more developments like this one crop up in the future.
On the other hand, the quickest way to kill innovation is to allow current wind-power operators to line up to the government gravy train and collect subsidies for their current inefficient operations. Pay people not to worry about making their operations as competitive as possible, and you can just about guarantee that they won’t.
(Dutch taxpayers might have paid some of the bills for the research discussed above. If so, that could lead to a healthy argument about the relative merits of taxpayer spending on research and development. But that is a separate issue from the debate over whether to spend money subsidizing operations that clearly fail to meet today’s cost-benefit tests.)