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Review of Harvest The Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability

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Posted: July 24, 2016

By Alex Miller

Philip Warburg begins his book by giving this brief history of wind turbines in the United States, but for most of the book, he talks about his journey discovering the ins and outs of the wind industry first hand. Warburg is a lawyer by training, not a writer, but he describes writing as one of his loves. Both his formal law training and his love of writing have enabled him to write Harvest The Wind. In this book, he details his travels across the world where he visits places like Kansas, Denmark, and China. Warburg’s detailed account of his journey in Harvest The Wind gives a holistic overview of the history and present global market regarding wind turbines.

Wind turbines seem like a new technology due to the massive growth in the industry in recent years, but that could not be further from the case. Wind turbines have been used as far back as the 1850s, but they were not at first used for energy consumption (Warburg, 2012, p. 2). In the middle of the nineteenth century, there was no use for electricity, so early turbines were actually used to pump water. With the advent electricity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was a growing want for electricity in rural areas, but the electric grid did not reach much outside of urban areas. Starting in the 1920s, farmers gained the option of using a wind turbine for power generation. However, the cost was prohibitive in most cases, and once the electric grid expanded to rural areas over the coming years, wind turbines became obsolete (Warburg, 2012, p. 2). It was not until there was a need for new, sustainable energy sources in the twenty-first century that using wind turbines for power generation became a realistic idea.

Kansas has enough wind in their state alone to fulfill ninety percent of present day power consumption in the United States (Warburg, 2012, p. 1). Their first commercial wind farm opened in 2001; since then, enough wind farms have been built to supply seven percent of the state’s power needs in 2010. Warburg stops at one wind farm in particular: Meridian Way. This farm is located in Cloud County, and it was a catalyst for a burgeoning wind industry in the county (Warburg, 2012, p. 17). Since Meridian Way was built, Cloud County Community College has developed a two-year wind program that trains people for all aspects of the wind industry including development, operations, and maintenance.

Warburg stopped at Meridian Way for another reason as well: it represents all of the steps that can possibly be a part of developing a wind project. Finding a location with suitable wind resources is the first step. Residents then have to support the project. An environmental impact report has to be developed to show that the wind project will not be detrimental to the local area. This report also aims to identify the necessary preventative steps to be taken during construction of the wind farm in order to protect the surrounding environment (Warburg, 2012, p. 10). At Meridian Way in particular, the Department of Defense and FCC had to concur that the wind farm would not interfere with radar and radio airwaves (Warburg, 2012, p. 11). Furthermore, they had to make sure the Federal Aviation Administration supported it. In other locations, there might be different governmental agencies that would have to give their approval, but most places do not have as many obstacles as Meridian Way did. After a wind project has full approval, the next step is making sure there is a guaranteed buyer for the electricity produced from the turbines. Once all of the preliminary research and support is gained, all that is left is raising the capital to build the wind farm. Meridian Way is a relatively new wind farm compared to what has been built in the past few decades, and in order to show the history of wind energy development, Warburg takes his journey to the earliest leader of wind energy: Denmark.

China produces the largest quantity of wind power, followed closely by the United States, but no one produces a larger percentage of its power from wind than Denmark (Warburg, 2012, p. 19). Currently, twenty-nine percent of the country’s power comes from wind (Warburg, 2012, p. 19). The reason Denmark leads the world in percentage of wind is that the government has been supporting and encouraging wind development for decades. The government subsidizes the upfront capital for the turbine, the cost of new transmission lines to connect the power to consumers, and has created a formula to guarantee profit for the power produced by wind (Warburg, 2012, p. 23). One benefit of Denmark’s early investment in wind is that domestic manufacturers have more experience than their foreign counterparts. The company with the greatest market share in the wind industry is currently Vestas, a Danish wind turbine manufacturer. This experience has led Vestas the United States.

Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter both created a favorable market for the U.S. energy industry. Overall, this created growth in the adoption of wind because it created an easier path to success for new companies (Warburg, 2012, p. 27). The state of California followed suit and created an even more favorable market for wind through increased incentives. All of these incentives created a boom in U.S. wind company development. While the market may have been favorable, these companies did not see much success as they rushed their products to market. A lot of the U.S. wind turbines installed ended up breaking down earlier than the companies expected; Vestas, however, had a proven track record and was able to dominate the U.S. wind market because it’s turbines exceed expectations (Warburg, 2012, p. 33). These turbine failures began the downfall of wind in the United States, but the country’s love of wind did not completely die until the price of oil drastically dropped 1986.

The oil market crash did not only affect U.S. wind companies. Vestas ended up filing for bankruptcy after the crash, but over the coming years, they were able to recover by making investments in the wind industries in Spain and Germany (Warburg, 2012, p. 38). As important as these investments were, Warburg heavily emphasizes that the next big location for wind investment was and still is in Chinese market. The Chinese government is trying to diversify its energy portfolio, and since it owns most of the land in the country, wind is one form of energy the Chinese have chosen to invest in. Wind in China is a very different game than in the United States. Where the U.S. is very methodical with its siting of wind farms, China is not worried as much about finding the best location for all parties involved. The Chinese government places the wind in the most beneficial location for the state’s needs and wants instead of the best location for the people. However, while some may disagree with methods used by the Chinese, they have propelled China to the top spot in the world for wind farm production.

The U.S. wind market today is filled with many smaller companies operating in a wide variety of industries. There are educational, industrial, construction, transportation, and wind farm operation and maintenance companies throughout the country. All of these companies are creating jobs and contributing to the economy. If wind energy ever reaches the Department of Energy (DoE) goal of producing 20% of the total U.S. energy needs by 2030, nearly half a million new jobs will be created as a result of the wind sector alone (Warburg, 2012, p. 95). However, it is not just small companies that form the U.S. wind market. General Electric, one of the largest and most diversified companies, is actually the largest producer of wind turbines in the U.S. (Warburg, 2012, p. 188).

U.S. companies do not only operate domestically. Due to the large growth in the Chinese wind market, many U.S. companies have expanded to the Asian country. There are many large Chinese wind manufacturers as well; in fact, of the ten largest wind energy companies in the world, four are of Chinese origin. However, there is yet another difference between the U.S. and Chinese wind markets. While American companies have expanded throughout the world, Chinese companies largely only produce within China (Warburg, 2012, p. 71). Denmark was the first mainstream wind market, but even though the markets operate very differently in these countries, China and the United States are the current hot spots in the wind market.

The strides that wind energy has made in the U.S. are great, but according to Warburg, there is still work to be done in order for wind to reach its full potential. First of all, wind needs to be given the same opportunity for success by the federal government as fossil fuels, and due to the years of subsidies that the fossil fuel energy industry has received, this is not currently the case. Warburg reinforces this opinion by showing why wind is a better option than fossil fuels. Over the lifetime of a wind turbine, it produces about 10 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated (Warburg, 2012, p. 99). Coal produces 600 to 700 grams of carbon dioxide – 60 to 70 times the amount of wind – and natural gas produces 400 to 1,300 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated – 40 to 130 times the amount of wind (Warburg, 2012, p. 99). Wind helps drastically reduce our carbon footprint, a necessity based on the current climate situation of the planet. This will reduce our carbon emissions by 26% based on projections of 2030 carbon emissions (Warburg, 2012, p. 100).

Warburg also talks about other barriers for wind besides the current energy industry. Wind must be supported by the general populace, which is not always a given as there are many misconceptions surrounding wind. Many people believe wind harms the bird population. During the 1980s wind rush in California, Altamont wind farm installed turbines that killed thousands of birds (Warburg, 2012, 116). However, this was a specific situation with a specific type of wind turbine, and it does not represent the wind sector as a whole. Overall, the wind sector actually kills fewer birds per year than farming, collisions with buildings, and fossil fuel use and extraction (Warburg, 2012, 122). Another misconception with wind turbines is the sound they make. Wind turbines do make sound as they rotate, and to some people it is annoying. However, most farms follow the EPA recommendation that wind turbines produce sound no higher than 55 decibels during the day and 45 decibels at night, and at these levels of sound, most people do not find them annoying. In fact, a dishwasher in an adjacent room produces about 50 decibels of noise, so a wind turbine is no different than a typical household appliance (Warburg, 2012, 156). Also, as wind turbine technology grows, the sounds become less and less of a nuisance.

The final human barrier to wind is the aesthetics of wind turbines. This will always be an issue because not everyone likes the appearance or will learn to like it, but every energy industry is intrusive in our lives in some way. Fossil fuels contribute greatly to climate change, and across many parts of the U.S. there are oil and gas wells dotting the landscape as well as vast fields of coal. These are visual nuisances just like wind turbines. Warburg emphasizes that every method of energy production has its downsides, and to some people, the sight of turbines is one of wind production’s biggest faults. However, wind does not harm the future viability of humans surviving on Earth like fossil fuels, which is why wind is still preferable.

Wind and other renewables do have one other downside that will need to be fixed in order for them to reach their full potential. Neither wind nor the sun produces energy on demand, which is why the energy needs to be stored so that it can be used when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. Additionally, the U.S. needs to upgrade to a smart grid for electricity transmission in order to utilize all of the energy produced by a wind turbine. Both of these options, especially when paired together, will help wind and solar reach their full potential in the U.S. energy market. Until one of these occurs, it is impossible for either renewable energy source to reach its full potential.

Wind turbines have existed for over a century, but they only became a realistic energy production method in the late 20th century. This was caused by need to reduce carbon emissions, rising fossil fuel prices, and falling wind prices. Overall, wind is not perfect, but no energy production method is. Based on the current environmental situation, wind is not just a preferable method to fossil fuels; it represents a necessary step to prevent the worldwide environmental situation from worsening. Warburg truly believes in wind, but he is not naïve enough to believe we will save the world by switching solely to wind. He believes some wind resources in critical habitats should not be developed. He also believes a diverse energy portfolio consisting mainly of renewables is the smartest tactic, but he does believe wind should produce a large portion of the world’s energy in the future. Politics and a resistance to change are largely preventing wind from taking this next step to being a large portion of our energy portfolio. However, the advantages to wind cannot be ignored, and I agree with Warburg that it deserves to be a part of our energy future.

References

Warburg, P. (2012). Harvest The Wind: America's journey to jobs, energy independence, and climate stability. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.