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A number of you have told me that you don’t look forward to reading the column on your computer screen. That’s not necessary if you have a printer. Print out the column and take it with you to the breakfast table or wherever else you choose to read printed material. (You can also call up past columns in case you missed them.)
And, if you haven’t already done so, let us know your e-mail address so that we can send you a weekly reminder when a new column is available.
April 2, 2008
With, surprisingly to me at least, little or no public notice, Nebraska is on the way to losing its half-century-old unique status as an all-public-power state.
For the first time since the middle of the last century, some of the electricity generated in Nebraska will come from a privately-owned for-profit source.
The reason: Electricity-producing windfarms, the darling of “green” energy zealots as well as some farmers and investment firms which expect to make money from the federal-tax-subsidized giant windmills (which, in my opinion, desecrate the landscape).
The switch from an all-public-power state is being implemented under a law passed by the Nebraska Legislature in 2007. Provisions of that law are now being used to create a windfarm project which would be owned by Nebraskans—primarily owners of agricultural land—and financed primarily by non-Nebraska investors to whom as much as two-thirds of the profits could flow.
Why windfarms owned privately and operated for profit rather than by the state’s public power districts? Because privately-owned windfarm projects are made economically feasible by generous congressionally-mandated tax-abatement subsidies. These tax-abatements subsidies available to private investors are more reliable than the annual windfarm-investment-incentive subsidies available to public power districts, which require annual congressional appropriations.
The Nebraska Public Power District has agreed to buy the federally-subsidized electricity from the privately-owned windfarm project. This, of course, does not change the fact that the windfarm power which NPPD is selling to its customers is generated not by the public power district but rather by for-profit investors, including non-Nebraskans.
Nebraskans—and Americans generally—would do well to keep in mind the downside of windmill-produced electricity.
In the first place, it requires federal tax subsidies to bring wind power close, cost-wise, to electricity produced from coal, natural gas or nuclear power.
Additionally, the wind farms do not allow electric utilities to invest any less money in their power plants fired by more conventional means. These conventionally-powered plants must have the standby capacity to pick up the slack when the wind stops blowing or drops to levels that do not produce significant electricity.
The need for standby capacity is generally greatest in the summer when electric utilities have their largest loads, largely because of air conditioning, and when winds normally do not blow as strongly as they do in the winter.
(One wouldn’t expect that the Nebraska Public Power District—which has agreed to buy power from the privately-owned power source—would feel comfortable replying to a customer’s complaint on a sizzling August day: “Sorry, we can’t supply you with electricity today. The wind isn’t blowing hard enough.”)
Then there is the question of where to locate the windpower farms. Environmental interests in Kansas have been fighting hard for several years against proposals by privately-owned power companies to locate wind farms in the Flint Hills area of Kansas, a relatively pristine natural area somewhat comparable to Nebraska’s Sand Hills—areas where windfarm intrusions would be entirely out of place in environmental terms. (Governor Kathleen Sebelius has been involved in the controversy in Kansas.)
And finally—at least for today—this information, relayed to me by a friend who has been fighting to keep windfarms from invading the Flint Hills of Kansas:
“This information may be of interest to those folks who keep suggesting that turbines don’t kill birds (or bats) in large numbers. Of course, most are never recovered or counted, and most ‘wind farms’ are not open to researchers.”
The communication from my Kansas friend included a report from a California agency which has the responsibility for monitoring the operation of a Livermore, California wind turbine farm. The agency’s scientific review committee has issued a report on bird fatalities in the wind farm area from October, 2005 to September, 2007.
The committee estimated that 2,421 raptors (birds of prey) were killed each year. The estimated kills included 1,258 burrowing owls, 442 American kestrels, 327 red-tailed hawks and 57 golden eagles each year.
The report said further that the windpower industry refuses to count songbird deaths.
Regular readers of my column know that I am skeptical of size estimates that produce exact figures like “57 golden eagles each year” killed by huge windmills in the Livermore, California wind turbine farm. But I see no reason to question the findings that a good many birds, including golden eagles, fly into those giant blades every year.
My Kansas friend, a conservationist, said that protection of the unique Nebraska Sand Hills environment would be critically important. He added the thought that also of critical importance would be protecting the Wildcat Hills in western Nebraska, the Pine Ridge area in northwest Nebraska and the ridges above the Niobrara River in north central Nebraska.
Any siting of the huge windmills in Nebraska must take account of the fact that Nebraska is the most important stopping place for migratory birds using the Central Flyway—the flyway which resembles something of a giant hourglass, with the pinched neck of the hourglass the area in central Nebraska which is the migratory route for Whooping Cranes, Sand Hills cranes and countless thousands of game birds moving through central Nebraska every year, providing one of the great wildlife shows in North America if not the world.
Governor Heineman, are you listening? If we can’t avoid placing windfarms with their huge windmill blades spoiling the landscape, must we not assure, through some form of state government intervention, that the huge windmills are located where they do the least damage to the environment?
* * *
What next? Counseling for persons who were not in the Von Maur store December 5 but were disturbed by news accounts of the killing spree which left eight persons dead?
My question—only half-facetious—is prompted by a news story earlier this week which started with this paragraph: “Over the past month, the Omaha police department has been contacting Von Maur customers to let them know that counseling services are available.”
I might suggest that such shoppers perhaps should reflect on their good fortune—after all, they weren’t shot at—and get on with their lives.
By interesting coincidence, the “Counseling for Dec. 5 killings” story was at the top of Page 1 of the morning World-Herald’s Midlands news section while toward the bottom of the same page was a story which carried this headline:
“Shot teen is weekend’s third homicide in Omaha.”
I would suspect that I’m not the only Omahan who thinks that the Omaha Police Department might well give less attention to “counseling” for shoppers who happened to be in the Von Maur store December 5 and a great deal more attention to the increasingly critical problem, centered largely in North Omaha, which has resulted in 11 homicides in the first three months of this year.
(I was pleased to read in that day’s evening edition of The World-Herald a major story headlined “Shootings spur boost in patrols.” The story said that Omaha police have beefed up patrols in neighborhoods in which the three fatal shootings occurred over the weekend, and two additional detectives have been called in to help investigate the city’s unsolved slayings.)
* * *
Finally for today, a dip into the mailbag:
First, a message of dissent from a Ralston reader who said she always appreciates my columns whether she agrees or not, “but I do wish in regard to secondhand smoke that you would consider the cumulative effects.”
This reader said she had to ride in a car for 18 years with a smoker and remembers putting her face on the cold windows trying to get some relief, “But it did not keep my father from smoking.” She said she suffers from asthma now, and “I wonder how much the smoking affected my health.”
My feeling that secondhand smoke has been overemphasized as a health threat is based on the fact that a very great majority of people don’t have to be exposed to it. They can simply put themselves in non-smoking environments in the very, very great majority of cases. But I can certainly understand why someone who spent 18 years riding in a closed car with a smoker feels differently about the matter.
A friend passes along an item which he knew would be of interest to me, since I served as chairman of the Nebraska Hall of Fame Commission which last fall was faced with a choice of one nominee from a field of seven nominees. My friend called my attention to the following editorial comment from The Norfolk Daily News:
“The news story telling of prairie ecologist Charles Bessey’s selection to the Nebraska Hall of Fame noted that he was a ‘little-known botanist,’ selected three years after Malcolm X of the civil rights movement had been passed over for the honor. The latter had Omaha ties; Bessey was long associated with the University of Nebraska. It was a rare triumph in an unusual contest, with science and service to this state winning over national notoriety.”
Also of Norfolk origin was a phone call with a suggestion from a Norfolk reader that said I should run for president. I interpreted the message realistically, simply another welcome sign of friendship from this particular Norfolk reader.
Just another sign of friendship, as I say, but I must admit I like the way my Norfolk friend expressed it!
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