Wind power advocates blow hot air, Alexander says

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), whose opposition to wind towers makes him something of a Don Quixote in the Senate, said Wednesday that the U.S. should rely more on conservation and nuclear power than on renewable energy to cut carbon emissions.

The basic problem with solar and wind power, Alexander said, is the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow all the time. That means the wind and the sun can't be relied upon to deliver electricity precisely when Americans need it, unlike coal, nuclear and natural gas can be. Renewable energy should be seen as a supplemental source of power, Alexander said at an event sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy.

While Alexander is suspect of all renewable energy as an economic source of power production, he holds particular enmity for wind.

The Energy Department has said that wind power could generate as much as 20 percent of the electricity demand in the United States, so long as there are enough transmission lines to carry the power from the remote areas where wind blows the hardest to cities that eat up the most electricity.

But just because wind towers are carbon free, doesn't mean they don't have any environmental footprint, Alexander indicated. He said reaching the 20 percent target would require the installation of turbines over a land mass equal to the state of West Virginia. Wind power, he said, could "obliterate the American landscape." He particularly is fearful of views in his beloved Great Smoky Mountains National Park could be despoiled by giant turbines.

House Democrats are much more bullish on renewable like wind. Their climate bill now under discussion calls for utilities to produce 15 percent of their power from renewables like wind energy by 2020, although a portion of that requirement could come through energy efficiency gains.

Alexander told The Hill after his address that he didn't give the House bill much chance of passing the Senate for reasons other than its renewable electricity standard. The bill would touch too many American industries, he said.

Instead, Alexander said efforts to combat global warming should focus on the smokestack and the tailpipe, i.e. the utility and transportation sectors, which combined account for 70 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted annually in the United States.

Alexander agrees the issue driving the interest in carbon-free renewable energy -- global warming -- is real and at least in part caused by humans. His proposal calls for building an additional 100 new nuclear plants, about twice as many as are now in operation, in the just the next 20 years. Energy efficiency programs and other efforts to cut electricity usage like expansion of a smart grid that would better match demand with supply should also be supported, Alexander said.

-Jim Snyder