Windmills, Solar Panels, and Ethanol

Because windpower does not emit toxins into the air and its source of energy is recurrent, it offers the promise of a clean, renewable alternative to fossil fuels, along with the significant environmental problems they generate. Renewable energy has a long contrapuntal history, of course. A few hundred years ago, timber seemed inexhaustible, but our demand made short work of the supply for energy production. Coal, too, is renewable, but again, our demand will at some time overrun supply—and our meager lifespans won't extend the tens of millions of years necessary to replenish it. A few generations ago, hydroelectric dams were all the rage. While these do produce a lot of electricity from a renewable source, they are so environmentally damaging that many are now being dismantled, at taxpayer expense.

View of Meyersdale Wind Plant

Into this breach comes windpower—if it can produce enough electricity and if it is, on the whole, environmentally benign. Herein lies the problem, weighing costs against benefits. If the wind industry is successful with its campaign in the uplands of the eastern US, thousands of mammoth wind turbines, each over forty-stories tall, will soon loom for hundreds, even thousands of miles atop the most beautiful and environmentally important ridges of the East, visible for scores of miles, imposing high risk to millions of birds and bats which will have to run this gauntlet twice annually. These ridges typically form the backbone for numerous large and unbroken patches of forest—which are the last "best" places to maintain ecologically significant tracts of scarce, very valuable forest interior habitat. For each huge wind turbine recently erected on Eastern forested ridgetops, more than four acres of forest were bulldozed. But the impact on forest-interior habitat was much greater: the deleterious "edge-effects" from each turbine clearing and consequent access roads actually contribute to an average loss of nearly fifteen acres of forest-interior habitat per turbine. At the same time, despite this intrusiveness, such windplants will contribute only a small and diminishing percentage of the region's total electricity needs because they will produce only "a piddling amount of electricity" relative to our demand. The rush to site industrial wind facilities in the East seems unnecessary, especially given that the development potential in the upper Midwest alone would dwarf the total output of all wind energy facilities ever likely to be built in the eastern United States.

Nonetheless, there is a clamor for wind initiatives in the East, fueled by uninformed wishful thinking of well-intentioned advocates for clean, renewable energy, as well as by extraordinarily lucrative government-induced programs offering tax credits and other means to shelter income for wind investors—which are not indexed to any reductions in the mining or burning of fossil fuels.

Windpower would not exist in its present industrial form without these "incentives." The relatively feckless energy produced is a front for the real business of generating tax avoidance schemes benefiting a few at the expense of many, while playing havoc with the environment while claiming to be saving it. The industry is in fact a spiritual descendant of Enron, the "energy" company that, before its demise, owned and operated the nation's largest collection of wind facilities; it pioneered the tax shelter as a commodity.

In pursuit of a financial bonanza, the wind industry fiercely resists any federal or state regulation guiding windplant installation. To protect their investment potential, eliminate the perception of negative effects, and neutralize their critics, wind developers have unleashed a sophisticated public relations campaign permeated with false and misleading claims, appealing to those hoping for the benefits of a safer, more healthful alternative to the mining and burning of fossil fuels. This campaign has helped build a political alliance attractive to many politicians, who give the impression their bills will result in improved public policy (but really reinforce the comfort of the status quo, especially for the coal industry). The same politicians bestow government-sponsored financial incentives which wind investors seek. This cycle exemplifies much that is problematic about national and state policies, where corporate lobbyists influence lawmakers to gain financial reward at the expense of public well being. The zeal for maximal profit now too often overrides the quest for responsible citizenship.

After the fact law suits brought because of predictable windplant nuisances are difficult, expensive, and time consuming. These massive windplants often precipitate incivility, pitting neighbor against neighbor. A major reason for government to exist is to mitigate—even anticipate—this incivility. The failure of many local governments to provide appropriate leadership on this issue is appalling. Regulatory agencies should not use the failures of local government to shun their responsibility to protect the public.

To better understand the wind industry's public relations campaign and its implications for public policy, and to provide the public with better information about the industry itself, here is a list of the most frequent false and misleading claims the wind industry makes on its behalf, accompanied by an analysis of each.


Ethanol is produced biologically by fermenting sugar with Saccharomyces yeasts. Under anaerobic (meaning in the absence of oxygen) conditions, when yeast metabolize sugar, they produce ethanol and carbon dioxide. Bioethanol (meaning ethanol production derived from crops) is the most common renewable fuel today and is derived from corn grain (starch) and sugar cane (sucrose) [1]. Thus, ethanol is an inherently renewable eco-friendly resource, contributing nothing in itself to greenhouse gases. However, a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T) concludes that if every vehicle in the U.S. ran on ethanol-based fuel, the number of respiratory-related deaths and hospitalizations would likely increase.

You read that right, widespread use of E85 would likely result in an increase in respiratory-related deaths and hospitalizations.

Stanford University atmospheric chemist Mark Z. Jacobson, author of the study said [2]:

“Ethanol is being promoted as a clean and renewable fuel that will reduce global warming and air pollution, but our results show that a high blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater risk to public health than gasoline, which already causes significant health damage.”

Jacobson used a sophisticated 3-D atmospheric computer model that accounted for the transport of tailpipe emissions across the U.S. along with chemical and radiative transformations in the atmosphere – key components that have been neglected in previous studies. He combined the ambient concentrations with health effects and population data to simulate air quality in the year 2020, when ethanol-powered vehicles are expected to be widely available in the U.S. He then determined the health risks due to gasoline and ethanol, and analyzed the results at high resolution in Los Angeles and at lower resolution in the entire U.S.

Jacobson explained that:

“… chemicals that come out of a tailpipe are affected by a variety of factors, including chemical reactions, temperatures, sunlight, clouds, wind and precipitation. In addition, overall health effects depend on exposure to these airborne chemicals, which varies from region to region. Ours is the first ethanol study that takes into account population distribution and the complex environmental interactions.”

The results

The study results show that converting to E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) could result in higher ozone-related asthma, hospitalization and mortality. The death rate increases about 9% in Los Angeles and 4% in the U.S. over projected death rates with gasoline vehicles.

E85 vehicles reduced atmospheric levels of two carcinogens, benzene and butadiene, but increased two others, acetaldehyde and formaldehyde. As a result, cancer rates for E85 are likely to be similar to those for gasoline. In some parts of the country (Los Angeles and the Northeast), E85 use was projected in increase ozone levels. The oxidant ozone is a well-known air pollutant. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ozone inhalation is associated with respiratory tract inflammation and functional alterations of the lung [3]. The increased levels of ozone were partially offset by decreased levels in the Southeast. Nonetheless, future E85 use may be a greater overall public health risk than gasoline. Jacobson concludes that E85 is unlikely to improve air quality over future gasoline vehicles and that unburned ethanol emissions from E85 may result in a global-scale source of acetaldehyde larger than that of direct emissions.


Brazil is the only country in the world where a large-scale ethanol fuel program, introduced in 1979, has been implemented. By 1997, approximately 4 million Brazilian automobiles ran on neat ethanol (100% ethanol) and another 9 million ran on an ethanol-gasoline blend (22% ethanol) [4]. Since the introduction of ethanol fuel in Brazil, several studies on air quality have been conducted that confirm Jacobson’s recent projections.

In 1990, the concentration of ambient acetaldehyde was determined to be the most abundant carbonyl in three major cities of Brazil [5]. Indeed, acetaldehyde concentrations in urban areas of Brazil were substantially higher than concentrations measured elsewhere in the world, and was thought to be the result of large-scale ethanol fuel use. A more recent study measuring the ambient concentrations of up to 61 carbonyls in Rio de Janeiro found that the most abundant were formaldehyde and acetaldehyde [6]. The authors ranked measured carbonyls with respect to ozone formation potential and reaction with OH and found that ozone formation is dominated by formaldehyde (43% of total) followed by acetaldehyde (32%).

Health effects

In children, repeated short-term exposure to ozone may damage developing lungs and may lead to permanent reductions in lung function [7]. Indeed, time spent outside in areas of high ozone is associated with a higher incidence of asthma than areas of low ozone. Adults exposed to ozone exhibit impaired lung function and irritative lower airway symptoms [8]. Ozone exposure has been associated with an increased number of hospital admissions [9-12]


E85 clearly has no advantages: there is no potential carbon savings and reduced impact on global warming because of the harvesting and transportation of corn, E85 raises the cost of our food in almost every respect because corn is used as a major feedstock for our livestock industry. However, although most everyone is all for decreased dependence on fossil fuel energy, it shouldn’t come at the expense of our health.

There are alternatives, including natural gas and coal liquefication, and Thermal Depolymerization.




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