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Albany County Wind Debate Rife With Misinformation

As energy companies look to build more wind farms in southeast Wyoming, the issue of wind development has bitterly divided residents of Albany County.

You can characterize the two camps broadly as being either for wind development or against it, but wading into the fight, it's easy to get quickly overwhelmed with the diversity of opinions - not to mention the mountain of statistics, numbers and claims being cited.

For example, during a public comment period at a county commission meeting earlier this month, someone gave the wrong statistic for turbine efficiency only to be corrected a few minutes later by a different commenter.

But not all false claims are so neatly and quickly refuted. At that commission meeting, nearly 40 people testified on the issue of wind siting regulations. Additionally, websites, billboards, mailers and opinion pieces are also circulating through the community, making bold claims about the harms or benefits of wind energy.

The issue in question is ConnectGen's Rail Tie Wind Project - a proposed 26,000-acre wind farm that would be built on private and state land in the south of the county. As the project has developed its plans, an opposition movement has grown up against it. That opposition is spearheaded by residents of the area, who are concerned about the view from their properties, among other expected impacts.

There are concerns about what the wind farm will mean for recreation, tourism and historic landmarks like the Ames Monument. But there have also been claims made about wind energy technology, the science behind it, and its environmental impact.

To get my head around the issue, I spoke with an expert about some of these more testable, scientific claims.

Jonathan Naughton, director of the University of Wyoming's Wind Energy Research Center, said both sides of the debate have spread misinformation, but that the majority, at this point, is coming from those speaking against wind development.

Naughton said a turbine's 'efficiency' is one common point of confusion. A wind turbine takes the power available in the wind and transforms it into electrical power, but it's not perfectly efficient.

"What people say is, you know, you always like to have efficiencies near 100 percent, but in order to get all that energy out of the wind, you'd have to actually bring the wind to a stop to recover all that kinetic energy," Naughton said. "And that's not possible, right? If you brought it to a stop, you'd have no energy flowing through the turbine."

The theoretical limit to turbine efficiency sits at about 60 percent. Currently, a lot of wind turbines can do 50 percent - which experts say is more than enough to make them economically feasible.

But another point of confusion among Albany County residents is about the environmental impact of manufacturing the turbines.

For one, it currently takes nonrenewable energy resources, like coal, to build a turbine.

"So wind turbines do require non-renewable energy, just like everything else we manufacture today," he said. "That's the way our electric grid is powered."

Naughton said that will change if renewables like wind and solar start to provide more of the grid's power. But even now, the renewable power produced by a turbine far outweighs the nonrenewable power it took to make that turbine.

"You'll see people say that wind turbines never produce more power than it took to to build them - and that's patently false," Naughton said. "Depending on the turbine model, it recovers all the energy it uses in somewhere between five and eight months as it's running. So, if we use six months as the return time, then in 20 years, it's going to produce 40 times the amount of power that it took to make."

Turbines can last about 20 years, though engineers are working to extend their lifespan. Once a turbine runs its course, some opponents of wind development have claimed that the blades constitute toxic waste.

Naughton said turbine blades are made largely of fiberglass, which makes them no more toxic than cars, boats or airplane parts. But the really good news is that 90 percent of each turbine - basically everything that is not a blade - is recyclable.

Another point of confusion: wind turbines kill birds. A lot of birds - somewhere in the ballpark of 600,000 a year.

Naughton said this claim is true and it's a downside that wind researchers are actively looking to improve.

He added that domestic cats kill at least two thousand birds for every one killed by turbines. Climate change - one of the main justifications for wind development - poses a substantial threat to birds as well.

"Also cell towers do a number of birds, skyscrapers, buildings, automobiles - all kill far more birds than wind turbines," Naughton said. "And that's not to justify it. It's just to put it in perspective."

These are complex and nuanced issues. It can get messy when people have to explain their positions - or what they've learned through their own amateur research - during a live, three-minute public comment.

But that's often where these debates play out.

Albany County Commission Chair Pete Gosar said public comment is important for good decision-making. The problem is sorting fact from fiction, and that people can use their public comment to knowingly or unknowingly spread false information.

Gosar said that puts a lot of pressure on elected officials, and other community members, to ask their own questions.

"'Where did you get that information? Is that a peer-reviewed piece of information? Let's discuss that, because I think it does really matter,'" he said. "Not all information is equal."

Gosar said it's important to read up on topics of debate in the community - to do the research.

But research isn't as easy as it sounds, especially on a divisive topic like wind development. So people come to public meetings, not just with their own opinions, but with their own set of facts.

"You can be so inundated with information (that may or may not be accurate) that it's almost the same as not having access to any information," Gosar said. "I don't know exactly how to wrestle with that. And maybe somebody can give me a public comment on how to do that! Because I really think it's important."

Naughton doesn't have any easy answers either. He agreed that the internet is full of conflicting, motivated sources of information.

"Misinformation doesn't help us make good decisions, right?" he said. "The decision can go one way or the other. But we want to base it on good information."

It might be difficult to find that online, where wind energy companies tout their own benefits, and fossil fuel magnates quietly fund right-wing outlets like PragerU to tout the benefits of carbon dioxide. A recent mailer, pictured above, even instructed people to google search terms that would bring them to PragerU's anti-renewable YouTube videos. PragerU, which is not a university, has been criticized repeatedly for sharing climate misinformation.

Albany County just received ConnectGen's application for the 26,000-acre wind farm, and it will be subject to the current regulations. Those recently updated regulations include siting requirements such as mandatory noise studies, proper waste disposal and aircraft detection lighting.

But Albany County leadership might revisit those regulations in the future, meaning that the debate surrounding wind development is not going anywhere.

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