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Photo by Sharon Spangler/City of Reno

Down in the valley

Science | Reno's energy-efficient turbines are yielding no windfall

Issue: "Return to war?," May 5, 2012

When President Barack Obama lauded the future potential of solar and wind energy at a recent campaign stop in Nevada, it was a good thing he was in Boulder City and not Reno. There officials might have greeted his comments with skepticism, in light of Reno's wind turbine fiasco.

In 2009, Reno received a $2.1 million block grant to make energy efficiency improvements as part of the federal stimulus package. The city used $416,000 of the grant to build nine wind turbines (seven of which have been completed), and expected to reduce its energy bills by nearly $5,000 a year. It also received wind rebates from the state's major power utility (NV Energy) totaling over $167,000.

But several of the turbines are producing far less power than the manufacturers predicted. "When we started getting actual wind flow patterns, we realized their claims were wrong," Jason Geddes, a Reno energy official, told the Las Vegas Sun. One turbine, installed on a parking garage in 2010 for a hefty $21,500, has provided the city a total energy savings of $4 so far. The city's entire wind program has saved just $2,800-and at that rate it will take 150 years of turbine operation to recoup the cost of installing them.

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The problem is that Reno lies in a valley where winds are less intense than in neighboring areas. Across Nevada, businesses, individuals, and local governments have installed about 150 wind turbines under NV Energy's rebate program, funded by the utility's customers. Critics of the program have offered a common-sense suggestion: Don't give out the rebates until the turbines prove they can produce energy-saving power.

Tear down those dams

Paul Houser, a hydrologist who lost his position in February as a scientific integrity officer for the Bureau of Reclamation, claims federal officials fired him for becoming an obstacle to a White House agenda. Houser had criticized a scientific report intended to guide interior secretary Ken Salazar on a decision to remove four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River running from Oregon into northern California.

Environmental groups and the Yurok Tribe oppose the dams and say they endanger chinook salmon that live in the river. Local officials who support the dams say fish ladders could support the salmon habitat. When an environmental impact summary stated that removing the dams would increase the salmon population by 83 percent a year, Houser complained the summary's authors were intentionally obscuring the scientific uncertainties involved. He said his supervisor in the Bureau of Reclamation responded: Salazar "wants to remove those dams."

Sleep of death

Al Hicks/Reuters/Newscom

Wildlife officials confirmed for the first time that white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that is devastating U.S. and Canadian bat populations, has jumped west of the Mississippi River. Lab tests confirmed that bats in two Missouri caves have been infected with the fungus, which grows on the animals' snouts while they hibernate and usually results in death.

The disease first appeared in upstate New York in 2006 and has spread to 19 states, killing nearly 7 million bats in what conservationists call the worst wildlife epidemic in U.S. history.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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