Determined gentleman’ leads assault by ‘citizen renegades’ on wind power

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012

Look out, wind industry. John Droz Jr. has you in his sights.

Droz, 66, is no inside-the-Beltway mover and shaker. He lives in the port town of Morehead City, N.C., when he isn’t at his Adirondacks cabin. He prefers sweater vests to pinstripes, and he describes himself as “just a busybody.”

“I’m not part of some industrial complex,” he said during a recent interview. “I’m not working for anybody. I’m just a citizen who lives on a lake in the backwoods.”

But Droz is relentless with research, phone calls and PowerPoint presentations. And he aims high. As the unofficial leader of a loosely organized band of wind industry foes, he hosted in February a Washington, D.C., powwow whose invited guests included representatives of prominent conservative organizations.

The gathering got noticed by the media, but the high-profile invitees were no-shows, and Droz professed not to care. Organizing meetings, he said months later, is “a pain in the ass.”

“It’s time-consuming. … I hate wasting time,” he said. “So for me to have every single group start up and effectively reinvent the wheel based on who is the local leader, I thought, this is just stupid.”

The 20-some participants in Droz’s Washington meeting considered but rejected the notion of creating a formal group to counter the American Wind Energy Association for fear it would be too expensive and complicated, he said. They are now shopping for an established think tank to take a coordinating role, an effort that has lagged — much to Droz’s irritation.

“Again, I’m an organized person,” said Droz, a member of the conservative think tank American Tradition Institute. “I would have hoped it would have been done by now, but for a variety of reasons it hasn’t been done.”

Droz prides himself on his persistence and organization in pursuit of goals. After finishing a master’s degree in solid-state science from Syracuse University and eventually rising to a management position at General Electric Co., Droz decided he didn’t like it. So he set a new goal: retire by 40.

“You have financial independence; you have freedom in what you do,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of last month’s Heartland Institute meeting in Chicago, where participants were given a bumper sticker that reads, “I ♥ economic freedom.”

Droz said he achieved his goal by the age of 34, amassing enough cash by buying and selling real estate to put his working days behind him. He taught himself the real estate business, he said, by buying and reading Waldenbooks’ entire catalog on the subject. “Every single book!” he said during a recent interview. “Now, how many people would do that?”

He added, “I’m just telling you how I’m different from most people. When I get involved in something, I investigate it.”

‘Backwoods scientist’

After retiring to the Adirondacks, Droz became an environmental activist. His first crusade: boosting New York’s oversight of companies bottling and selling groundwater.

“This, to me, was a stealing of resources,” he said. “There was no protection for this kind of thing.”

Droz began calling environmental groups to try to get them interested in pushing for a law, he said. But few expressed interest, he said, because it wasn’t a “hot-button political issue.”

“That’s when I decided that environmentalism isn’t about the environment,” he said.

He wrote a two-page summary of “things that needed to be fixed” with New York’s water rules — “How many people would do this?” he asked — and shopped it to green groups as a possible basis for their comments to the state.

“I knew as much about these things as any of these people did,” he said.

Finally, he said, he found Katherine Nadeau of the watchdog group Environmental Advocates of New York, who he said took on the cause, allowing him to move on to other things.

After years of work, New York finally enacted its water withdrawal bill last June.

“You’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with John, haven’t you?” Nadeau asked when contacted for this story. “He’s a determined gentleman.”

Nadeau said Droz had been an outspoken advocate for groundwater protections, and had reached out to her and to other environmental groups. New York officials and environmentalists were already engaged on the issue, but she said Droz helped organize stakeholder calls that allowed various groups to share thoughts and build communication.

Having found an ally whom he felt was sufficiently invested in the groundwater issue, Droz moved on to focus on wind.

He said he initially supported the wind industry because he thought it might help curb air pollutants that cause acid rain, a major threat to forests in the Northeast.

“I sort of had the perception originally, the best I could recollect, that it was sort of like going to the dentist,” he said of wind energy. “That it wasn’t something that I thought was a fun thing, but I said, ‘OK, if this is what needs to be done, fine. I’ll support it.’”

His views changed, he said, when people he respected suggested he take another look at wind.

“Just Google stuff,” he remembers them advising him. “I mean, nobody has to tell me how to do research.”

One of the people he found early on was Eric Rosenbloom, who heads National Wind Watch, a loosely organized anti-wind group, and maintains an anti-wind energy website.

“He had some really insightful things that made good sense,” he said.

“The more I checked into these things, it was clear that nobody had done any scientific assessment of wind energy,” said Droz, who calls himself “a backwoods scientist.”

“It was just being promoted as something that seemed to be politically attractive to people who have a green perspective.”

His argument against wind subsidies or mandates goes something like this: Renewable energy in general and wind power in particular are a bad investment, because their intermittent nature makes them less reliable and more costly than conventional energy technologies and requires utilities to provide backup from other energy sources.

A 150-megawatt power plant run by wind, for example, would only provide a fraction of its maximum electricity on any given day because the wind doesn’t blow constantly, he said. The need for backup from other fuels, meanwhile, is both an expense and an example of wasted energy, as a gas plant is forced to ramp up from nothing when the wind drops.

Droz also said the rare earth elements used in the manufacture of renewable energy equipment are produced in an environmentally destructive way, especially in China.

Wind technology, he said, is “a lobbyist-driven solution without scientific basis.” He takes the same tack in some of his other freelance advocacy work, including his involvement in efforts to prevent North Carolina from factoring climate change into its projections for sea-level rise, concerning which he wrote a letter published on the website of the News and Observer newspaper.

‘Mission to save America’

Droz said he has built a national contact list of people who share his antipathy toward wind, something he hoped would allow the anti-wind community to share ideas and operate more efficiently. The list spurred the Washington meeting.

On Droz’s list is Marita Noon, the executive director and only full-time employee of the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE), a pro-conventional energy advocacy group based in Albuquerque.

Noon, a former Christian motivational speaker, didn’t join Droz last month in addressing the Heartland meeting about wind energy, though she supported him with full-voiced amens from the back of the conference room.

Noon couched her defense of traditional energy production in the strongest terms.

“I’m on a mission to save America,” she said. “I am.”

A few years ago, Noon said, she had “zero” experience with energy issues. She managed an agency that hosted conferences for Christian writers and authors around the country, but travel was straining her marriage, she said.

“I needed to change my life to save my marriage,” she said.

One afternoon she was visiting a friend — “having a whine session in every sense of the word” — and her friend’s husband offered to hand to her his position as executive director of CARE.

She remembers asking her friend whether she could really do the job and being told, “You could do it in your sleep, but it’s really boring.”

Noon hit the ground running in 2007, she said, as CARE’s new executive director.

“During the six to eight months when I was learning about energy, I learned about the environmental attacks on energy in America that was abundant, available and affordable,” she said.

She reached out to a network of mentors, including people who attended the Heartland Institute gathering. “I’m fearless,” she said. “And I’m a killer networker.”

She remembers going to the oil and gas lease sales in New Mexico. She also corresponded with Susan Sloan of the American Wind Energy Association for help in crafting her group’s position on wind energy. AWEA confirmed this but said Noon had fallen out of contact as she became more hostile to on-grid wind energy.

Her first big energy issue, she said, was uranium development. In 2008, Mount Taylor in Cibola County, N.M., was placed on the State Registry of Historic Properties at the request of Indian tribes, for which it had spiritual significance.

The move would have impeded uranium development, but Noon said the state failed to follow proper procedure in making the listing. Noon remembers attending the meeting, where she said the American Indian proponents of removing the mountain from development had obviously been given advanced notice, while the uranium companies had not.

“I was just appalled at the sham of democracy that took place there,” she said.

The state attorney general eventually agreed that the meeting had violated New Mexico’s open meetings law, and the emergency designation was reversed.

Noon said her group’s opposition to on-grid wind energy took second place to her support for conventional energy development. She dismisses the notion that human use of fossil energy is affecting the Earth’s climate as a “ruse.”

“My faith could have an element to that,” she said. “What is the audacity that we have, that suddenly, all of a sudden, we’re this self-important?”

For his part, Droz said he would believe in human-caused global warming if he were offered scientific proof, which he said is not yet conclusive. Among other things, he said, it would need to be based on empirical evidence, rather than on climate models.

Climate scientists say that direct observations show a sharp rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, while satellite and surface measurements find that less energy is escaping into space. Direct measurements also show that ocean and surface temperatures are increasing.

Embracing nuclear power

Another of Droz’s “citizen renegades” is George Taylor, a Silicon Valley investor with a computer technology background.

Raised near the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, Taylor said he grew up around people who “were very comfortable with nuclear power.” He remembers when the Oconee Nuclear Station was constructed in the early 1970s.

“The year I graduated from high school, the three pressure vessels for the big new nuclear reactors that are now in northwestern South Carolina came through my town on these giant roller trucks,” he said. “I remember that.”

As a young man, he said, he was confident that nuclear would gradually displace coal as the leading source of electricity in the United States. But after the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, all that changed.

“That whole thing completely fell apart in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said.

State renewable energy standards and financial support for renewable energy have made a robust nuclear renaissance even less likely, he said, by effectively mandating the continued use of fossil fuels.

“The reason that bugs me is when people say, ‘I want this little wind mandate,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I want a very big gas-wind or coal-wind mandate,’” he said.

Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have renewable energy standards of some kind. To satisfy a 20 percent renewable energy mandate, Taylor said, utilities are forced to use a much higher proportion of fossil fuels — almost always gas — for backup. This effectively edges nuclear energy out of the equation.

While Taylor, too, said he had doubts about the scientific underpinnings of man-made climate change, he said there might be other reasons for wanting to reduce fossil fuel use. Whatever those reasons, he said, nuclear makes a better alternative than wind to coal and petroleum.

Like Droz, Taylor said support for wind appeared to be ideological rather than rational. All technologies deserve to have their performance scrutinized, he said.

“You shouldn’t be hugging a windmill any more than you would hug a nuclear power plant,” he said, adding that he might be inclined to embrace nuclear plants himself, “but I’m a little weird.”

Of wind: “You should be saying, ‘Wait a minute, it’s some gigantic piece of metal.’ And the best wind is in North Dakota. Who lives in North Dakota? I don’t live there.”

Bottom line

But is wind energy really as bad a bet financially as Droz and Taylor say it is?

It’s true that wind has received a high share of public support in recent years relative to other technologies, though that appears likely to change at the end of this year when the production tax credit is set to expire.

The federal Energy Information Administration says wind energy received 42 percent of all federal financial assistance provided in 2010 for the electricity sector, a larger share than any other technology.

But environmentalists argue that conventional energy has enjoyed more than a century of tax breaks and other advantages, while wind has been forced to compete with those incumbent industries aided only by temporary tax credits.

The intermittent nature of renewable power sources does present challenges, said Neil Fromer, executive director for the Resnick Institute of Applied Physics & Materials Science at the California Institute of Technology.

“If you talk about solar, it’s not always sunny,” he said. “If you talk about wind, it’s not always blowing.”

This lack of predictability is relatively easy to manage while renewable energy remains a small slice of the power grid pie, but things become more complicated as that percentage grows, he said.

Steps are being taken to make it easier for wind to become a baseload power source, Fromer said. He pointed to new battery technologies being developed to store power. Improvements in weather forecasting will also make it easier for electricity managers to cue backup juice when the wind drops. And combined-cycle gas and steam turbine power plants can ramp up in minutes, making them more efficient as a backup for wind than older fossil fuel-fired power plants.

For now, Fromer said, nuclear plants are better as a baseload source of greenhouse gas-free power.

But Fromer noted that no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States since the 1970s not because of competition from wind, nor even from gas, but because the public has been wary of the risks associated with nuclear. These concerns were revived last year when a tsunami and earthquake resulted in the release of radioactive materials at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

“Whether that’s right or wrong — whether you think you can safeguard against Three Mile Island or whether you can safeguard against Fukushima — an accident at a nuclear plant has drastic consequences,” he said.

With nuclear development at a standstill and no climate change law on the horizon, renewable energy becomes one of the best ways to combat climate change, Fromer said.

While Droz has called for a study of the pluses and minuses of wind energy, Fromer noted that a study of that kind has never been conducted for fossil fuels or nuclear energy, either. In addition to the safety issue, nuclear comes with other externalities that lack price tags, including the environmental toll of uranium mining. Storage of waste is also an issue.

Some of the unpriced costs of coal were detailed in a recent Harvard study, including mining accidents and the effect of mining on groundwater (Greenwire, Feb. 16, 2011).

“How do we factor that into the energy we’re using?” Fromer asked.