Peter Powell

One of the things I remembered from journalism classes is to get both sides of a story. Then there is one of those news networks that say that what it presents is “fair and balanced.” The thing is, these days, you sometimes have to go to several sources to end up with a fair and balanced perspective on two sides of a story. This is the case in HVACR, just as it is in world news.

That has become apparent to me over the past eight months or so as related to a topic that I knew very little about but is gaining more and more attention. It concerns wind turbines.

I saw those turbines for the first time many years ago while driving from Los Angeles to Palm Springs for an industry conference. Then in recent years, they’ve turned up closer to me during drives from northern to central Illinois. What they did and how they did it stayed pretty much on the sideline for me until this past summer when I went to an environmental fair near where I live.

I was just curious about how environmental concerns were being expressed (the fair had a number of talks on such topics), and what energy saving technologies were being promoted (there were a number of commercial exhibitors).

A recurring theme was solar panels and wind turbines. I spent a day immersed in the technologies and the sales pitches for each. There were a half dozen or more wind turbine advocates/manufacturers. They had glossy brochures filled with impressive statistics about how turbines save money and save the planet. And those folks at the booth seemed to have lots of answers. But at that point I didn’t have the questions I should have asked.

Those questions came later. In fact, a few months later I found myself looking at turbines from a completely different perspective. I’ve been blogging about that perspective for a number of months and readers of my blog are pretty familiar with it. But briefly, there are plans to build a large number of turbines in the southwest corner of the county where I live and work, as well as in the adjourning counties.

Now if all I knew was what was said at the environmental fair, I should be a gung-ho advocate with all the inexpensive wind creating power that would reduce my electric bill - and help save the planet.

But the thing is, a local weekly newspaper started to cover the process involved in getting permission to build the turbines, and the writers turned up a lot of people who were opposed to the whole idea. What was interesting was that nothing in all the stories and editorials said anything about whether or not the turbines worked as promoters said they did, even though they appear to do so.

What upset opponents was consequences of building tall towers with turbines. The issues related to clacking noise as the turbines turned, migratory patterns of birds being negatively affected, ground predators increasing in proportion to the number of dead birds falling to the ground, glares as blades reflect the rising or setting sun, the natural beauty of Illinois farmland negatively affected by man-made edifices, and lowering property values.

The counterpoint to all that, at least in the newspaper, had nothing to do with energy savings and environmental issues, which are good things, but that turbines create construction jobs and help out farmers who sell or lease their land.

The lesson-learned here is that any new technology or new product needs to undergo a litmus test and the person interested in purchasing that technology/product needs to be the one tracking down all sides of the story. Chances are the glossy brochure will not tell the total story. There are more questions to ask - first costs, paybacks, range of applications, installation and servicing challenges - and yes, the impact on the area where the product might be placed.

The good thing in this industry is that it is possible to get those answers, especially if a technology/product is doing well in field tests and actual job sites. It just behooves decision makers to look at the total picture. Good technologies and products will pass those tests fairly convincingly. It is just a matter of asking questions and - unlike me at that environmental fair - knowing what questions to ask.

Publication date: 04/05/2010