T-Mobile’s announcement that it had finalized a contract with Infinity Renewables to provide a percentage of its electricity from the wind power project at the Solomon Forks Wind Project in Kansas appeals to environmentalists and advocates of renewable energy for use in major companies. Many people are unaware of the expansion of wind power as a source of electricity in the United States, so the goal of this article is to discuss a few terms and the potential downside of T-Mobile’s commitment.
First, T-Mobile’s announcement comes on the heels of its decision to join the RE100. The RE100 is a select but powerful group of global companies – Apple, Google, and Facebook are members – who are committed to the expansion of renewable energy. Though you may not have heard about the RE100 until now, T-Mobile’s decision seems both benign and logical, so no conspiracy theories need apply here.
Infinity Renewables is a company that is buying up land in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma for the creation of large wind farms to generate electricity to sell to more populated areas in the Midwest. The Plains States are an ideal location given the number of tornados that occur there each year. (One can only imagine how much power is generated when a tornado passes by.) The specific development project T-Mobile is investing in is scheduled to be up and running by the early part of 2019. Once wired in, T-Mobile will be using 100% renewable energy for its operations.
As for the practical use of wind to power large companies, especially one whose customers are highly dependent on its services, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who is overly concerned at this point. But there is a hidden reason behind the windy curtain. A 2011 research study stated that “production of mobile devices and global radio access network operation will remain the major contributors” of the world’s growing carbon footprint. Certainly T-Mobile, Apple, Google, and Facebook among others have a vested interest in reducing the carbon footprint through renewable energy because their businesses want to put mobile technology in the hands of every one of the 7 billion people inhabiting the planet.
The issue of wind farms generally does not affect people who live in large metropolitan areas, which is most of the people in the United States. But for people who live near wind farms there are two major complaints that are heard – the noise and the “flickering.” Tests from various distances of a wind turbine show the “whoosh” sound created by the turbine blades is quiet compared to the traffic noise on an average highway. That’s pretty benign stuff. The idea that more turbines will create a louder noise is simply not true. A sound of 45 decibels is still 45 decibels no matter how many blades are twirling in the wind.
Flickering requires a bit of an explanation because it has nothing to do with the actual power generation or delivery, but is the rapid change from shadows to light projected on homes and animals as the turbine blades spin. The general approach is to keep wind farms at a reasonable distance away from populated areas, as the long term effects of flickering are yet unknown. Those who lived in the 1960’s remember when strobe lights (and black lights) were part of a homey get-together. The effect of flickering is similar, except it cannot be turned off if a major telecommunications company is dependent on its power.
So there are long term issues to be considered, both for T-Mobile and wind farms in general. The first is the price of the wind turbine blades, essential for the operation. The highest tech ones are made of carbon fiber, which is both strong and lightweight and will make the process more efficient and reduce blade breakage. The problem is that two other major industries, automotive and aerospace, want the material because of its aerodynamic advantages. Competition drives up price, and at this point the competing industries are winning the price war and limiting the supply available for wind turbine blades. If enough companies join in the renewable energy game, it is inevitable the cost for the demands of efficiency and energy will be passed down to the consumer.
At this point there is no significant gathering of evidence that the flickering issue negatively impacts people or animals. The unseen problem is that there are flickering effects that are known to induce stress but have not yet been studied because not enough time has passed. If a cow starts talking to itself 5 years from now, we will have to wait until then to begin any serious research of the matter. The long term problem is that once T-Mobile and others become energy dependent on these wind farms, it will be extremely difficult to turn off the switch. It isn’t easy to just build another wind farm in another location.
This is the tendency of science you know: that for every problem it solves, 10 more are created.