#6. Windplants will reduce the mining/burning of fossil fuels and lessen dependence on foreign oil.
Nonsense. Here are the facts:
Wind only generates electricity. Electricity generation is only part of our energy production. Sixty percent of the nation’s energy use does not involve the making of electricity. Coal and gas-fired power plants do pollute the air with toxic hydrocarbons. But the sheer volume of automobile exhaust combined with home heating demand are major contributors to the problem It is folly to suggest that thousands of wind turbines blanketing the mountains of the eastern US would do anything of significance to mitigate these other energy forces evidently contributing to the warming of the planet. Allegheny Power, the major electricity provider in the region including Western Maryland, reports that oil accounted for three-tenths of 1% of the resources used to generate its power in 2008. Nationwide, this figure is about 1%. Even if industrial wind generated ten percent of the nation’s electricity, it would not staunch the fossil fuel emissions thought to be involved in accelerating global warming, given our nation’s increasing energy consumption and given that wind can only intermittently, and in a continuously variable way, address the electricity portion of the energy production problem—the minor portion.
Given that wind only produces electricity, given that we use so little oil for electricity production, and even if large numbers of wind turbines displaced the three tenths of one percent of our electricity now produced by oil, the region would still be heavily dependent on coal and gas, power sources often described as “dirty”—and we would still be mightily dependent on foreign oil, contrary to what the wind industry claims.
Wind technology in the uplands of the eastern United States stands little chance of displacing fossil fuel extraction efforts or reducing its consumption, given our increasing rate of electricity demand. Wind machinery has problems accessing and controlling its source of power. Because of the variable nature of wind velocity, sometimes it is not strong enough to generate power and other times it is too strong to be commercially tapped. The industry has attempted to increase its effectiveness by making taller machines and targeting them on high ridges with excellent wind potential. Nonetheless, because of its intermittency, wind technology will require compensation from other, often “dirty” power sources for the time it does not operate or works at sub-optimal levels—which is more than 70% of its rated capacity.
A wind turbine is designed to generate optimal electrical power relative to its size, shape, ability to withstand stresses, rotor sweep and efficiency, and location, among other conditions. The wind needs to blow eight to fourteen miles an hour before a turbine will produce electricity, and a turbine is programmed to shut down when the wind velocity exceeds 50 or 55 miles per hour to prevent harm to its gears. If the wind were to blow at a sufficiently consistent velocity all the time and the turbine never broke down, the turbine would be operating at 100 percent of its capacity potential over a year’s time—its Rated Capacity. However, because the wind is intermittent and volatile, and the turbines at various times require maintenance, they actually will produce electricity only some of the time. Using a combination of considerations, such as meteorological testing, weather history, the history of turbine effectiveness, among others, energy experts assign a Capacity Factor for each turbine model, which predicts the amount of electricity a turbine will actually produce in a year. No existing windplants located in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland (PJM) region have achieved a capacity factor of more than 30 percent. This means that 70 percent of the time they are not producing electricity. Consequently, a windplant rated at 47 MW, for example, will annually generate in the neighborhood of 12-15 MW (25-30% of its rated capacity). Sixty percent of the time it will produce less than 12-15MW. And at peak demand times frequently generate nothing. Whatever it does produce would be continuously skittering, never steady, since any wind “power” is a function of the cube of the wind’s speed. Consequently, a change in the wind speed of from 11 to 22mph would mean that the wind energy would increase sevenfold—from 6 to 73% of its rated capacity. And vice versa.
Other power sources, such as coal or nuclear, also don’t work all of the time and must be supplemented by power sources that are working. The electricity grid has a complex monitoring system for predicting and maintaining its supply. Electricity must balance the rate of production with the rate of consumption at all times. A fundamental problem with supplying electricity is that electricity cannot be stored at industrial levels. Once generated, electricity must be delivered and consumed immediately. However, power sources like coal and nuclear are rarely volatile when producing their yield. Nuclear has a national capacity factor of 92%, meaning that it produces its capacity factor, or a requested portion thereof, virtually all the time throughout the year. Large coal plants do the same, and have a capacity factor over 80%. The volatile, extremely unpredictable nature of wind resource makes its technology different from other power sources not only in degree but in kind.
The variable nature of wind energy might not pose a problem to the region’s electricity grid at present levels. However, increasing the percentage of wind energy to higher levels would require significant and expensive technological modifications to the grid and to the various transmission systems out to the end user. It would also present major challenges for the grid’s management.
This may not be a substantial concern until wind energy becomes a major contributor to the electricity grid, adding, say, two or three percent to the total electricity supply. A “Wind Report 2004” by E-On/Netz, one of Germany’s largest electric grid operators, confirms this analysis, adding many other “price” caveats: given the intermittent and volatile nature of the wind, both the mechanics of grid operation and transmission technology would have to be retooled—at substantial cost—to back up wind generation. In fact, if wind energy increased to provide, say, just a small percentage of the power for the PJM grid, primarily fossil-fueled generating plants would have to fire up to levels of 90 percent to function as a “shadow” back up service. This report also confirms that wind utilization rates rarely achieve 30 percent, that is, they don’t work more than 70 percent of the time.
Even with a generous 30 percent capacity factor, more than 2000 giant 2.5 MW turbines are needed to mathematically equal the annual production of one 1600 MW coal plant. But they can’t do so functionally, for what must happen when 5000 MW of wind is producing only 100MW at peak demand times, which happens frequently. Even if we placed huge wind machines at all the good wind sites possible in the uplands east of the Mississippi River (a region with only 5% of the wind energy potential of the continental US), this would still not reduce the mining or burning of coal, given that our demand for electricity will continue to increase. In fact, wind technology works least when the need is greatest—summer peak demand, when the wind is typically not very active. For example, at the newly constructed Mountaineer wind facility in West Virginia, the capacity factor during summer months averages less than 15 percent—half of the average annual capacity factor. This is also true for the mountains of western New York state, based upon anemometer projections for that region.
Consider the following graph showing the relationship between demand for electricity and the potential of windpower to meet it in the uplands of the Mid-Atlantic region.
This region comprises all or most of six states and Washington, DC. Its ridges have less than one percent of the nation’s wind energy potential. Moving from left to right, the upward curve on the graph represents the demand for electricity that is expected to increase in the region at a conservative projection rate of two percent each year into the foreseeable future, particularly as the current recession ebbs. Present supply comes from the PJM Interconnection, the world’s largest grid operator, which taps a variety of power sources—primarily fossil fuels, with negligible contributions from wind.
However, if (and this is a most improbable if) the wind industry could immediately exploit all the wind potential available in the region’s uplands, saturating it with 30,000 huge turbines functioning at a capacity factor of 30 percent (see the table below), then it could produce, mathematically, enough electricity to supply about one-fourth of the present level of demand. In the graph, this hypothetical supply from wind is represented in blue atop the ongoing level of demand. But note, in about 15 years, our increased rate of demand will absorb any yield produced by wind, necessitating additional energy sources to supply it. Unless wind turbines fill up the Chesapeake Bay and are constructed off the ocean’s shore, the projected additional future power sources will not come from wind, for the industry will be tapped out on land. As the graph rather dramatically shows, wind energy development of the region’s uplands—at its realistic maximum—will not result in a net reduction of greenhouse gases or cut the present rate of the burning of coal and other fossil fuels. The very best case scenario for wind in the Mid-Atlantic region is that future wind energy development will only slightly lessen the rapidly increasing rate in the growth of demand for electricity from “dirty” power sources. But the dynamics of wind volatility will ensure that the industry will not produce any meaningful carbon emissions offsets.
The claim wind companies make about potential wind energy production may seem impressive. However, a million hamsters churning treadmills will also produce electricity. But what’s the point? In this larger scheme, industrial wind’s comparatively minuscule energy production would immediately be engulfed by increasing demand. The PJM grid coordinates the delivery of more than 163,000 MW of electricity annually to the region. A 45 MW wind facility might annually contribute 14 MW of unreliably intermittent energy to the grid—.0000858 percent of the grid’s current supply. The boast that this kind of energy plant would be an important first step in the direction of a comprehensively effective wind system is therefore unsupportable.
See the chart below.
Potential Amount of Electricity That Could Be Generated Annually From Renewable Sources Within States Of The Mid-Atlantic Region
1. Source information is from a national report entitled – Generating Solutions: How States Are Putting Renewable Energy Into Action – A Report of the US PIRG Education Fund and the State Public Interest Research Groups. February 2002. [“This report examines 21 states and their potential for electricity generation from renewable resources using state-of-the-art technology.” Estimates of amount of electricity possible for energy sources were based on studies by government (mainly National Renewable Energy Laboratory), industry and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).] Amount of electricity is shown as Million kilowatt-hours.
2. Union of Concerned Scientists estimate based on a state breakout of data developed for Doherty, Julie P., “U.S. Wind Energy Potential: the Effect of the Proximity of Wind Resources to Transmission Lines,” Monthly Energy Review, Energy Information Administration, February 1995. Includes class 3 and higher windy land area within 20 miles of existing transmission lines, excluding all urban and environmentally sensitive areas, 50% of forest land, 30% or agricultural land, and 10% of range land.
3. Number of modern industrial wind turbines is calculated by dividing each state’s Wind Potential by the average amount of electricity annually generated by a 1.5-MW turbine. An “average” 1.5-MW turbine produces only about 30% of its rated capacity each year (i.e., Capacity Factor = .30), so its annual output would be about 4 million kilowatt-hours (1,500 kw *.30 * 8760 hrs/yr).
Unfortunately, the demand for electricity will be so great over the next thirty years that additional coal plants are likely to be built. Florida Power and Light, the nation’s third largest electric utility company, now owns over one-half of the wind energy facilities in the US. Moreover, AES Corporation, which operates a coal-burning power plant at Cumberland, Maryland, has recently joined with US WindForce (which has several approved and planned projects in West Virginia and Maryland), lending its financial backing to wind energy development in the region. US WindForce is the most ambitious developer of wind energy in the Alleghenies.
Such “equity investments” between wind and coal will likely grow in number, as the former industry reaps the cachet of association with a major electricity producer while the latter gathers in the use of wind’s generous tax avoidance shelters and its reputation as a green energy source. The irony of these partnerships should not be lost on the public.
Unless we have a major change of political direction, fossil fuel combustion, and the toxins it emits into the air, will increase in the future, contributing to such dire statistics as the rate of asthma’s doubling every five years. The wind industry will not itself alter this circumstance. Only when the public insists upon implementing appropriate standards and newer equipment to increase efficiency, as well as conservation measures that reduce per capita consumption demand, will air quality improve. Indeed, because of some of these measures residual to the last Administration, which mandated newer, more efficient coal-burning technology, air quality in the region has actually improved in recent years.
Altogether, the wind industry in the uplands of the eastern US is not an answer to the concerns about global warming, energy independence, air pollution, or public health.
Related posts: “… the total amount of power produced by all the 2,300 turbines so far built in Britain amounts on average to a mere 900 megawatts, barely the output of a single medium-size conventional power station” … “Just a little reminder – wind won’t replace coal. Sorry, but it’s just a fact!” … “A Conversation with Jon Boone – Toward a Better Understanding of Industrial Wind Technology“