Industrial wind – the perfect energy solution for 1810.

Matthew Wald’s commentary in the New York Times suggests “Expanding Use of Wind Power Feasible, but May Be Costly.”  He writes that “Wind could replace coal and natural gas for 20 to 30 percent of the electricity used in the eastern two-thirds of the United States by 2024, according to a study released Wednesday by the Energy Department.”  David Corbus, of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, acknowledges that it would require significant modification to the existing grid and a $93 Billion expansion.  Mr. Corbus, presumably as a result of his status as a government employee, considers this amount “really, really small compared to other major costs.”

Mr. Jon Boone slices and dices the suggestion that industrial wind can ever become a viable source of energy in his response to the  Times, which we provide here, for your convenience:

This is yet another Department of Energy promotion for industrial wind energy, which states that for a start up cost of about $100 billion in public subsidy, wind “could replace coal and natural gas for 20 to 30 percent of the electricity used in the eastern two-thirds of the United States by 2024. This is not even a rational claim. Would anyone think that requiring Rescue Squads in the region to hire drunk drivers to operate 20% of their ambulances was a desirable thing to do? Wind behaves just like a very drunk driver. Integrating both would have enormous consequences for public safety, reliability, cost, security, and productivity, Not to mention quality–and length–of life.

The notion that volatile, intermittent “renewable energy sources” can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, make the air cleaner, shore up any shortage of electricity supply, and meaningfully abate CO2 emissions from fossil-fueled plants is now deeply entrenched in our political rhetoric. Such belief has the same basis in reality as the Wizard’s glitzy illusions had for the Emerald City of Oz. Environmental history is the chronicle of how adverse consequences flowed from the uninformed decisions of the well-intentioned. When perception is wrong, reality will ultimately impose itself as itself, often with rude effect. Even in Washington.

Keep in mind this “report” was written by those with a financial stake in the outcome, particularly those who work in the National Renewable Energy Lab. I’m not going to spend a lot of time with this but I’ll give you several bullets that should help you understand that the document, like a similar report last year from this agency, is essentially a prod to induce federal legislation (such as a national RPS) that would enable wind “all the hell over the place (to quote one wind booster).” And that it is fashioned to complement yet another GE ad campaign in the upcoming Winter Olympic coverage on NBC, GE’s subsidiary, and, not least, the new ad campaign to boost Congressional support for natural gas. All of this serves to prime the public for massive wind political support, carried over the media as an article of faith, without, as far as I can discern, any fact checking whatsoever, including Matt Wald’s reporting of this event in The New York Times.

* At several quiet junctions, however, the report admits wind cannot be a capacity resource. Except for a few engineers, almost no one understands how damning this admission is. Our modern system of power insists on capacity value–getting a specific amount of energy on demand and controlling it whenever desired. And so the issue is how to make people believe that a source of energy, which is highly variable and unresponsive and provides no capacity value while inimical to demand cycles, can effectively provide 20% of the region’s electricity by 2024–only 14 years from now. With nearly 35,000 wind turbines now operational in the US, wind provides little more than 1% of the country’s electrical power today. You should also understand that wind does not even provide modern power performance–only desultory energy. (Again, energy is the ability to do work; power is the rate work is done–wind delivers fluctuating energy at a rate appropriate for 1810, not 2024.)

* Is it possible to integrate such a random, variable, capacity-less source of energy with modern machine power at a level equal to 20% of the generation necessary to match demand in 2024? Yes, under the category that virtually anything like this is possible. But what are the odds? And who’s going to keep score? And what are the penalties if it does not (there seems to be no penalty for lying in the energy marketplace)? I’d personally wager $10,000 that it won’t happen, giving odds of 10 million to one, maybe more, against it. The only place where this target is even close to the mark is Denmark, with about 18% of its installed generation from wind. But, as you should know, 50-80% of it is shunted elsewhere. Germany, with about 5% of its actual generation from wind, is struggling mightily, and often must refuse its wind energy altogether to protect the grid. More wind there would require more conventional generation to shadow the wind projects–at between 80-90% of the installed wind capacity. Note this post today from Der Spiegel about expanding nuclear reactor life spans in that country.

* Even if it were possible to integrate all this wind, consider the thermal consequences while thinking about whether or not all this wind could close fossil-fired or nuclear facilities. Every variation of the wind energy must be balanced by reliable conventional generators, working overtime to do so. Occasionally, all that wind will produce virtually nothing. What conventional plants can close so that the grid doesn’t have to shut down when this occurs? What will happen when all that wind spikes upward suddenly, requiring that conventional generators be shut off instantly? Integrating a level of wind energy at 20% of the region’s total generation would (1) unleash large quantities of CO2 emissions as conventional generators would be operating much less efficiently (generally, a 2% increase in inefficiency results in a 14-16% increase in carbon emission for thermal plants); (2) require additional conventional wind shadowing units at 90% of the installed wind capacity; (3) require building thousands of miles of new–and virtually dedicated–transmission lines to bring wind from remote areas and to keep it from tying up the transmission of existing production (that is, resolving the transmission scheduling problems); and (4) require installing whole new systems of voltage regulation to accommodate the wind flux. And there are many other things that would be necessary.

* Given all this, $100 billion wouldn’t pay for a first installment. Indulging the fantasy that wind technology could provide 20% of the region’s electricity if only we could bypass a fusty federalism and spend trillions on a smart grid, retrofitting modern technology to meet the needs of ancient wind flutter, is monumentally backasswards, a sure sign that pundits and politicians, not scientists, are now in charge of the Department of Energy. It would take more than a smart grid to incorporate such a dumb idea successfully.

Wind technology mirrors the subprime economic regimes that created the current morass, for it cannot create growth or wealth (no capacity or modern power performance); must be shadowed by genuine wealth producers like natural gas, reducing their capacity and efficiency; and generates few jobs or value added revenue.

One of the issues that this particular incident brings home to me, is how political our information-assessment government agencies have become. And this indictment includes the National Academy of Science, whose reports now are largely written by those with a huge financial stake in the outcome; there’s not even a presumption that bias has been removed. And the media don’t even question this anymore, simply taking it as business as usual. The politicalization of knowledge, particularly in areas as important to our modernity as energy, is a major story in and of itself.

Jon Boone


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