Selling Industrial Wind: Government, the Media and Common Sense – UPDATE

UPDATE 1/30/2010:  Mr. Boone’s work is published at MasterResource.

Note supporting comment to the article by John Droz: One more consideration about Denmark’s “success” with wind energy. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) the average cost of electricity for residential customers in the US is about 10¢/KWH.

The average cost of electricity for residential customers in Denmark is about 35¢/KWH!

This is what we want to duplicate?

Note how often the NYT, REL, AWEA mention that fact.

Allegheny Treasures Post begins here:

We thank Mr. Jon Boone for granting AT permission to post his essay on the topic of:

Selling Industrial Wind: Government, the Media, and Common Sense

This week, the New York Times dutifully featured two media events primed to gin up public—and Congressional—support for industrial wind technology. The first was a “study” released by the Department of Energy and authored primarily by David Corbus of the National Renewable Energy Lab. It claims that, for a startup cost of around $100 billion public dollars, “wind could displace coal and natural gas for 20 to 30 percent of the electricity used in the eastern two-thirds of the United States by 2024.” Corbus acknowledged that such an enterprise would require substantial grid modification but said the $100 billion was “really, really small compared to other costs,” which the Times failed to identify.

A few days later, the paper ballyhooed the American Wind Energy Association’s annual report, which touted the growth of wind last year and projected that the country would soon get 2 percent of its electricity from wind energy. The report fretted about the American wind gap with Europe, which AWEA (falsely) alleged gets 5 percent of its electricity from wind, compared to only about 1 percent in the USA, while stating “Denmark has essentially achieved that goal already, and sometimes produces more wind power than it can use.” AWEA’s stalking horse for this event, energy consultant Tim Stephure, said, “By 2020 wind’s installed capacity could be five times higher than it is today, reaching about 180,000 megawatts.”

To achieve this goal, from its present base of 35,000 wind turbines and an installed capacity of about 35,000MW, the industry must build, in each of the next ten years, an installed capacity of 14,500MW. Maybe in some alternate universe. Moreover, to reach 2 percent of the nation’s electricity within existing wind capacity, current projects must produce at a capacity factor of 58 percent, their theoretical maximum. The current national wind capacity factor is 28 percent. Furthermore, as Danish engineer Hugh Sharman has said, if Denmark did not have a relatively huge Scandinavian “sink” in which the Danes could dump its considerable excess wind (which it does for most of its actual wind generation), and if that sink did not have hydro as its principle source of power, Denmark would be awash in both carbon dioxide emissions and wind turbines in the production of electricity while facing daily threats of grid meltdown.

As for the NREL’s latest effort, it’s not even rational. Would anyone think it was desirable for rescue squads in the country’s eastern region to employ drunk drivers to operate 20 percent of their ambulances? Wind behaves just like a very drunk driver, never able to walk a straight line. Integrating either wind energy on the grid or drunk drivers on the highway has enormous consequences for public safety, reliability, cost, security, and productivity. Not to mention quality—and length—of life.

New York Times reporters should have a passing knowledge of the tenets of scientific methodology. Foremost is the desirability of eliminating or reducing to an absolute minimum any bias on the part of those participating in an experiment. This is why double blind experiments are so important. Magicians know how easy it is to fool someone who wants to be fooled. And snake oil salesmen have been expert in this endeavor since the dawn of time. Corbus and the NREL wind staff have a major financial stake in the perception that wind energy is effective. AWEA is a trade group. Sadly, the Times presents the “findings” of these organizations as if their conclusions were scientifically vetted and disinterested.

The NREL document, like a similar report last year issued by this agency, is essentially a prod to influence federal legislation (such as a national RPS) that would enable wind “all the hell over the place (to quote one wind booster).” Given such coordinated timing with the AWEA annual report, it was evidently also released to complement yet another GE ad campaign in the upcoming Winter Olympic coverage on NBC. Some will recall that GE had purchased Enron’s wind projects when the latter company went belly up and now is the world’s fourth largest wind distributor. It is NBC’s parent company. Not least, the report will also reinforce the new national ad campaign designed to boost Congressional support for natural gas—the one that says how natural gas will enable “renewables” such as wind and solar (but fails to address the cost and thermal consequences of doing so).

Both AWEA and the NREL work synergistically to prime the public to support wind technology, trusting that their propaganda will be conveyed by the media as an article of faith, without, as far as I can discern, any fact checking whatsoever.

At several quiet junctions, the NREL 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 percent of the region’s electricity by 2024–only 14 years from now. This claim is particularly egregious given that wind does not even provide modern power performance–only desultory energy. Since energy is the ability to do work and power is the rate work is done, wind technology 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 percent 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? The only place that is even close is Denmark, with about 20 percent of its installed capacity from wind. But most is shunted to Scandinavia. Germany, with about 5 percent of its actual generation from wind, is struggling mightily, and often must curtail 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 percent of the installed wind capacity. And note this post from Der Spiegel about expanding nuclear reactor life spans in that country.  There seems to be no penalty for lying in the energy marketplace

Even if it were possible to integrate so much wind, consider the thermal consequences while thinking about whether or not such a volatile phenomenon could close fossil-fired or nuclear facilities. Every variation of 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 then 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 percent 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 percent increase in inefficiency results in a 14-16 percent increase in carbon emission for thermal plants—the heat rate penalty); (2) require additional conventional wind shadowing units at 90 percent 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.

Consequently, $100 billion wouldn’t pay for a first installment. Indulging the fantasy that wind technology could provide 20 percent 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 silly, a sure sign that pundits and politicians, not scientists, are now in charge of the Department of Energy.

Wind technology was a bulwark of human enterprise for millennia, but largely disappeared as soon as steam technology was discovered. Instead of Clipper ships, we now sail almost entirely for recreation–not modern production. Instead of using wind to pump water and grind grain, as the Dutch did historically to reclaim the land from the sea and make their famous beers, we now use modern precision power to improve the quality of life for billions of people. There are compelling reasons related to vastly increased productivity and improved quality of life for this rapid technological changeover.

Wind is, in the final analysis, a faith-based proposition, requiring people to close their minds and clap their hands to revive it from a life and death struggle against unbelief, bringing the technology back from the oblivion that the steam engine consigned it to.

One of the issues such wind promotions raise, particularly those from the NREL, 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 substantial 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 unreported story.

Jon Boone

Oakland, Maryland

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