In a casual conversation, I was asked why wind energy is a bad idea. Once again, I realized that a one or two-word answer could not convey a readily understandable and accurate picture of wind energy.
This article will try to provide such an answer in a few hundred words, where one or two won’t suffice.
There are essentially four reasons why wind energy is a bad idea.
- It is unreliable
- It is very, very expensive
- It produces electricity when it isn’t needed
- It has environmental issues
Wind farm in New York State. 2013
Wind can only produce electricity when the wind is blowing at between 6 mph and 55 mph. Above 6 mph, it gradually increases its output until it reaches a maximum output at around 35 mph. Above 55 mph, the wind turbine is shut down to prevent damage to the turbine.
The wind can stop blowing abruptly, so backup power generation must be immediately available to replace the wind generated electricity; or the grid could collapse causing blackouts.
Typically, gas turbine generators are kept running 24/7 so they are available to be rapidly brought online.
A sufficient number of gas turbine generators must be kept running at all times to be ready for when the wind stops blowing. This varies by region and depends on the reliability of day-ahead weather forecasts.
The electricity generated by wind has an intrinsic cost, based on leveled cost of electricity (LCOE) of around 11 cents per kWh. This compares with around 5 cents per kWh for natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plants and around 6 cents for coal-fired power plants.
But there are other costs for wind energy that are seldom taken into consideration, and not included in LCOE calculations.
First, there is the cost of back-up power. It costs money to keep gas turbine generators running for no other purpose than to be ready to come on line when the wind stops blowing, or the sun stops shining in the case of solar generation.
It also costs money to build transmission lines that are used solely, or nearly so, to carry electricity from wind farms to where it can be used.
The best winds are in Montana and along the face of the Rocky Mountains, and these can be a thousand miles from where the wind generated electricity can be used. Transmission lines must be built if this electricity is to be brought to where it can be used. Though involving shorter distances, many other wind farms also need dedicated transmission lines to connect them to the grid.
Wind farms also produce electricity at night, when it isn’t needed.
More importantly, the nameplate ratings of wind turbines overstate the amount of electricity they can produce. Wind turbines in the United States have had a capacity factor of around 32%, or lower during the recent past.
Capacity factor is the amount of electricity a wind turbine, or any other power generation method, produces over a year, compared with how much it could produce using its nameplate rating.
Coal-powered and NGCC power plants typically have a capacity factor of around 85%, while nuclear power plants have a capacity factor of 90% or higher.
The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) is constantly bragging about how many Megawatts (MW) are being installed, when a wind turbine’s true ability to produce electricity is only one-third the amount claimed by the nameplate rating.
Essentially, wind turbines produce small amounts of electricity compared with the other methods. This becomes important when hot summer days result in peak periods of usage. Not only do wind farms produce very little electricity during hot summer afternoons, but people are lulled into thinking there are large amounts of capacity available because of the substantial amount of Megawatts (MW) of wind power being installed.
As the New York Times noted:
“Peak supply is also becoming a vexing problem because so much of the generating capacity added around the country [US] lately is wind power, which is almost useless on the hot, still days when air-conditioning drives up demand.”
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas says that less than 10% of total wind capacity is “available” during peak summer days.
And finally, there are environmental issues associated with wind turbines.
Wind turbines kill thousands of birds every year, including Bald Eagles, a protected species. They also kill thousands of bats.
Wind turbines produce noise pollution that affects people living near them. Some people complain about the visual pollution of huge towers along the skyline in what are supposed to be pristine, scenic areas.
Wind turbines also use rare earths, where mining has caused serious environmental damage.
Whether these are better or worse than environmental issues caused by gas turbines or coal-fired power plants can be debated, but the point is that wind farms are not free of environmental problems.
Taxpayers are paying huge amounts of money for subsidies for wind turbines, which would otherwise be uneconomic. Whether subsidies for wind turbines will be maintained is still being debated in Congress.
Unreliable, very expensive electricity that’s not available when its needed is not worth the taxpayer subsidies used to build wind turbines, when there are less expensive, more reliable sources of electricity available.
Read more of Donn’s articles at his blog, Power For USA.
Photo credit: ali_pk (Creative Commons)