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Click to see a simulation of the proposed wind plant atop Backbone Mountain in Western Maryland
Notable Quotes

"I'm a strong advocate of wind farms on the high seas. But there are appropriate places for everything. We wouldn't put one of these in Yosemite, and I think environmentalists are falling into a trap if they think the only wilderness areas worth preserving are in the West. The most important are the ones close to our cities, where the public has access to them. And Nantucket Sound is a wilderness, which people need to experience. I always get nervous when people talk about privatizing the commons. In this case, the benefits of the power extracted from Nantucket Sound are far outweighed by the other values our communities derive from it."

—Robert Kennedy Jr., E Magazine (November/December 2003).

Wind Quick Facts

Wind and Cap-and-trade
Wind and Natural Gas
Wind and Cost
Wind and the Energy Rot in Denmark
Why Wind Technology Is Problematic

Wind and Cap-and-Trade

The utter ubiquity of carbon dioxide dooms cap-and-trade regimes as a means of containing that chemical compound. Any methodology accounting for its comings and goings is bound to be, at best, problematic. And who would really do the accounting? In general, the same people with either a financial or ideological stake in the outcome (including the US Government via the National Renewable Energy Lab, with people with a high financial stake in the outcome). Cap and trade in Europe has become a labyrinth of cynical exploitation, carrying all the way to China and India, with the upshot that carbon emissions there continue to increase (Germany's per capita CO2 emissions exceed that of the US).

The cap-and-trade scheme Bruce argues for is really political legerdemain, not economic or physical reality. If the marble under the constantly moving shell were truly discreet, such as, say, nitrous oxide or mercury, then, well, maybe such a game might be winnable. With CO2, however, we might as well be trying to contain pixie dust.

As for industrial wind technology as a means for offsetting CO2 emissions under a cap-and-trade system, the idea is truly preposterous. Wind behaves much like drunken energy. Why not push for more inebriate ambulance drivers as occasional replacements for sober ones, improving their diminished capacity by increasing their numbers more widely? This idea, not at all different in kind or degree from what is proposed for wind with electricity, should reveal even to wind zombies how silly the notion is.

Far from being cutting edge and progressive, wind technology is antediluvian and uncivil, neither able to offset meaningful levels of CO2 emissions nor to be a good neighbor. Wind and cap-and-trade are the nip-and-tuck twins of public policy pretension, for both are nurtured at the breasts of delusion and cupidity.

Wind and Natural Gas

The politicalization of the nation's electricity supply assures that the future of energy policy, particularly for electricity, will be "wild ride."

The so-called capacity "credit" for wind in Texas, as suggested by the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is 8.7%, which is virtually identical to the capacity credit of a stopped clock on an hourly basis. Even this is statistically derived, however, for unlike the clock, there is no assurance that even this amount of nameplate capacity would be available at any key future time. The reality is that wind technology can produce no effective capacity at any time—capacity that can be depended upon at any crucial time ahead period.

Those who compare wind and solar, which produce no effective capacity, to the precision, controllable dispatch of conventional generation–and then demand that these feckless energy sources replace the modern power capacity of coal and nuclear–are truly delusional. And electricity consumers, as well as taxpayers, will continue to pay more and receive less, for reduced capacity will mean less secure electricity supply.

The natural gas juggernaut has already begun, with national ads boasting how its low carbon generation can complement, even enhance, the growth of wind and solar. What is unsaid is the cost of such tandem development, both in terms of increased dollars and CO2 emissions. But it's important to note, as Australian engineer Peter Lang has showed, the even the most optimal wind integration scheme possible on most grids, a pairing with wind and a combined tandem of open (OCGT) and combined cycle (CCGT) natural gas generators, would, at best, offset only about 15% more CO2 than could be achieved through the natural gas units alone—without any wind.

If wind volatility would be followed either by CCGT, by themselves, or by OCGT, by themselves, the overall thermal activity involved with successful wind integration likely would achieve no carbon savings—and, in some cases, cause more CO2 to be emitted than if there were no wind at all.

Wind and Cost

There should be reasonable efforts to account for all costs in any energy transaction, including economic, social, and environmental externalities. Many have tried to do this. But most of these kind of analyses have been put forward on behalf of political or economic ideologies/agendas, and they haven't been either very complete or, in many cases, they've been downright disingenuous.

In comparing sources of electricity generation, however, it's essential to start with the basics. Energy is the ability to do work and power is the rate work gets done. Both these interrelated concepts meet at the nexus of productivity, wealth creation, and quality of life.

Huge turbines can convert wind energy into electrical power. But they do so with the same capacity standards that powered sailing craft and water pumps in the early nineteenth century. For nearly two hundred years, industry has deployed far more effective ways to produce power. Contrast the ability of sleek clipper ships to deliver small, typically specialized cargo across the Atlantic in three or four weeks with today's freighters that can make the same trip in days, often on schedule, while carrying many thousands of tons of diverse cargo: the power (the rate work is accomplished) of the latter is many times greater, allowing exponentially more productivity. Although we may applaud the skill of the sailor, we rely for our well being on the performance of highly responsive power.

The ability to convert prescribed amounts of energy at high rates of power at specified, convenient times is a cornerstone of modern society. Imagine the long lines at filling stations if wind power pumped the gas: your tank might get filled eventually but the wait would be infuriating, costly both to your time and that of your fellow travelers.

Although coal power, for example, has a number of costly externalities, it also provides for huge benefits, given the way it anchors (producing 50% of our electricity nationally) our systems for health maintenance and safety, among many others. Any honest calculus shows a substantial net benefit for coal well above its costs. Still, for a number of reasons, it's wise to hitch up other reliable sources of "modern power," but not desultory energy like wind and solar—enhancing, even extending, the technology that preserves the energy requirements of modernity.

Comparing the cost of wind with coal, nuclear, or natural gas is akin to comparing the cost of an automobile that doesn't work when you want it to work with the cost of an automobile that performs precisely as required whenever desired. We have lemon laws protecting people who purchase cars in the expectation they are buying highly reliable machines from dealers who would sell them junk. We should demand similar laws for our electricity supply.

Wind and the Energy Rot in Denmark

The recent Center for Policy Study (CEPOS) wind study, written mainly by Danish engineer Hugh Sharman, states that wind reduced carbon emissions in Denmark, somewhat. But let's examine this further. In fact, the study showed all that tiny country's installed carpet of wind, which provides little energy within Denmark itself for grid security reasons, is effective only because the hydro imported from Scandinavia (which emits no carbon) regulates most of the wind flux.

Over the last twenty years, the Danes have reduced their fossil fuel consumption vis a vis electricity by about 6%. But this is mostly accounted for by increased importation of Scandinavian hydro, not wind alone—typically at spot market prices. The little that wind itself saves in Denmark is likely miniscule; and, regionally, Danish wind saves no carbon emissions, as the report revealed.

If Denmark, as Sharman pointed out, did not have the Scandinavian "sink" in which it could dump its considerable excess wind, and if that sink did not have hydro as its principle source of power, the inference is clear. Denmark would be awash in both carbon dioxide emissions and wind turbines in the production of electricity.

Why Wind Technology Is Problematic

The addition of wind as a quixotic supernumerary will displace a portion of some conventional fuel, thereby reducing income for the owner/operator of that fuel. This reduced income must be compensated for, either in the form of higher prices or, eventually, in the closing of the plant itself, highly unlikely given the requirement for capacity value. Despite the presence of around 100,000 industrial-scale wind turbines in the world, no conventional plant has yet been shuttered because of wind energy.

The operative wind speed ranges for a typical wind project begin at speeds of about 9 mph and reach the project's rated capacity at 33-34 mph. Within that range, any power depends upon the cube of the wind speed, thereby accentuating the project's fluctuating volatility. It's one thing to consider the requirements for compensatory generation when the wind isn't blowing in the necessary speed range; and it's another to understand the dynamics involved even when the wind is blowing within it. When, for example, a wind project with a rated capacity of 1000MW is only producing 50MW—or nothing—at peak demand times, conventional generators must fill this breach. And when that same wind project is producing 600MW one minute, 500MW the next, 550 the next, 450 the next, and so on, instant compensation from conventional generators is required. Given the conditions imposed by the cube of the wind speed, this is business as usual. However, at times the wind energy will ebb and spike precipitously, causing wide and rapid changes that also must be compensated for by large scale dynamics—typically inefficient thermodynamics caused by the increased heat rates incurred by continuous ramping.

Wind volatility increases and intensifies the mechanisms used to balance demand fluctuations, which by themselves impose significant financial costs. Adding wind flux can only add to those costs, not decrease them. Increased costs are not simply arithmetic but rather exponential: as more wind penetrates the system, integration costs cascade.

All the ways in which wind flux can be compensated for by conventional thermal plants—natural gas, coal, oil— on a routine operational basis results in substantial CO2 costs. Optimally, open and closed cycle gas units working in tandem with wind energy, could result in CO2 system offsets that achieve about 15% greater yield than would be achieved by the gas units alone, without wind. Using only open cycle gas turbines, there would be little or no savings. Using coal and oil as the primary means of wind integration would increase system CO2 emissions beyond the levels produced without the addition of wind.

Engineers, using many of the same techniques designed for balancing demand fluctuations, can integrate wind volatility at varying levels of penetration. If it's only a few percentages of total supply, no additional conventional supply seems to be necessary. Beyond this, as the level of wind threatens marginal safety reserves, additional conventional supply must be considered for grid security. No matter what engineers do, however, they cannot escape increasing financial costs substantially. And they cannot avoid increasing the thermodynamics. In most cases, they are faced with the prospect of actually producing more CO2 than would be generated without any wind at all.

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