Resource Documents: Impacts (119 items)
Documents presented here are not the product of nor are they necessarily endorsed by National Wind Watch. These resource documents are provided to assist anyone wishing to research the issue of industrial wind power and the impacts of its development. The information should be evaluated by each reader to come to their own conclusions about the many areas of debate.
Author: New Zealand Environmental Court
 In an Interim Decision dated 1 December 2016 the court granted consent to Windflow Technology Limited for a wind turbine at Gebbies Pass, Banks Peninsula, subject to conditions which would be confirmed in a final decision.
 This decision finalises the conditions of consent and, subject to any issues as to costs, resolves this appeal.
 By way of background this is an appeal against a decision to re-consent an existing wind turbine at Gebbies Pass, Banks Peninsula. The turbine was made operational in 2004 and, as we recorded in the Interim Decision, the residents in the neighbouring McQueen’s Valley have experienced noise from the turbine which has intruded upon their general enjoyment of their properties and for some, disturbed and disrupted their sleep.
 During the tenure of the original consent, Windflow did not undertake compliance monitoring within McQueen’s Valley to confirm whether the turbine was operating within the conditions imposed on its consent. Instead it relied on predicted noise levels in the valley based on measurements undertaken at the turbine site. We were greatly troubled by this and by the reliance on the turbine’s attainment of the noise limits in the New Zealand Standard 6808:201 O as this proved inimical to an enquiry into the experience of noise within McQueen’s Valley which, in contrast to the turbine site, has a very low sound environment.
 Disengaged with the persons living within the receiving environment, Windflow has been met with strong opposition to this application. To its credit, at the conclusion of the hearing Windflow proposed restrictions on the hours of operation of the turbine in response to the parties’ concerns, although it maintained these measures were not mandated by the evidence.
 The court reached a different view on the evidence. Noise from the turbine, including amplitude modulation, was a particular feature of this case because of its adverse effect on the amenity of the residents in the low background sound environment of McQueen’s Valley. Overall, we concluded the restrictions on the hours of operation and ceasing operation of the turbine if verification measurements identified penalisable levels of amplitude modulation or tonality were an appropriate response given Windflow’s duty under s 16 of the Resources Management Act 1991 to avoid unreasonable noise. …
3. Hours of Operation:
i. The turbine shall not be operated on any day of the week between the hours of 1900 and 2200 except when the wind speed measured at the hub height of the turbine exceeds 10 metres per second [22 mph] …
6. Verification measurements
In terms of the verification measurements required by this condition: …
v. If the verification measurements indicate the sound power level at the reference position at hub height wind speed of 8 m/s is 65 dB or greater, or contains tonality or amplitude modulation which would be penalisable under NZS 6808:2010, the requirements of Condition 7 shall apply …
7. Restricted operations
i. Should the criterion of Condition 6(v) apply, operation of the wind turbine between 1700 and 0500 hours shall immediately cease …
8. Compliance monitoring
In conjunction with the verification measurements required under condition 6:
i. The consent holder shall undertake compliance monitoring and confirm that the wind turbine is operating within the noise limits [LA90(10min)] set out in the following table when assessed at the measuring points defined in condition 8(ii) below.
|Background Sound Level||424 Gebbies Pass Road||McQueen’s Valley|
|>35 dB||Background + 5 dB||Background + 5 dB|
|30-35 dB||40 dB||Background + 5 dB|
|<30 dB||40 dB||35 dB|
Download original document: “Pickering v. CCC: Final Decision of the Environmental Court”
A: Under section 285 of the Resource Management Act 1991, the Environment Court orders:
(i) the Christchurch City Council is to pay the sum of $3,605.00 to Luke Pickering; and
(ii) Windflow Technology Limited is to pay the sum of $10,815.00 to Luke Pickering.
B: Under section 286 of the Resource Management Act 1991, the District Court at Christchurch is named as the court this order may be filed in for enforcement purposes (if necessary).
Grounds for the application
 Mr Pickering submits it was necessary for him to pursue an appeal because the Council’s decision to grant consent did not offer reasonable protection to the surrounding neighbourhood.
 He has found the entire process stressful, and needless to say very costly. From Mr Pickering’s point of view, he approached mediation in a conciliatory manner and his desire was to reach early, meaningful resolution. During that time, despite requests not to, Windflow continued to operate the turbine without consent.
 The need to carry on with the appeal has resulted in considerable financial costs for Mr Pickering and he seeks to obtain fair recognition of these costs.
Discussion and findings …
 Pursuant to s 16 of the Act, every occupier of land and every person carrying out an activity on it is to adopt the best practicable option to ensure that the emission of noise from that land does not exceed a reasonable level. The experts advising the City Council and Windflow have assumed the adverse effect of noise is acceptable provided that the wind turbine complies with the guideline noise limits in the New Zealand Standard 6808. We disagreed. Whether the effect of noise below the guideline limits is adverse is sensitive to the receiving environment in which that the noise is experienced.
 Background sound levels in this deeply incised Valley are very low relative to the sound levels on the windy ridgeline where the turbine is located. Turbine noise is the dominant noise in the Valley. The turbine noise is clearly audible above background sound, even though the level of turbine noise does not exceed the guideline limits in the New Zealand Standard. The particular character of this noise and its unpredictability has had an adverse effect on general enjoyment of the properties and for some disturbed their sleep.
 Windflow’s and the City Council’s assumption that the effect of noise below the guideline limits is acceptable was inimical to an enquiry into the actual experience of noise within McQueen’s Valley. This assumption was challenged by Mr Lewthwaite, the expert called on behalf of Mr Pickering.
 Because Windflow (and the Council) relied on expert advice, we do not go as far as to say Windflow neglected its duty. That said, the offer to amend the proposed conditions by providing residents respite from the noise of the adverse effects came very late, on the last day of the hearing. This is a significant improvement on an offer evidently made to Mr Pickering prior to the commencement of the hearing recorded in a letter from Windflow’s counsel to lawyers acting for a second appellant who later withdrew.
 Knowing of the residents’ concerns, I find that Windflow failed to adequately explore the possibility of settlement where compromise could have been reasonably expected. Given the above, I am satisfied that there are grounds to exercise my discretion and order costs against Windflow.
The Council …
 [T]he decision of Commissioner appointed by the Council to hear and determine the resource consent application records the Commissioner’s unease with the noise and its characteristics. He thought it possible that localised topographical features may make turbine noise more intrusive than what modelling might otherwise indicate. He was also critical of the failure of the Council to independently review Windflow’s assessment of noise and its effects. The Commissioner’s intuition as to the cause of the adverse effect was sound.
 At this hearing the Council engaged an independent expert on the topic of noise. The public’s interest is at the forefront of the Council’s role but it did not make enquiry into the actual experience of turbine noise within McQueen’s Valley. The Council did not appreciate that the New Zealand Standard is a guideline and instead relied on its expert’s advice that the effect of noise below the guideline levels in the Standard is always acceptable. For these reasons I am satisfied that there are grounds to exercise my discretion and that it is fair in the circumstances that the Council recompense Mr Pickering for a share of the costs that he has incurred. …
 Given the modest sum claimed I am satisfied that a contribution of 75% costs ($14,420.19) is appropriate here.
 I will order Windflow to pay 75% of those costs and the Council to pay 25%.
Download original document: “Pickering v. CCC: Decision of the Environment Court on Application for Costs”
Author: Coffey, Jacinta
My name is Jacinta Coffey, and I live, with my family, on a multigenerational farm that has been in my husband’s family for over 160 years. Our home, which is also our workplace, is 4 km from the proposed wind farm.
I am very concerned about the implications the proposed amendments to the planning permit being considered by this hearing will have on our health if any of our family or workers are affected by wind turbine noise. We choose to live here because of the peace and tranquillity our area provides, visitors to our home always comment on how quiet and peaceful it is.
On the basis of the well documented individual experiences of other Australian farming families living out to 10km from existing wind farms with smaller less powerful wind turbines, I have good reason to believe this amenity, specifically our ability to obtain a good night’s sleep will be more likely to be taken away from us if these amendments for larger more powerful wind turbines are approved.
Recent first hand reports from Finnish residents exposed to much larger wind turbines support my concerns. There are currently no wind turbines 180 metres tall in Australia. No studies, let alone long term studies have yet been done with turbines this size, so the distance of acoustic impact is currently unknown, but likely on the basis of current limited population noise impact evidence to be greater than 10km.
I am also concerned as to the detrimental effect the proposed turbines of 180m will have on our “worlds most liveable town” Port Fairy. Our beautiful town is commonly known as the “Jewel in the Crown of the South West” and attracts large numbers of visitors year round who come here to enjoy the natural beauty and tranquillity of the area, and to escape the industrialisation and cacophony of the cities. We own and operate accommodation in Port Fairy, so I have direct first hand knowledge of the reasons why people visit our town.
My own observation when visiting the UK and Europe some years ago is that when driving in the countryside and spotting Wind Turbines in the distance we always headed in a different direction as we wanted to experience the quiet scenic beauty of the countryside, not the industrialisation of it. I have no doubt that in time, some visitors will take the same approach when seeing these monstrosities in the distance, which will be further damaged if noise pollution from larger wind turbines also affects Port Fairy ie the visitors will turn away and in turn destroy our town’s main industry, and a significant local employer – being tourism.
For some years I have been following the growing scientific evidence about the adverse health effects from wind turbines, as well as the increasing number of people speaking out about the serious health problems they have endured, living near Australian Wind Farms. In particular the regular and worsening sleep disturbance, and the repeated physiological stress symptoms including repeated examples of the fight flight response, or startle reflex – eg the common description of “repeatedly waking up at night in an anxious frightened panicked state” are a concern. These sleep and stress problems are in addition to the symptoms of a seasickness like illness affecting balance in people who are prone to motion sickness, and worsening migraines in people who suffer that affliction. These problems and others were described by Dr Nina Pierpont in her study, published in 2009.
I note that in 2008, staff from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences writing an editorial for the journal Perspectives in Environmental Health stated the following:
“Even seemingly clean sources of energy can have implications on human health. Wind energy will undoubtedly create noise, which increases stress, which in turn increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer”
I also note that Victorian GP, Dr David Iser, conducted his study at Toora in 2004, after the turbines had only been operating for a year, which illustrated that sleep disturbance and stress were the main problems for those people who reported adverse effects. He tried to warn Victorian government authorities back in 2004, but was ignored.
More recently Dr Wayne Spring, who was a sleep physician for over thirty years based in Ballarat, gave an interview to the Hamilton Spectator and was quoted on 29 April, 2017 as saying that “as a sleep specialist he only saw patients who were referred to him by their GPs and therefore the actual number of patients who were suffering from wind turbine health impacts was probably far greater”. Dr Spring noted that “some affected people go to other locations to sleep in an effort to cope and some people have just sold up and moved away”.
I have also talked directly to residents who have been seriously adversely affected by the noise and vibrations – including people forced to leave their homes regularly, and sometimes permanently, because of that damage to their health. These people are now reporting that they become unwell when exposed to other noise sources – in other words they have now become noise sensitised. They are people just like me, and my family. I do not want this to happen to me, or to any member of my family, or indeed, any member of my community.
Sometimes animals, including working dogs, have also been affected, and in some instances, including in Victoria, this has been confirmed by their veterinarians.
This observational evidence from animals, backed up by scientific research in animals (badgers and geese) that shows objective biological evidence of increased physiological stress in animals exposed to wind turbine noise puts a lie to the excuse used by the wind industry and its lawyers and medical experts that the symptoms in humans are all due to a nocebo effect.
The other excuse used is that the reported problems are all due to pre existing conditions, and “never” the noise. This atrocious lie is exposed when people describe what happens when the wind turbines are not operating – they sleep well, and do not have the distressing symptoms they experience when the turbines are operating. Community based researcher Mary Morris has formally documented this cross over comparision between “operating”, and “not operating” states in individuals at Waterloo, in South Australia.
Recent field research conducted in Australia by Dr Bruce Rapley, Dr Huub Bakker, Ms Rachel Summers, reported by Steven Cooper in June 2017 at the International Conference into the Biological Effects of Noise in Zurich, and then in Boston at the American Acoustical Society meeting, has provided scientific evidence suggesting that dynamically pulsed amplitude modulation with a high peak to trough ratio (known as “strong AM) is triggering what is known to science as the “startle reflex”. This is an example of the direct causal relationship between an acoustic trigger, and the consequent physiological stress response.
The scientific data confirming the “startle reflex” event at the Taralga Wind Farm is consistent with the observed devastating and rapid effects of wind turbine noise on children with autism, and adults with post traumatic stress disorder. There is already scientific research showing that children with autism, and adults with PTSD have an enhanced startle reflex reaction to some sounds. I, and so should you, be concerned for the more vulnerable members of our communities who have autism or PTSD and will no doubt have their quality of life affected by these massive wind turbines, because of their increased vulnerability via the startle reflex response to the physiological stress effects of the noise the wind turbines emit.
Previous Swedish research, reported in Buenos Aires last year, showed that “strong AM” caused sleep disturbance, even in young fit healthy people. This is yet more evidence of a direct causal relationship between an acoustic trigger from a wind turbine, and physiological effects, which if repeated and prolonged, will cause damage to health from sleep deprivation alone. Sufficient good quality sleep is well accepted by health authorities and the medical profession to be a biological necessity for everyone – that is why noise pollution regulations and standards exist. Rural residents living near wind turbines or any other industrial noise source should not have their sleep quality and health sacrificed.
Steven Cooper also demonstrated in Boston, using the actual acoustic recordings from his Pacific Hydro funded Cape Bridgewater study, that the precise times that were independently reported by the residents to be so bad that they had to leave their homes (called “sensation level 5”) showed this “strong” dynamically pulsed amplitude modulation. As the immediate past Director of Acoustic Standards of America Dr Paul Schomer told the June Boston meeting in his presentation, Cooper has demonstrated evidence of a direct causal relationship between symptoms and turbine operation.
So, in summary, the reported adverse health effects from operating wind turbines, including sleep disturbance and progressive noise sensitisation, are real and have been known to Victorian authorities for 13 years.
Independent scientific evidence is now confirming the longstanding reports of harm from residents and Victorian Medical Practitioners, and is identifying the acoustic triggers.
The physiological mechanism of the startle reflex is already well known to science, as is the fact that repeated activation of the startle reflex in mammals leads to sensitisation.
These adverse health effects are being increasingly recognised in courts internationally – with noise nuisance cases being run, and then settled with gag agreements, in jurisdictions such the High Courts in the United Kingdom, and Ireland, and in the United States of America. In the most recent Irish High Court case, the developer admitted liability for noise nuisance prior to the cases brought by seven Irish families being settled, with gag agreements.
I should add that these gag agreements, also known as “nondisclosure” clauses have also been used in Victoria since 2004 – to silence sick people forced out of their homes because of the effects of wind turbine noise – for example at Toora, (publicly confirmed by their law firm, Slater & Gordon) and at Waubra. Increasingly these non disclosure clauses are also being used pre emptively by wind power operators in so called “community benefit agreements” or “good neighbour agreements” to silence people for the lifetime of the project, before they have any idea what the adverse impacts will be for themselves and their families.
So, what happens when wind turbine planning panels agree to change planning permits to increase the size and power generating capacity? Industry independent medical and acoustical experts at previous Victorian panel hearings have advised previous panels that the known and admitted adverse health effects from wind turbine noise including sleep deprivation will worsen if these changes are made. This opinion is partly based on research by Danish expert Acousticians Professors Moller and Pedersen, published in 2011, that found that the low frequency noise will predictably increase as a proportion of the total sound emitted, and so too the already known adverse effects for neighbours – which acousticians call “annoyance”. This expert opinion is also based on the observed, reported, and partially documented effects on residents’ sleep of larger wind turbines at Waterloo, and Macarthur.
So far, the decisions by other Victorian planning panels about upsizing existing permits have not protected the health and amenity of residents, ever. Unfortunately, I have no reason to think that this panel will behave any differently.
So, let me tell you all what I am going to do to protect my family from noise nuisance. I am going to do what other Australian residents are starting to do – which is to learn how to conduct environmental noise monitoring via registered training courses now available, as well as to install good quality acoustic recording systems and sound level meters which will accurately collect full spectrum acoustic data inside and outside my home, and my family’s workplace. This will give us hard objective, legally admissible evidence of acoustic exposures, pre and post construction, and will also demonstrate just how quiet our existing background noise environment is. As we will collect WAV file recordings, they will be able to be played back in court.
When the wind turbines are built, and start operating, our full spectrum acoustic monitoring will continue.
We will also all be getting thorough health checks done, prior to construction, and we will be keeping detailed diaries, and collecting objective physiological data to supplement the diary evidence.
If my family is harmed by your decision, it is our intention to protect our common law legal rights, and that all those involved in causing and enabling that predictable harm from noise nuisance will be held legally liable.
Mrs Jacinta Coffey
Monday, 7th August, 2017
[34 references, with links, are included in the original PDF (download).]
1. Article – Hamilton Spectator April 29, 2017 [link to original press release]
2. Article – National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – North Carolina June 2008 [link | download]
3. Report – Waterloo Case – Mary Morris September 2013 [link]
4. Letter from Dr Sarah Laurie MBBS CEO Waubra Foundation [download]
Author: Pease, Janice
I want to start off by saying I support green energy and the move towards ending our dependence on fossil fuels as well as nuclear.
Clearly we need clean energy, as quickly as possible.
However, something needs to change in how we think about these goals and the routes we take to achieve them.
In rural areas around the country, industrial wind farms are cropping up, seemingly over night, invading the skyline of our most pristine and beautiful locations. These turbines are now tending toward the heights of 500 to 600 feet from base to the blade tip.
Locally, in Hopkinton and Parishville we are being threatened with 40 industrial turbines, 500 feet tall potentially within 2,500 feet of home.
There is a lack of ethics in how the companies operate and approach the communities. In 2009 the first lease was signed in Hopkinton, but many of us did not find out about this project until about 2 years ago. There was no notification through our local government, the secrecy was in part achieved through agreements that the company made within the project zone.
Because of this lack of community awareness, our town was not properly prepared as far as zoning including a wind law. Over the past couple of years our towns have been working to build up the wind laws to protect ourselves. However, there has been great pushback by Avangrid/Iberdrola and leaseholders.
Because of the lack of transparency and scientific knowledge, our wind laws may still not protect the towns from what could happen if the turbines come in.
In their relatively short life spans, the turbines damage things that aren’t replaceable, such as water quality. In Scotland at the Whitelee Wind Farm, Scottish Power (a subsidiary of Iberdrola) knew of contamination in private water supplies to homes. This contamination included E. Coli and other coliform bacteria which resulted in illness. Test results obtained by Dr. Rachel Connor showed high levels of trihalomethane, which research has linked to cancers, stillbirths, and miscarriages. Scottish Power Renewables admitted not notifying the appropriate authorities of the water contamination for 7 years, until it came to light following investigation by local residents. During the pile driving, other chemicals from manufacturing contaminate water supplies.
This is just one aspect of the health issues relating to industrial turbine farms.
A more controversial issue is the noise output of industrial-scale turbines, which produce not only audible noise but the more concerning inaudible low frequencies and infrasound.
Over the past year and a half I have read everything I could about wind turbines and their relationship to sound. It is more complex than the industry would have you believe. The sound produced by turbines is defined as the amplitude modulation of broadband aerodynamic noise created by the blades at the blade-passing frequency. This acoustic signal has both a high-frequency broadband character and low-frequency amplitude modulation. This is in part why the sound character overshadows the existing noise profile of these rural areas.
Being that most noise standards are set using the dBA scale (which deals mainly with human conscious threshold of hearing), sounds that are inaudible but otherwise sensed are not being measured or acknowledged.
Many scientists and experts, including Dr. Nina Pierpont, the author of Wind Turbine Syndrome, A Report on a Natural Experiment, has documented case reports of patients suffering from what has now been coined wind turbine syndrome. This syndrome produces several symptoms related to the vestibular system’s organs – such as disturbed sleep, headaches, tinnitus, a sense of quivering or vibration, nervousness, rapid heartbeat, nausea, difficulty with concentration, memory loss, and irritability.
During my research, I have come to a deeper understanding of the complexity of these health affects and the connection between wind turbine syndrome and vibroaccoustic disease. I have been in contact with Dr. Mariana Alves-Pereira in Portugal, who holds degrees in physics, biomedical engineering, and environmental science. She and her team have been researching vibroacoustic disease since 1980.
Quoting from The Clinical Stages of Vibroacoustic Disease, by Nuno Castelo Branco:
This disease is an effect of exposure to low-frequency noise and infrasound.
- Stage I, mild signs (behavioral and mood associated with repeated infections of the respiratory tract, example – bronchitis
- Stage II, moderate signs (depression and aggressiveness, pericardial thickening and other extra-cellular matrix changes, light to moderate hearing impairment, and discrete neurovascular disorders)
- Stage III, severe signs (myocardial infarction, stroke, malignancy, epilepsy, and suicide).
Now, in the Guidelines for Community Noise, the World Health Organization includes advice on noise levels in hospitals and suggests that, because patients are less able to cope with the increased stress levels generated by excess environmental noise, the sound level in hospitals should not exceed 35 dBA for areas where patients are treated or observed, with a corresponding max of 40 dBA . The WHO guidelines for community noise recommend less than 30 A-weighted decibels (dBA) in bedrooms during the night for sleep quality and less than 35 dB(A) in classrooms to allow good teaching and learning conditions.
The background rural ambient noise is around 20-25 dBA. An increase of 3 dBA is noticeable and an increase of 10 dBA is perceived as a doubling in loudness.
To put this in context: Currently our town is reviewing the Wind Advisory Board’s recommendations of 35-40 dBA at night.
Some of our town board members have pushed for 45 dBA night and day. With the knowledge that 25 to 45 dBA is a quadrupling of our ambient nightime noise we can conclude that 45 dBA will lead to lack of seep and potentially adverse health affects.
People in other towns have had to abandon their homes to escape these noise effects of turbines.
Earlier this year, I heard testimony from Kevin Segourney, a science teacher from Chateaugay. He lived 1,800 to 2,600 feet from 482-foot turbines in the Jericho Wind Farm. He was living with sound levels above the allowable 50 dBA (which the town of Chateaugay had deemed to be acceptable and legal). However, the low frequencies and infrasound were not taken into account.
In 2014 Steve and Luann Therrien abandoned their home of two decades because of the sound and vibrations from the power plant in Sheffield, Vt. The whole family developed problems sleeping and other health ailments.
After the property went up for tax sale, Energize Vermont payed off the family’s back taxes with an agreement to use the property as the Vermont Center for Turbine Impact Studies. They will be conducting research on the effects that the wind turbines have on the environment, wildlife, and the residents. The research teams will also assess the performance of state regulators in their efforts to monitor and enforce wind turbine standards.
In 2014, the Board of Health in Brown County, Wisconsin declared a local industrial wind plant to be a health hazard in a unanimous vote. This ruling was based on a year-long survey with documented health complaints and demonstrated that low-frequency noise and infrasound were emanating from the turbines and detectable inside homes within a 6.2-mile radius of the industrial wind plant.
Industrial wind turbines are causing complaints worldwide, and the documentation is growing. Part of the reason for the lag in recognition is due to the lax monitoring. Basically the companies monitor themselves. There is no real way to ensure they are in compliance with the wind laws and sound limits. There is no entity to protect us when the company is out of compliance, as they have been in many other wind farms across the country.
The companies would like you to believe this is all debatable, but as someone who has read hundreds of papers, articles, peer-reviewed scientific data, and reports on the effects of wind turbines on human and animal health, I can say that this needs to be acknowledged by government agencies and reported on by the media.
Clearly there is an issue here, yet it is not being discussed openly. There is a NIMBY (not in back yard) stigma attached to anyone who dares reject the idea of a having a power plant in their back yard. When discussing this with people in the communities surrounding the project, there is a disbelief and skepticism that is coupled with judgment.
Our communities need the help of surrounding towns to support them through this project to ensure the right thing happens.
There are children who will live less than a half-mile from these turbines. Parents deserve the right to question the ethics and morality of this project.
These things are being diminished under the guise of the greater good. I argue that it is not for the greater good to implement projects that might harm the very nature and people we are trying to protect. There have been studies on the adverse health affects experienced by badgers, geese, minks, and other animals living within close proximity to turbines – who will protect them?
So is it ethical to keep covering every sacred space with these turbines for power production? Knowing they could actually set us back environmentally while simultaneous accumulating casualties.
I personally believe in the precautionary principle which is defined as:
When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.
I think if we brought this principle into the planning process of every aspect of our economy, our environment would be in better shape. I am hoping to shed light on this local issue so people will demand protection for our towns and help us avoid the problems reported in other towns with industrial turbines.
I am asking North Country Public Radio to investigate this issue and help us prevent the loss of habitat, the loss of quiet spaces, and the slew of potential adverse health effects.
July 28, 2017
[Pease presented a 5-minute version of this appeal in person at an NCPR Executive Session and provided this write-up to their investigative reporter.]
Author: Tverberg, Gail
How should electricity from wind turbines and solar panels be evaluated? Should it be evaluated as if these devices are stand-alone devices? Or do these devices provide electricity that is of such low quality, because of its intermittency and other factors, that we should recognize the need for supporting services associated with actually putting the electricity on the grid? This question comes up in many types of evaluations, including Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE), Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI), Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), and Energy Payback Period (EPP).
I recently gave a talk called The Problem of Properly Evaluating Intermittent Renewable Resources (PDF) at a BioPhysical Economics Conference in Montana. As many of you know, this is the group that is concerned about Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI). As you might guess, my conclusion is that the current methodology is quite misleading. Wind and solar are not really stand-alone devices when it comes to providing the kind of electricity that is needed by the grid. Grid operators, utilities, and backup electricity providers must provide hidden subsidies to make the system really work.
This problem is currently not being recognized by any of the groups evaluating wind and solar, using techniques such as LCOE, EROI, LCA, and EPP. As a result, published results suggest that wind and solar are much more beneficial than they really are. The distortion affects both pricing and the amount of supposed CO₂ savings.
One of the questions that came up at the conference was, “Is this distortion actually important when only a small amount of intermittent electricity is added to the grid?” For that reason, I have included discussion of this issue as well. My conclusion is that the problem of intermittency and the pricing distortions it causes is important, even at low grid penetrations. There may be some cases where intermittent renewables are helpful additions without buffering (especially when the current fuel is oil, and wind or solar can help reduce fuel usage), but there are likely to be many other instances where the costs involved greatly exceed the benefits gained. We need to be doing much more thoughtful analyses of costs and benefits in particular situations to understand exactly where intermittent resources might be helpful.
A big part of our problem is that we are dealing with variables that are “not independent.” If we add subsidized wind and solar, that act, by itself, changes the needed pricing for all of the other types of electricity. The price per kWh of supporting types of electricity needs to rise, because their EROIs fall as they are used in a less efficient manner. This same problem affects all of the other pricing approaches as well, including LCOE. Thus, our current pricing approaches make intermittent wind and solar look much more beneficial than they really are.
A clear workaround for this non-independence problem is to look primarily at the cost (in terms of EROI or LCOE) in which wind and solar are part of overall “packages” that produce grid-quality electricity, at the locations where they are needed. If we can find solutions on this basis, there would seem to be much more of a chance that wind and solar could be ramped up to a significant share of total electricity. The “problem” is that there is a lower bound on an acceptable EROI (probably 10:1, but possibly as low as 3:1 based on the work of Charles Hall). This is somewhat equivalent to an upper bound on the affordable cost of electricity using LCOE.
This means that if we really expect to scale wind and solar, we probably need to be creating packages of grid-quality electricity (wind or solar, supplemented by various devices to create grid quality electricity) at an acceptably high EROI. This is very similar to a requirement that wind or solar energy, including all of the necessary adjustments to bring them to grid quality, be available at a suitably low dollar cost–probably not too different from today’s wholesale cost of electricity. EROI theory would strongly suggest that energy costs for an economy cannot rise dramatically, without a huge problem for the economy. Hiding rising energy costs with government subsidies cannot fix this problem.
Distortions Become Material Very Early
If we look at recently published information about how much intermittent electricity is being added to the electric grid, the amounts are surprisingly small. Overall, worldwide, the amount of electricity generated by a combination of wind and solar (nearly all of it intermittent) was 5.2% in 2016. On an area by area basis, the percentages of wind and solar are as shown in Figure 1.
There are two reasons why these percentages are lower than a person might expect. One reason is that the figures usually quoted are the amounts of “generating capacity” added by wind and solar, and these are nearly always higher than the amount of actual electricity supply added, because wind and solar “capacity” tend to be lightly used.
The other reason that the percentages on Figure 1 are lower than we might expect is because the places that have unusually high concentrations of wind and solar generation (examples: Germany, Denmark, and California) tend to depend on a combination of (a) generous subsidy programs, (b) the availability of inexpensive balancing power from elsewhere and (c) the generosity of neighbors in taking unwanted electricity and adding it to their electric grids at low prices.
As greater amounts of intermittent electricity are added, the availability of inexpensive balancing capacity (for example, from hydroelectric from Norway and Sweden) quickly gets exhausted, and neighbors become more and more unhappy with the amounts of unwanted excess generation being dumped on their grids. Denmark has found that the dollar amount of subsidies needs to rise, year after year, if it is to continue its intermittent renewables program.
One of the major issues with adding intermittent renewables to the electric grid is that doing so distorts wholesale electricity pricing. Solar energy tends to cut mid-day peaks in electricity price, making it less economic for “peaking plants” (natural gas electricity plants that provide electricity only when prices are very high) to stay open. At times, prices may turn negative, if the total amount of wind and solar produced at a given time is greater than the overall amount of electricity required by customers. This happens because intermittent electricity is generally given priority on the grid, whether price signals indicate that it is needed or not. A combination of these problems tends to make backup generation unprofitable unless subsidies are provided. If peaking plants and other backup are still required, but need to operate fewer hours, subsidies must be provided so that the plants can afford to hire year-around staff, and pay their ongoing fixed expenses.
If we think of the new electricity demand as being “normal” demand, adjusted by the actual, fairly random, wind and solar generation, the new demand pattern ends up having many anomalies. One of the anomalies is that required prices become negative at times when wind and solar generation are high, but the grid has no need for them. This tends to happen first on weekends in the spring and fall, when electricity demand is low. As the share of intermittent electricity grows, the problem with negative prices becomes greater and greater.
The other major anomaly is the need for a lot of quick “ramp up” and “ramp down” capacity. One time this typically happens is at sunset, when demand is high (people cooking their dinners) but a large amount of solar electricity disappears because of the setting of the sun. For wind, rapid ramp ups and downs seem to be related to thunderstorms and other storm conditions. California and Australia are both adding big battery systems, built by Tesla, to help deal with rapid ramp-up and ramp-down problems.
There is a lot of work on “smart grids” being done, but this work does not address the particular problems brought on by adding wind and solar. In particular, smart grids do not move demand from summer and winter (when demand is normally high) to spring and fall (when demand is normally low). Smart grids and time of day pricing aren’t very good at fixing the rapid ramping problem, either, especially when these problems are weather related.
The one place where time of day pricing can perhaps be somewhat helpful is in lessening the rapid ramping problem of solar at sunset. One fix that is currently being tried is offering the highest wholesale electricity prices in the evening (6:00 pm to 9:00 pm), rather than earlier in the day. This approach encourages those adding new solar energy generation to add their panels facing west, rather than south, so as to better match demand. Doing this is less efficient from the point of view of the total electricity generated by the panels (and thus lowers EROIs of the solar panels), but helps prevent some of the rapid ramping problem at sunset. It also gets some of the generation moved from the middle of day to the evening, when it better matches “demand.”
In theory, the high prices from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm might encourage consumers to move some of their electricity usage (cooking dinner, watching television, running air conditioning) until after 9:00 pm. But, as a practical matter, it is difficult to move very much of residential demand to the desired time slots based on price. In theory, demand could also be moved from summer and winter to spring and fall based on electricity price, but it is hard to think of changes that families could easily make that would allow this change to happen.
With the strange demand pattern that occurs when intermittent renewables are added, standard pricing approaches (based on marginal costs) tend to produce wholesale electricity prices that are too low for electricity produced by natural gas, coal, and nuclear providers. In fact, wholesale electricity rates for supporting providers tend to diverge further and further from what is needed, as more and more intermittent electricity is added. The dotted line on Figure 2 illustrates the falling wholesale electricity prices that have been occurring in Europe, even as retail residential electricity prices are rising.
The marginal pricing scheme gives little guidance as to how much backup generation is really needed. It is therefore left up to governments and local electricity oversight groups to figure out how to compensate for the known pricing problem. Some provide subsidies to non-intermittent producers; others do not.
To complicate matters further, electricity consumption has been falling rapidly in countries whose economies are depressed. Adding wind and solar further reduces needed natural gas, coal, and nuclear generation. Some countries may let these producers collapse; others may subsidize them, as a jobs-creation program, whether this backup generation is needed or not.
Of course, if a single payer is responsible for both intermittent and other electricity programs, a combined rate can be set that is high enough for the costs of both intermittent electricity and backup generation, eliminating the pricing problem, from the point of view of electricity providers. The question then becomes, “Will the new higher electricity prices be affordable by consumers?”
The recently published IEA World Energy Investment Report 2017 provides information on a number of developing problems:
“Network investment remains robust for now, but worries have emerged in several regions about the prospect of a “utility death spiral” as the long-term economic viability of grid investments diminishes. The still widespread regulatory practice of remunerating fixed network assets on the basis of a variable per kWh charge is poorly suited for a power system with a large amount of decentralised solar PV and storage capacity.”
The IEA investment report notes that in China, 10% of solar PV and 17% of wind generation were curtailed in 2016, even though previous problems with lack of transmission had been fixed. Figure 1 shows China’s electricity from wind and solar amounts to only 5.0% of its total electricity consumption in 2016.
Regarding India, the IEA report says, “More flexible conventional capacity, including gas-fired plants, better connections with hydro resources and investment in battery storage will be needed to support continued growth in solar power.” India’s intermittent electricity amounted to only 4.1% of total electricity supply in 2016.
In Europe, a spike in electricity prices to a 10-year high took place in January 2017, when both wind and solar output were low, and the temperature was unusually cold. And as previously mentioned, California and South Australia have found it necessary to add Tesla batteries to handle rapid ramp-ups and ramp-downs. Australia is also adding large amounts of transmission that would not have been needed, if coal generating plants had continued to provide services in South Australia.
None of the costs related to intermittency workarounds are currently being included in EROI analyses. They are generally not being included in analyses of other kinds, either, such as LCOE. In my opinion, the time has already arrived when analyses need to be performed on a much broader basis than in the past, so as to better capture the true cost of adding intermittent electricity.
Of course, as we saw in the introduction, worldwide electricity supply is only about 5% wind and solar. The only parts of the world that were much above 5% in 2016 were Europe, which was at 11.3% in 2016 and the United States, which was at 6.6%.
There has been a lot of talk about electrical systems being operated entirely by renewables (such as hydroelectric, wind, solar, and burned biomass), but these do not exist in practice, as far as I know. Trying to replace total energy consumption, including oil and natural gas usage, would be an even bigger problem.
The amount of electricity required by consumers varies considerably over the course of a year. Electricity demand tends to be higher on weekdays than on weekends, when factories and schools are often closed. There is usually a “peak” in demand in winter, when it is unusually cold, and second peak in summer, when it is unusually hot. During the 24-hour day, demand tends to be lowest at night. During the year, the lowest demand typically comes on weekends in the spring and fall.
If intermittent electricity from W&S is given first priority on the electric grid, the resulting “net” demand is far more variable than the original demand pattern based on customer usage. This increasingly variable demand tends to become more and more difficult to handle, as the percentage of intermittent electricity added to the grid rises.
EROI is nearly always calculated at the level of the solar panel or wind turbine, together with a regular inverter and whatever equipment is used to hold the device in place. This calculation does not consider all of the costs in getting electricity to the right location, and up to grid quality. If we move clockwise around the diagram, we see some of the problems as the percentage of W&S increases.
One invention is smart inverters, which are used to bring the quality of the electrical output up closer to grid quality, apart from the intermittency problems. Germany has retrofitted solar PV with these, because of problems it encountered using only “regular” inverters. Upgrading to smart inverters would be a cost not generally included in EROI or LCOE calculations.
The next problem illustrated in Slide 6 is the fact that the pricing system does not work for any fuel, if wind and solar are given priority on the electric grid. The marginal cost approach that is usually used gives too low a wholesale price for every producer subject to this pricing scheme. The result is a pricing system that gives misleadingly low price signals. Regulators are generally aware of this issue, but don’t have a good way of fixing it. Capacity payments are used in some places as an attempted workaround, but it is not clear that such payments really solve the problem.
It is less obvious that in addition to giving too low pricing indications for electricity, the current marginal cost pricing approach indirectly gives artificially low price indications regarding the required prices for natural gas and coal as fuels. As a result of this and other forces acting in the same directions, we end up with a rather bizarre situation: (a) Natural gas and and coal prices tend to fall below their cost of production. (b) At the same time, nuclear electricity generating plants are being forced to close, because they cannot afford to compete with the artificially low price of electricity produced by the very low-priced natural gas and coal. The whole system tends to be pushed toward collapse by misleadingly low wholesale electricity prices.
Slide 6 also shows some of the problems that seem to start arising as more intermittent electricity is added. Once new long distance transmission lines are added, it changes the nature of the whole “game.” It becomes easier to rely on generation added by a neighbor; any generation that a country might add becomes more attractive to a neighbor. As long as there is plenty of electricity to go around, everything goes well. When there are shortages, then arguments begin to arise. Arguments such as these may destabilize the Eurozone.
One thing I did not mention in this chart is the increasing need to pay intermittent grid providers not to produce electricity when there is an oversupply of electricity. In the UK, the amount of these payments was over 1 million pounds a week in 2015. I mentioned previously that in China, 17% of wind generation and 10% of solar PV generation were being curtailed in 2016. EROI calculations do not consider this possibility; they assume that 100% of the electricity that is generated can, in fact, be used by the system.
The pricing system no longer works because W&S are added whenever they become available, in preference to other generation. In many ways, the pricing system is like our appetite for food. Usually, we eat when we are hungry, and the food we eat reduces our appetite. W&S are added to the system with total disregard for whether the system needs it or not, leaving the other electricity producers to try to fix up the mess, using the false pricing signals they get. The IEA’s 2017 Investment Report recommends that countries develop new pricing schemes that correct the problems, but it is not clear that this is actually possible without correcting the hidden subsidies.
Why add more electricity supply, if there is a chance that you can use the new supply added by your neighbor?
South Australia had two recent major outages–both partly related to adding large amounts of wind and solar to the electric grid, and the loss of its last two coal-fired electricity generation plants. The first big outage came during a weather event. The second big outage occurred when temperatures were very high during summer, and because of this, electricity demand was very high.
One planned workaround for supply shortages was natural gas. Unfortunately, South Australia doesn’t actually have a very good natural gas supply to operate its units generating electricity from natural gas. Thus, the available natural gas generators could not really respond as hoped, except at very high prices. Some changes are now being made, including a planned Tesla battery system. With the changes being made, there are reports of electricity rate increases of up to 120% for businesses in South Australia.
The irony of the situation is that Australia is a major natural gas exporter. Businesses expected that they could make more money selling the natural gas abroad as LNG than they could by providing natural gas to the citizens of South Australia. These exports are now being curbed, to try to help fix the South Australia natural gas problem.
These issues point out how interconnected all of the different types of electricity generation are, and how quickly a situation can become a local crisis, if regulators simply assume “market forces will provide a solution.”
An expert panel in Australia has recommended an approach similar to this. It simply becomes too difficult to operate a system with built-in subsidies.
Timing makes a difference. The payments that are made for interest need to be made, directly or indirectly, with future goods and services that can only be made using energy products. Thus, they also require the use of energy products.
There is a real difference between (a) looking at the actual operating experiences of an existing oil and gas or coal company, and (b) guessing what the future operating experience of a system operated by wind panels and solar panels might be. The tendency is to guess low, when it comes to envisioning what future problems may arise.
It is not just the wind turbines and solar panels that will need to be replaced over time; it is all of the supporting devices that need to be kept in good repair and replaced over time. Furthermore, the electric grid is dependent on oil for its upkeep. If oil becomes a problem, there is a real danger that the electric grid will become unusable, and with it, electricity that is generally distributed by the grid, including wind and solar.
Economies and humans are both self-organized systems that depend on energy consumption for their existence. They have many other characteristics in common as well.
We know that with humans, we really need to examine how a new medicine or a change in diet works in practice. For one thing, medicines and diets aren’t necessarily used as planned. Unexpected long-term changes occur that we could not anticipate.
The same kinds of problems occur when wind and solar are added to a grid system. We really have to look at what is happening to see the full picture.
Anyone who has followed the news knows about medicine’s long history of announcements followed by retractions.
A fairly similar situation can be expected to happen with proposed energy solutions.
There is a whole package of costs and a whole range of direct and indirect outcomes to consider.
As far as I know, none of the attempts at producing a system that operates on 100% renewable energy have been a success. There has been some reductions in fossil fuel usage, but at a high cost.
A 2013 Weissabach et al. EROI analysis examines a situation with partial buffering of wind and solar (approximately 10 days worth of buffering). It leaves out several other costs of bringing wind and solar up to grid quality electricity, such as extra long distance transmission costs, and more significant buffering to allow transferring electricity produced in spring and fall to be saved for summer or winter. These authors calculated a partially buffered EROI of 4:1 for wind, and a partially buffered EROI range of 1.5:1 to 2.3:1 for solar PV.
Of course, more investigation, including looking at the full package of needed devices to provide non-intermittent electricity of grid quality, is really needed for particular situations. Improvements in technology would tend to raise EROI indications; adding more supplemental devices to bring electricity to grid quality would tend to reduce EROI indications.
If the cutoff for being able to maintain a modern society is 10:1, as mentioned earlier, then wind and solar PV would both seem to fall far below the required EROI cutoff, if they are to be used in quantity.
If, as Hall believes, an EROI as low as 3:1 might be useful, then there is a possibility that some wind energy would be helpful, especially if a particular wind location has a very high capacity factor (can generate electricity a large share of the time), and if pricing problems can be handled adequately. The EROI of solar PV would probably still be too low in most applications. In any event, we need to be examining situations more closely, instead of simply assuming that hidden subsidies can be counted on indefinitely.
Gail Tverberg is a casualty actuary whose prior work involved forecasting and modeling in the insurance industry. Starting in 2005-2006, she decided to apply her skills to the question of how oil and other limits would affect the world. Besides writing on her own blog, Our Finite World, she is also an editor at The Oil Drum.
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