Lately, communities have touted their use of “green power”, supposedly cleaner electric power generation by windmills, rather than by coal-fired power plants. And, of course, at significantly greater cost. (See: Press reports on Fairfax County, and Arlington).
Indeed, Fairfax County officials hope to increase their wind power use, having already invested in 5.8 MKw over the past two years. The Board of Supervisors thinks it will make the air cleaner. Sadly, they are wrong.
As professors Liik, Oidram and Keel demonstrated over three years ago, wind power tends to increase pollution because of the need to rely on coal-fired power plants to handle the variation in generation that occurs when the winds themselves vary. Because the wind power is so variable, there always has to be a back up base plant to even out the electricty on the electrical grid. That base plant is coal fired and the more it has to accelerate and decelerate its operations, the dirtier it runs. This is a lot like our cars. They get a lot more milage and much less pollution on the highway than in start-and-stop city driving. (See the Professors’ study.
The only way out of this problem is if we could “store” wind energy so that we can use it anytime. In fact, some communities can do that by using wind power exclusively to pump water from below a hydroelectric dam back above the dam where the water pressure can be used as needed. Theoretically, Fairfax County does that. Practically, it doesn’t, and thus doesn’t reap any environmental rewards. Here’s why.
We buy wind power from the Mountaineer Wind Farm in Tucker County, West Virginia. (Here’s the press release on that.) They are owned by by Exelon, a holding company that owns several power generating companies, including the Muddy Run Pump-Storage Facility (great name, eh? Bet you don’t want to fish down stream from them . . .) (Here’s Exelon’s home page.) If the Muddy Run facility takes up the slack when the Moutaineer Wind Farm loses wind , then we’d be getting mighty clean power. But, Fairfax County’s major energy uses don’t coincide with when the Muddy Run facility is brought on line.
You see, Muddy Run is used as a “peaker” plant, one that handles the energy needs when we get up in the morning and when we get home to fix dinner. That’s not when Fairfax County uses its electricity. So, when Fairfax County needs energy, during the day, it has to get it from “base” plants, and they burn coal and pump tons upon tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
But, you ask, isn’t there less air pollution for the hours when the Muddy Run is operating? Not really.
What Professors Liik, Oidram and Keel documented is that the start-and-stop operation of the coal fired plants that happens when they have to make up for the start-and-stop behavior of wind farms causes as much or more pollution than is avoided from pump facilities like Muddy Run. We’d get cleaner air if we only used the wind mills to pump water at Muddy Run and the wind farms weren’t on the grid, necessitating start-and-stop operation of the coal-fired plants. (Well, actually, we wouldn’t get cleaner air. Pennsylvania would get the cleaner air because that’s where you find the Muddy Run Facility.)
So what is Fairfax County getting out of its “green power”. Two things. Bigger electric bills and the good feeling of subsidizing the Exelon corporation.
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