Be prepared to hear dire predictions of doom from the promoters of Big Wind as they failed to secure from Congress more government support than they already receive for their subsidy dependent industry. Although the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 did not include an extension of production tax credits or the imposition of a national 15% renewables mandate, the tax credits don’t expire until the end of 2008 and 25 states have versions of legislation that compel utilities to acquire a percentage of their energy from renewables.
Arguments for providing government and taxpayer support to the wind industry are familiar refrains. First, we were told that this new, unproven technology could not attract private investment and that only government was in a position to provide investment-inducing incentives.
Then we were told the assistance was temporary. Once the technology had proven itself, no further help would be required. Now we hear it’s our patriotic duty to shield Big Wind from competition and that the supposed benefits to the environment from using wind energy outweigh its costly ineffectiveness.
The claims made by Big Wind cannot be substantiated, although their eco-friendly pretensions, absorbed by an unsuspecting public, have created a climate of uncritical support for a technology that cannot deliver on its promises.
The principal flaw in using wind as a source of energy is its variability. When you turn the key in your car, you fully expect the engine to start. It’s called power on demand. Wind cannot supply power on demand. The only thing industrial wind facilities can do is to put unpredictably fluctuating energy into the power grid. No amount of fixes can change that fact.
This is not at all helpful to the grid. It is for now merely an annoyance, but only because industrial wind facilities produce less than 1% of the energy supplied nationally to our power grids. This meager production is pretty much ignored by grid managers and absorbed into the existing dispatchable capacity that is used to “smooth out” the normal demand fluctuations.
However, as more wind plants come on line, grid managers will no longer have the luxury of simply deploying existing conventional power to balance wind volatility. Eventually there will come a tipping point where the increasing numbers of wind plants will require construction of additional conventional power units, otherwise the managers’ abilities to supply power on demand will be seriously compromised and grid stability will be threatened.
This is already happening in other countries that were early adopters of industrial wind – a development that should be taken seriously by the US, a late-comer to the wind power games. According to a 2005 report by Germany’s largest utility, a study of over 7,000 wind turbines revealed that more than half the time they produced less than 11% of their nameplate capacity, meaning that other power sources would have to fill in the missing 89%, if indeed the wind plants were actually being counted on to provide their rated output. Even if they were expected to furnish only 11% of their capacity, they could at any time be cranking out more or less than that particular amount and still need to be balanced with other power sources. The report indicated that adding more wind plants to those already on line could no longer be accommodated without adding conventional power units to the grid.
Here’s the problem with wind energy. Each day grid managers predict how much energy will be needed, where and when. This prediction is based on previous demand experience, usage patterns and weather forecasts. Energy producers bid to supply power to the grid in three categories: base load demand, peak load demand and standby reserve. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission suggests grid operators use the concept of economic dispatch in selecting the winning bids, taking the lowest bid first and going through the ascending bids until the day’s, week’s or month’s projected power needs are met.
In our grid region base load demand is typically met by slow, inflexible but highly productive coal-fired and nuclear reactor power plants whose huge steam-driven turbines run non stop for months at a time.
Natural gas units that are capable of quickly responding to demand fluctuations generally provide the peak load needs. The high price of natural gas does not lend itself to base load power production, but it dependably adds power to the grid when, for example, a heat wave strikes. Bidding to supply standby power, also known as spinning reserve, usually falls to the newer, smaller, more efficient coal-fired plants that can afford to be running on spinning standby and still make a profit when called into service.
It’s easy to see, given wind’s variability, that there’s really no way an industrial wind facility could bid to supply any fixed amount of energy to anyone at any time. FERC’s rules rightfully penalize any bidder who fails to deliver the bid amount.
Big Wind’s response was to get FERC to change its rules several years ago, exempting renewable energy producers from fines or any other sanctions if they failed to meet their promised delivery of energy. Big Wind also got FERC to require that transmission line operators unconditionally accept all the inputs of any industrial wind facilities, known in FERC speak as “intermittent resources.” This concession allowed Big Wind to claim that clean wind energy was available to one and all at the nearest electrical outlet.
Because industrial wind facilities cannot dispatch power as needed and thus cannot bid to supply power on demand, they instead enter into long-term contracts with energy retailers to supply an annual average amount of energy. These contracts are announced with great fanfare by wind developers to impress the public that this is a viable enterprise.
It is more like a shell game. Once the wind energy has been injected into the grid, its identity is lost. It does not have a “green” tag. The electrons in the wires have no idea what power source is joltingthem back and forth at 60 cycles per second. However, the wind developer gets credits for injecting the energy and sells those credits to energy retailers.
These “renewable energy credits” are paper tokens of production that can be traded or sold as stand-ins for the energy itself. This explains how a pad of Strathmore drawing paper or a carton of Horizon organic milk can proudly proclaim the product was made using 100% clean and green wind energy when in truth those companies, just as is everyone else connected to the grid, are using whatever energy sources are directly responsible for jolting the electrons in their establishments.
This scheme allows wind developers to make a product that can’t be used alone because it’s so undependable, but when blended into the grid with the help of compensatory conventional power, is able to be sold for its name recognition as “green energy”. This is very expensive energy, highly subsidized by taxpayers. It is expensive because of high capital costs and because state laws requiring utilities to get set percentages of their power from renewable energy have created an artificial demand and wind developers can set the price.
That is what motivates Big Wind; guaranteed profits because the customers are being compelled to buy the product. Big Wind almost got its wish for a national renewable energy standard. The House version of the energy bill had such a requirement in it, but it was blocked in the Senate. For now there are 25 states with renewable energy standards in place. The artificial demand that creates is driving the stampede of wind developers to cover every available ridge with turbines. To assist in the land grab, Big Wind has also gotten the USDA’s Forest Service to open our National Forests to private wind developers, a move that raises concerns for many West Virginians and visitors who value the non-industrialized wild places and majestic scenery of the Monongahela National Forest.
The last defense of the promoters of wind power is that it will reduce carbon emissions and save the planet and for that reason alone it is worth the expense. The inconvenient truth is that wind energy is too feeble and variable to replace any conventional power plants. Even adding thousands of wind turbines to the grid to supplement conventional power and slow its expected growth, will have little effect. Their contribution will be neutralized by the grid’s need to shadow their fluctuating input with dependable conventional units forced to operate less efficiently. It is similar to driving a car in stop and go traffic as compared to driving on an interstate. For coal plants a 2% reduction in efficiency translates into a 16% increase in carbon emissions.
The real motive behind the rush to festoon every available ridge with turbines is that it fulfills an investor’s dream; where Uncle Sam pays for 2/3 of the capital costs via accelerated depreciation tax write-offs, doles out more tax breaks in the form of credits for production and creates by fiat a market for selling renewable energy credits to power companies scrambling to meet renewable energy requirements. Don’t be misled by the false promises of wind power.
By Arthur Hooton
Mr. Hooton is a member of the Friends of Beautiful Pendleton County.
7 January 2008
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