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West Virginia’s most scenic real estate is facing an onslaught of industrial wind turbine development. There are three reasons:
# Public perception that wind energy can reduce carbon emissions.
# The willingness of politicians to pander to this belief by passing laws giving tax credits, subsidies and guaranteed market share to the wind industry.
# The culpability of the wind industry in misleading the public.
So long as self-promotion by the wind industry is swallowed whole by a gullible public and legislators provide the necessary taxpayer-funded support, West Virginians will see wind turbines on every available ridge. They may not produce any useful energy, but they sure do help the bottom line of companies that own them. FPL Energy, owner of the Tucker County turbines, was able to show a profit of $610 million in 2006, tripling its 2005 earnings, thanks to tax dodges exclusive to Big Wind.
The false promises of wind power are that it has the potential to reduce the number of coal-fired power plants in operation; that it is cheap and reliable because the fuel source is cost-free; and that it is an already well-established technology that has proven its worth in places like Germany and Denmark.
But demand for electricity continues to increase by about 2 percent a year and could double in just 35 years. Simply to keep up with that level of demand would require construction of 72,391 2-megawatt turbines on 434,347 miles of ridges and hills annually. An even larger stumbling block is that wind energy cannot by itself replace any coal-fired power plant. Because wind energy is variable, it needs help from conventional power sources to keep energy levels even. Wind advocates claim cleaner-burning natural gas-fired units can handle the load, but those units emit carbon as well. There is a limited availability of natural gas and a lack of pipeline infrastructure in many areas where wind turbine development is projected.
The basic problem with wind is that it cannot supply power on demand. Conventional power plants do exactly that. When the electric energy industry was deregulated to give power producers a way to compete for customers, it necessitated setting up integrated transmission systems to shift that power around. The system that serves West Virginia also operates transmission lines from Ohio to New Jersey and the states in between. The grid operators, on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, predict how much energy will be needed systemwide and ask producers to bid to supply a requested amount of power. Obviously, a wind energy facility is in no position to bid on anything.
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 nonstop for months at a time. Natural gas units that are capable of quickly responding to demand fluctuations and providing power as needed generally provide the peak load demand. Bidding to supply standby power, also known as spinning reserve, usually falls to the newer, smaller and more efficient coal-fired plants that can afford to be running on spinning standby and still make a profit when called into service. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has rules that rightfully penalize any bidder who fails to deliver the bid amount.
Big Wind, led by Enron, got the Federal Energy Regulation Commission to change its rules, exempting renewable energy producers from fines or any other sanctions if they failed to meet their promised delivery of energy. Big Wind also got the commission to require transmission grids to unconditionally accept all inputs from industrial wind facilities, unbidden, to be dumped into the grid whenever the wind blew, allowing wind developers to claim that clean wind energy is available to anyone at the nearest electrical outlet.
Since industrial wind facilities cannot dispatch power as needed and thus cannot bid to supply power on demand, they enter 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 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 jolting them back and forth at 60 cycles per second. However, wind developers get credits for injecting the energy and can sell those credits to energy retailers.
Called “renewable energy credits,” they are paper tokens of production sold as stand-ins for the energy itself. This explains how a carton of Horizon organic milk can proudly proclaim it is made using 100 percent wind energy when in truth that company, as is everyone else connected to the grid, is using whatever energy source is directly responsible for jolting the electrons in the wires serving the milk plant.
The sad fact is that the greatest value of wind turbines is not energy but the tax avoidance they provide and the chance to sell credits at inflated prices because so many states have passed laws requiring the purchase of energy with the “green” label on it.
The claim that wind energy will eventually become cheaper than coal because the wind itself is free and coal prices will rise as the cost of extraction and processing rises, ignores the reality that burning coal to heat water is a much less complicated and expensive enterprise than what goes into placing a spinning, turning, gyroscopically controlled generator on top of a 300-foot tower. The high price of wind turbine technology combined with the low output of energy makes the capital costs of a kilowatt of wind energy higher than any other form, including nuclear.
The final claim made for wind energy is that it has a proven track record. In fact, the Germans and Danes are now experiencing adverse effects from their reliance on wind. The Danes have been forced to sell surplus wind power to other countries at giveaway prices during the windy winter and then import coal-based power in the windless summer with no net decline in carbon emissions. The Germans are in the same predicament.
This is no doubt troubling to those who have been led to believe that wind power is a worthwhile antidote to atmospheric carbon buildup, but the facts indicate otherwise. Each remedy proposed by wind advocates to compensate for the failings of wind technology requires more and more taxpayer-funded support, masking the true costs of letting wind energy loose on the grid.
If the ultimate goal is carbon-neutral power production, we need to take a cue from the French, who get 80 percent of their electric power from nuclear reactors.
Hooton, of Pendleton County, is a member of Friends of Beautiful Pendleton County, a citizens group that intervened in the certificate application process of a wind farm on Jack Mountain.
8 January 2008
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