Well intentioned advocates of constructing giant (40-story tall) wind turbines believe they will offset pollution effects from coal fired electrical generation. Unfortunately, the very opposite may be true!
Modern power grid systems maintain a minute-by-minute equilibrium between supply and demand. Too much or too little and the whole system can crash. Wind is undependable by itself; therefore it must be backed up by a reliable hydro, oil, gas, nuclear, or coal burning plant to prevent blackouts. Hydro presently provides 1 percent of the grid’s energy as does oil; expensive natural gas provides 5 percent. No one seems willing to build more nuclear plants here, so that leaves cheap (but environmentally unfriendly) coal to carry the burden of dependable backup to fickle wind power. But, wait just a minute!
Those large modern coal fired steam driven turbines (designed to run continuously at 90 percent output capacity for months at a time between servicing) belch out far more pollutants during the ramping up and dialing down process! And, while the grid controllers have become experts at predicting within 1 percent the actual demand for power, they have no control over the erratic wind. Consequently, a 2 percent increase in inefficiency results in a 16 percent increase in carbon emissions.1
Given this circumstance, it is not at all clear that hundreds of wind plants in the region will result in a carbon emissions decrease in the production of electricity. In fact, there has been no independent scientific substantiation of system-wide carbon emissions abatement due to wind technology anywhere in the world. Germany, with nearly 20,000 installed wind turbines; last year increased its annual carbon emissions by 0.6 percent. California’s nearly 14,000 turbines provided virtually no energy to the grid during the 2006 summer’s torrid heat wave,2 while that state’s carbon emission’s yield continues to expand 2 percent annually.
Volatile wind energy cannot be loosed on the grid by itself; it must be accompanied by reliable conventional generation. As such, it can only be considered one ingredient in a fuel mix. If the other ingredient is hydro, wind can indeed be considered clean. But since hydro plants are so environmentally threatening, it cannot be considered “green.” If wind is accompanied by fossil fueled generation, which is overwhelmingly likely, it can neither be considered clean nor green.
Support for industrial wind technology is not really about energy. Rather, it’s about substantial tax sheltering, which is why Enron, at the time of its demise, had the nation’s largest stock of wind facilities, which it unloaded to General Electric. Wind is the perfect vehicle for tax shelter generation. It’s unearned environmental credit brings a public relations cachet while trading in wind’s renewable energy credits allows outfits like GE, Florida Power & Lights, AES, BP, et al to avoid cleaning up their dirtiest burning plants. And the politicians who support all this give the appearance of challenging the status quo when in reality they’re reinforcing it, especially since more wind facilities very likely will result in more coal plants.
If you want to get serious about reducing the destructive effects of energy production and save money to boot, practice conservation, increase efficiency, and demand those wind subsidies be redirected toward state-of-the-art pollution controls on all new and existing energy producing plants.
1- pg. 16 – White, David, Reduction in Carbon Dioxide Emissions: Estimating the Potential Contribution from Wind-Power, commissioned and published by the Renewable Energy Foundation, December 2004: http://www.ref.org.uk/images/pdfs/Whiteco2.pdf.
2 – Dixon, David, Wind Generation’s Performance during the July 2006 California Heat Storm, Energy Pulse, 9 September 2006:
http://www.energypulse.net/centers/article/article print.cfm?a id=1332
(By David Buhrman, with thanks to Jon Boone, Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy)
12 January 2008
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