I stayed close to home for the Fourth of July weekend. My wife and I spent a very enjoyable weekend camping near Mills Canyon in Harding County. We did it to save gasoline, as many others did. My thoughts, like those of many others, centered on how we are going to get out of this high priced crude-oil mess we have gotten ourselves into. I still want to travel and visit family.
Most of my friends are sold on alternative energy supply as the key to reducing our dependence on oil. These folks are no dummies, as they include other engineers like me, teachers and researchers at the labs. Consistently, they all say solar and wind power are the tickets to energy independence. This seems to be the party line, as our governor and other leading politicians in New Mexico are against any other form of power generation, such as nuclear or coal. But what these excellent politicians are failing to tell us is the whole truth.
I polled at least 10 friends last week, and only one had the right answer as to the cost of wind generation, which is the power-generation alternative of choice in New Mexico.
None of our politicians want to talk about the cost of wind-power generation. Wind-power generation is one of the most expensive forms of electric-power generation.
I am in favor of varied sources of power generation, but only after everyone realizes what it is going to cost. The fact is that wind power is between 20 percent and 30 percent more costly than conventional power production. PNM is right in the middle at a 25 percent premium. If you don’t believe me, just look at the much-touted PNM Sky Blue program on its Web site.
The additional cost for signing up for this program is $.0169 per kilowatt hour, or $1.69 per hundred kilowatt hours. This is 25 percent more than their base rate. I am really not up to paying 25 percent more on my electric bill because my ’97 Honda still needs to be fed gasoline to get to work. My energy dollar only goes so far.
The politicians are not telling us that wind power can never be used to base load a power generation system. What happens when the wind does not blow, which frequently happens for days at a time even in our windy New Mexico? The base load generation must pick up the slack and this happens a lot.
So, unless we are willing, which I am not, to turn off the lights when the wind does not blow, the base load generation must keep expanding. This is where the cost gets exorbitant. For every dollar invested in a megawatt of wind power generation, PNM must also have in reserve or under construction a megawatt of base load capacity. In other words, PNM must spend the money to build two power stations rather than one: the wind farm and coal/nuclear base load plant. Both the wind power farms and base load generation must be maintained, which again doubles the maintenance cost. PNM is also entitled to a return on its investment, as it is a publicly held company that must return a profit to the investors. If it were not for the tax incentives both the state and federal governments give to wind generation, power companies including PNM simply could not afford to build wind farms.
In the PNM system, the cheapest electrical generation is from the Palo Verde Nuclear Plant in Arizona at a cost of $.0129 per kilowatt hour with more than 90 percent availability, followed by the coal-fired plants in New Mexico.
Based on the cost of generation, common sense leads us to more nuclear plants as a way of keeping electrical costs low and a means of providing a benefit of no emissions for those who are members of the climate change/carbon reduction faith. If electric car technology comes on line in the next 10 years, this could be our best choice for fueling our cars.
So the next time some of your friends or politicians start touting the benefits of wind-power generation, ask them why they are in favor of such an expensive power source. I am ready for more diverse power generation, including nuclear and next-generation, clean-coal technology.
Richard Allison is a registered professional engineer currently working for the New Mexico Department of Transportation. He lives in Santa Fe.
12 July 2008
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