The federal government has accepted Maryland’s offshore wind farm siting plan and the U.S. Department of Interior will accelerate the leasing process, the state has announced.
It is remarkable Maryland has proceeded so far without a benefit / cost assessment. Even though the whole point is to reduce electric power system emissions, there has been no evaluation of the impact of the wind farm on electric power system CO2, SO2 and NOx emissions. There has been no evaluation of system-wide cost; how much will Maryland offshore wind increase electric bills? There has been no comparison with other choices for reducing CO2 emissions like replacing coal with natural gas and building additional nuclear reactors at Calvert Cliffs.
The United States has installed (2009) about 35 billion watts of wind capacity, roughly equivalent to 7,000 of the largest wind turbines. Yet the Department of Energy has conducted no analysis to determine if data confirms that wind is delivering on its promise. How much do real wind systems actually reduce total emissions? How much does wind increase electric bills? The paucity of retrospective data driven analysis reflects an astonishing lack of intellectual curiosity.
Wind turbines are clean, renewable generators. But systems that employ wind turbines to deliver energy on demand are not clean or renewable because they require fossil fuel generators to provide power when there is no wind. Wind systems do not deliver expected benefits for three reasons.
First, installing a few wind turbines on the grid reduces CO2 emission but not by much because wind is displacing natural gas, which is a clean fuel.
Second, installing a larger number of wind turbines causes base load coal plants to cycle, stop and start, and run a partial power levels. Real coal plants are designed to operate continuously at rated power.
Bentek Energy, a natural gas marketing company, conducted what seems to be the only retrospective wind emission analysis. They concluded that existing Colorado wind farms actually increase SO2 and NOx emissions and result in only a small reduction in CO2 emissions. Denmark claims to get 20 percent of their electricity from wind so why do they consume as much coal as they did before wind?
Third, intermittency costs ripple throughout the system (e.g. increased coal plant maintenance) and are not accurately reflected in wholesale price of electricity from wind.
Wind power has become an ideology. People believe it reduces emissions even though there is little data to support that belief. There are many wind integration task forces directed at electromechanical integration of intermittent wind into the grid. They generally ignore cost and emissions.
In recent years, enthusiasts have published a series of studies estimating the impact of large scale wind deployment. All these studies are based on the same set of optimistic assumptions about emissions, performance and costs. The common assumption is that coal power plant emissions are proportional to produced power. It is assumed that power levels can be quickly dialed up and down to backup wind fluctuations. It is assumed that the emission of CO2, SO2 and NOx will remain proportional to power produced.
Enthusiasts will argue the problem is not the wind but the coal plants. All of the existing fossil fuel plants need to be replaced by natural gas, which is more tolerant of intermittency. Their vision is 20 to 30 percent wind with all natural gas backup. While an optimized wind / natural gas scenario is certainly feasible, it needs to be compared with other feasible strategic scenarios like all natural gas (no wind).
Strategic scenarios would likely show that the big gains come from natural gas, not wind. Indeed, an all natural gas system could outperform wind plus natural gas because of a larger proportion of high efficiency combined cycle generators. Nuclear is the only zero carbon scenario.
A wise consumer will shop and compare. Will Maryland Offshore Wind really decrease power system emissions? How much will it increase electric bills? How does this compare with alternatives like switching to natural gas and nuclear. Federal Statute (Executive Order 12866) demands a cost benefit study. Before we make a 20 year commitment, lets get an independent assessment of benefits, cost and alternatives.
The writer is a Severna Park resident and holds a Ph.D. in engineering. He has a patent pending on a wind turbine.
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