On May 10 the third wind farm in New Brunswick went into operation near Lamèque. Promoters are – what else? – promoting the idea of building more wind farms.
Let’s look at that Lamèque facility. It is touted as being able to “produce enough energy to power 8,000 homes.” That’s fine, as long as the wind is blowing at full strength (typically 60 kilometres an hour).
But what happens when the wind falls off, say to half? Electrical output drops to one-eighth! Physics. (Output averages only 20-25 per cent of nameplate rating.)
But NB Power must always provide electricity at the required voltage and frequency, so power has to come from somewhere else. Hydro can come online quickly, but our hydro facilities are limited even without backing up fickle wind. The only alternative is what happens everywhere else in the world – conventional thermal plants must be kept “hot and spinning.”
If that plant is not producing electricity, too bad, the fuel to keep it operating is being wasted.
That problem plagues wind turbines any time the wind is weak. And when is the wind the weakest? If Scotland is anything to go by, it is mid-winter, when demand for heating is the greatest; wind electricity dropped to only two per cent of nominal capacity this year. Useless.
What then? They imported electricity from France, mostly from nuclear plants. As for Denmark, the poster boy of wind electricity, we hear that some 20 per cent of the electricity produced there comes from wind. But more than 50 per cent of its electricity still comes from coal – Denmark has never shut down any of its coal-fuelled plants. If that isn’t enough, they can fall back on electricity from Norway (hydro) and Germany (nuclear and coal). Without the foreign back-up, Denmark would have to increase its coal-fired generation even more.
And what does Denmark do when it generates more wind power than it can use? Why, it sells it at giveaway prices to those same neighbours.
Without those external markets, that capacity would go to waste and electricity from wind power for the Danes would drop closer to 10 per cent. Since wind-generated electricity is heavily subsidized in Denmark, any electricity exported benefits other countries, not Danes. It is easy to see the same problem developing here.
Getting back to New Brunswick and those 8,000 homes, most of the time they will be receiving hydro or thermal electricity. Wind power just is not suitable for “base load.” Every kilowatt of wind capacity must be backed up by equal capacity from conventional sources. There is no way around the problem for there is no practical way of storing large amounts of electrical energy.
An additional serious matter is grid stability when a large source of generation can vary quickly. Power engineers in Germany are unhappy if they must deal with more than four per cent variable input. Robert Hornung, in a commentary in this newspaper, reminded us that Ottawa set the goal of 90 per cent of Canada’s electricity from “non-greenhouse gas-generating sources” by 2020. This is both undesirable and impossible, a Technicolor dream.
In addition to the lower reliability of wind energy, the towers are ugly, there are health problems from infrasound and flickering, and the blades are a Cuisinart danger to all flying wildlife.
Is wind energy “free”? Ontario now pays 13.5 cents/kWh for wind-generated electricity, and then resells it to householders for one-third less. That loss is called a “subsidy.”Another description is “tax on all consumers.” Any industry that depends on subsidies for its survival is taking money out of our pockets. The burden of taxes kills many more jobs than they create. Meanwhile, wind-power advocates salivate at the thought of that gift.
So, what is the supposed advantage of wind power? Well, the advocates tell us that it will reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide, our “carbon footprint.” Whoop-dee-doo. The unchangeable fact is that, despite what you may hear, carbon dioxide has negligible effect on temperature or climate. But don’t tell wind advocates. They don’t want to hear that their costly generators serve no useful purpose.
Wind farms rank with the worst of all possible economic worlds for NB Power. Financially, they are a one-way gate; developers are guaranteed payment for any power that they put onto the grid, but they do not have to pay for make-up energy when they cannot provide it. It is NB Power that must maintain the back-up generation capacity. It’s a great system for the developers. We should remember the snake oil salesmen of bygone days.
Future contracts with wind-energy suppliers should require guaranteed delivery or coverage of make-up power costs, and no more wind farms should be built in New Brunswick until we have solid cost figures and experience with integrating their slugs of power into the grid. We must be careful of projects claimed to be “green,” for they can be used to regulate our lives without ever being put to a vote.
Ian L. McQueen has two degrees in chemical engineering and has invested more than 5,000 hours researching climate and energy. He would be happy to amplify any point in this article by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by meeting personally with interested groups.
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