Most of the backlash against renewable energy lately has involved solar power, largely because of of Solyndra’s recent bankruptcy filing. But Robert Bryce, an analyst at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research center, took a swipe at wind power on Wednesday in a new study.
He acknowledged that it was not comprehensive, but his extrapolation does provide a sense of how much work it would be to bring about a major transformation in the electric system.
Mr. Bryce referred to a 2008 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the Energy Department, that said the United States could get 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. At the moment, about 40,000 megawatts of wind capacity are installed in the United States, producing about 2.3 percent of the country’s kilowatt-hours. (Wind is about 70 times larger than solar in terms of the energy produced.)
Hence, bringing wind up to 20 percent by 2030 would require a nine-fold increase, he noted. With the Energy Department calculating that a megawatt of wind costs $2.43 million to install, that would require investing $850 billion, or $44 billion from now until 2030.)
Of course, the electric grid will spend tens of billions of dollars anyway by 2030 to replace retiring plants; there is also likely to be substantial growth in electricity demand. Mr. Bryce’s theory, though, is that new wind will not be a worthy substitute for other kinds of new generation because so little of it is available at hours of peak demand.
Mr. Bryce lives in Texas, where grid operators assume that for each 100 megawatts of installed wind, they can count on just 8.7 megawatts on the peak demand days, which tend to be hot and calm.
His study does not include a cost for new transmission lines, which would be needed to move wind energy from the best place onshore for wind machines, the high plains, to major markets.
Yes, relying more on wind wind will reduce carbon dioxide emissions, he said, but at a price of at $45 to $54 per ton. That is roughly triple what a ton of carbon dioxide emissions trades for on the European exchange, he pointed out.
Advocates, including public officials, have argued that “this is going to be great for you,” Mr. Bryce said, “but there’s never an explanation of what it’s going to mean.’’
The analysis does not consider two factors that wind advocates are counting on, however. One is lower prices for wind energy per kilowatt-hour as the industry installs ever-larger machines and achieves economies of scale.
The other, stressed in the renewable energy laboratory study, is that a wired network of wind farms will be more valuable than scattered installations. That’s because when the machines are spread out in a network, they will be producing electricity based on the average wind in a larger number of places.
Because geographically diverse farms are unlikely to be simultaneously becalmed, the laboratory said, the minimum generation that system operators can count on will be higher.
Nor does the study consider the possibility that natural gas prices will return to levels so high that wind machines will pay for themselves with the value of the fuel not burned at conventional gas plants.
Michael S. Goggin, the transmission policy manager at the American Wind Energy Association, suggested that Mr. Bryce should have paid more attention to net costs, not total costs. Wind production could save copious amounts of natural gas, he said, and could avert the construction of at least some fossil-fired generation required for reliability.
“He’s looking at wind energy costs in a vacuum,” Mr. Goggin said.
Next year, the cost of a megawatt of wind capacity will be below $2 million, not the $2.4 million that Mr. Bryce quoted from the government study, he added.
But Mr. Goggin acknowledged that introducing wind on a larger scale would mean tens of billions of dollars in new transmission expenses. Those lines could improve overall reliability and reduce peak energy prices in areas with strong electricity congestion, but some of the cost should indeed be attributed to wind, he said.
Thus far, it is not economics that is driving wind energy growth; it is the renewable energy mandates in force in 29 states and the District of Columbia.
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