One of the most annoying threads of the argument for wind power is the silly suggestion that windmills will help reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
This is patently untrue, and anyone who attempts to use an oil-vs.-wind argument is either extremely uninformed or they are unconcerned about being a part of spreading falsehoods.
The idea behind wind turbines is that they will create electricity for the power grid, electricity that will reach residences and businesses. Meanwhile, the United States uses a tiny fraction of its oil consumption – less than 3 percent – in burning processes that create electricity.
So to inject the argument that wind power will help reduce dependence on oil is utterly a non-starter.
Certainly, coal-fired power plants result in the emission of greenhouse and other environmentally unfriendly gases, while also creating waste byproduct that must be disposed of. In this discussion, the suggestion that wind power can compete with coal-fired plants – or at least reduce the dependence on such plants – begins to have a little more credibility.
But a look at the progress being made regarding wind power output also makes it difficult to envision a time when wind is anything more than a small contributor to the total needs of our power grid.
A study released earlier this year from the United Kingdom examined generation from all wind farms in the UK between November 2008 and December 2010. The study, funded through the John Muir Trust and performed by Stuart Young Consulting, found that average output from wind generation facilities was 24.08 percent of their rated capacity, falling far short of claims by wind advocates that wind facilities will generate an average of 30 percent rated capacity.
In 2010, according to the study (I found it on the website www.environmentaltrends.com), wind generation in the UK was 21.14 percent of rated capacity.
“The study further found that wind generation was less than 20 megawatts some 124 times in the study period,” writes Brian Steed for the website. “As a frame of reference, average energy generation capacity of the windfarms was more than 1,600 megawatts for the study period. Wind generation at less than 20 megawatts implies virtually no impact from wind energy on the overall energy grid.
“Worse still, low energy production from wind energy occurred during the four highest peak demands of 2010. At the times of high peak demands, wind energy generation was at 4.72 percent, 5.51 percent, 2.59 percent and 2.51 percent of capacity respectively.
“The findings of the study provide a clearer picture of the impact of wind energy generation and need to be understood in developing a realistic and reliable energy portfolio,” Mr. Steed writes. “Yes, wind power facilities significantly contributed the British energy grid, but wind generation fell short of its hype. Further studies are needed to identify whether claims about green energy like wind are aspirational or a reflection of reality. We must understand that wind energy can be an important part of energy generation capacity, but it is clearly not a panacea.”
It should be noted that the UK has the greatest capacity of offshore wind turbines that any other nation – that’s windmills on the wind-swept North Sea, off the Scottish coast, off the west coast that faces the Irish Sea.
Basically, when I think of the coastlands of Great Britain and Scotland, I think of wind. Lots of wind. And yet, for all the UK’s capacity for wind energy – and its government has shelled out big in the form of wind-energy subsidies – it seems the results have been rather disappointing.
Which brings me back to the United States, to inland New York state, to Cattaraugus County, to the town of Allegany.
We in the Enchanted Mountains take justified pride in our capacity to endure fierce, inclement weather. We live through the cold and snow, the summer storms and, in its fashion, the wind. But is it North Sea wind? Is it northern coast of Scotland wind?
If the UK, an island that juts up into the North Sea, has less than hoped for return on its wind power investments, what can we expect the output to be from a windfarm perched on the ridges above Allegany?
Again, it’s the contention of many that there would never be a windfarm planned for the town of Allegany without the inducement of government subsidies – and town officials eager for new revenues. I have long doubted the efficiency of the planned windfarm will be worth the acres of clearcutting, the roads carved into the hillsides causing runoff, the tens of thousands of cubic feet of concrete for base pads, the potential for noise pollution, the spoiled skyline and lowered property values will be worth the drop-in-the-bucket wattage that will be produced.
The energy needs of the U.S. and world, when balanced by the need for new sources while protecting the environment, are incredibly complex – so much so that it is likely we will see a great melding of existing and new technologies for generations to come. Wind power has a place in that grand scheme – in the small scale, such as in the form of a modest-size turbine on a farm, and in the huge scale, like offshore in the North Sea or on a wind-swept prairie miles from where people live.
Looming over people’s homes and property in the town of Allegany, where consistent wind speeds will be a chancy thing at best?
It doesn’t seem worth it.
Jim Eckstrom is managing editor of the Olean Times Herald.