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Wind energy isn’t reducing carbon emissions

Minnesota Power continues to invest in its Bison 1 and 2 North Dakota wind farms, which will transmit power across the state line to Minnesota.

Also worth noting, however, is the announced startup of Minnesota’s newest wind farm near Lakefield, which also is to transmit power to a different state. This 205-megawatt project’s output is intended entirely for Indianapolis Power and Light, helping it to meet Indiana’s mandated renewable-energy standard that at least 10 percent of fuel comes from wind, solar, or biomass by 2017.

Indiana’s standard is less than the Minnesota Legislature’s demand that utilities like Minnesota Power and Excel Energy get 25 percent from renewable energy.

At the 27 percent U.S. average capacity factor for intermittent-output wind farms, the effective power of the Lakefield project can be expected to be about 55 megawatts, or a 20th that of the 90-percent capacity factor at the Prairie Island, Minn., nuclear plant.

The Lakefield developer, EnXco, has not disclosed the cost of its ratepayer- and taxpayer-subsidized project, but similar developments are in the $400 million to $500 million range. EnXco, owned by the French, expects to receive 30 percent of the project’s total cost upfront from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Midwest System Operator grid actually will receive the power for transmission to Indiana. Midwest System Operator or Indianapolis Power and Light will need additional backup power, probably from a natural-gas plant, to supply Indianapolis Power and Light when the Lakefield wind farm isn’t producing. Intermittent-energy wind farms everywhere have created demand for new natural-gas “peaker” plants. These plants are kept in spinning reserve to respond rapidly during the 75 percent of the time when the wind is too light or too strong for the wind turbines to function at capacity.

Indianapolis Power and Light has not disclosed the price it is paying for the energy from the wind farm owner, but these power-purchase contracts, forced by renewable energy legislation, are typically above the current market rate for electric power. That’s a cost that is borne by all ratepayers.

Large electric grids maintain a constant balance with control-room operators adjusting supply to meet continuing changes in power demand. Wind turbines turn themselves on and off, depending on the vagaries of the wind. As a result, wind farms have not replaced a fossil-fueled power plant anywhere on Earth. They also don’t reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, as the fluctuating backup plants have high emissions. This suggests that Department of Energy money might be better spent on wind energy research at facilities like the University of Minnesota’s Eolos Wind Research Station at UMore Park in Rosemount, Minn.

In England, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, has launched a withering assault on the wind-turbine industry, calling England’s low-capacity wind farms “a disgrace.” That’s because they tend to produce the least when demand is highest. He also has been critical of the industry’s reliance on subsidies from low- and average-income electricity customers. He has accused people who support wind energy of believing in fairy tales. A recent Sunday Telegraph audit of Britain’s 3,419 turbines revealed that 2,276 either are fully or partly owned by foreign businesses, which receive about $800 million a year in subsidies.

In 2010, Bentek Energy, a Colorado-based, energy-analytics firm, looked at power-plant records in Colorado and Texas. It concluded that despite large investments, wind-generated electricity “has had minimal, if any, impact on carbon dioxide” emissions.

As Kevin Forbes, the director of the Center for the Study of Energy and Environmental Stewardship at Catholic University, said, “Wind energy gives people a nice warm fuzzy feeling that we’re taking action on climate change. Yet when it comes to CO2 emissions, the reality is that it’s not doing much of anything.”

Rolf E. Westgard of St. Paul is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and teaches energy classes for the University of Minnesota’s Lifelong Learning program.