The wind energy industry is predicting a dismal future for wind turbine farms if the Production Tax Credit for wind expires in 2013. That credit provides 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour to wind producers. Since total wholesale energy prices are in the range of 4 to 5 cents per kwh, the PTC is a large percent of total revenue for wind producers.
Since wind subsidies have been around for 20 years, many are arguing it is time for the industry stand on its own.
There are reasons that costly and variable wind energy has not replaced one baseload fossil fuel power plant anywhere on Earth. The consulting firm BENTEK Energy reported in its study of Xcel energy’s operations in the mountain states, “Integrating erratic and unpredictable wind resources with established coal and natural gas generation resources requires Xcel to cycle its coal and natural gas-fired plants.” The report noted that this start/stop operation increases emissions and makes the plants operate inefficiently.
As to subsidies, the Energy Information Administration reports that on a per-unit-of-energy basis, subsidies for oil and gas are 28 cents, coal 39 cents, nuclear $1.79, corn ethanol $20.37, wind $32.39 and solar $63. Xcel Energy has a program called “Windsource,” through which consumers pay more, not less, to use wind power.
We need more public transport, more efficient cars and light bulbs, and to continue support for wind and solar research. But the PTC forces premature full scale projects like the $2 billion Cape Wind farm off Cape Cod in Massachusetts or the proposed eagle threatening wind farm in Goodhue County. None of these will produce one-tenth the steady output of the Prairie Island nuclear plant, Xcel Energy’s reliable, low-cost power source.
The earth’s fossil fuel reserves are still substantial, although increasingly expensive to recover. But their supply is not infinite, and burning them will overheat the planet. Increasing price will force needed conservation, but in the end it is likely that non-emitting nuclear energy will have the thousand year energy potential, giving us time to make fundamental changes in the way we live with respect to energy.
Rolf Westgard teaches energy classes for University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning.