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The dis-economies of wind power

Wind power has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years and was a viable source of energy when alternatives were unavailable. During the last several decades, much attention has been given to this old stand-by as a way to produce environmentally friendly electrical power.

However, alternative forms of power to generate electrical energy are available and are much cheaper when all of the costs are taken into account. The reason hydro, coal, gas and nuclear sources have been predominate for generating electrical energy is they are cheaper. Low cost will prevail in markets free of artificial influences.

Recently, the latest wind technology has evolved to generate with a direct current format, then convert to alternating current via inverters. This format avoids many of the mechanical difficulties of generating at 60 cycles per second (standard for the grid), such as 3,600-rpm generators being powered by much slower wind turbines through elaborate step-up gearing systems. Such gearing systems require constant maintenance and are significantly less than 100 percent efficient.

During the past few decades, inverters have enjoyed improved efficiencies, but they, too, are , not 100 percent efficient. This means a portion of the electricity generated by wind is lost in the conversion to alternating current, just like with gearing systems.

To produce useable wind-generated electricity, other obstacles must be overcome. Perhaps most importantly, wind power is intermittent, depending on whether the wind is blowing. Therefore, reliable back-up power generating facilities (plus the associated switch gear) must be on hand and ready to fill in when wind generation is absent.

These realities require duplicate capital investment and, to some extent, duplicate operating expenses. Consequently, it is an apples-to-oranges comparison when an installed megawatt of wind generation infrastructure is compared to an installed megawatt of conventional generation infrastructure. Another way to look at wind generation installations is as expensive, unreliable (intermittent) substitute fuel for conventional generation facilities.

In this writer’s opinion, the proper apples-to-apples comparison is the total cost of wind-generated electrical energy compared to the value of the primary fuel (oil, gas, coal or whatever) displaced by wind-generated electricity. And to accommodate the unwanted production of greenhouse gases associated with fossil fuels, the estimated costs of these undesirable externalities can be subtracted from the cost of wind-generated electricity.

If this is the accepted method for judging economic viability, wind power loses by multiples.

So, the question is how much, and for how long, is the public willing to pay to subsidize wind energy? Is the public willing to pay two and three times as much for a wind-generated kilowatt-hour than for a traditionally generated kilowatt-hour? Are they willing to do it of forever?

I think not, especially if the public is aware of the many differences between conventionally generated and wind-generated electricity and it is properly informed of all of the costs of wind energy as well as the appropriate cost comparison.

E. Tylor Claggett is a professor of finance with Salisbury University’s Perdue School of Business.