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Wind turbine misconceptions

In a recent A-T article about wind turbines, Gary Baldosser was quoted at some length describing how turbines work to provide power. Unfortunately, his description left some hefty misconceptions in the minds of readers who are unfamiliar with the subject.

When Baldosser states that wind turbines’ “efficiency is that they are quickly able to go on and off line” and if we need extra power it is easy to “put more turbines online,” it leaves the impression that wind turbines are turned on and off with a switch and that the wind is always there to use at a moment’s notice. This is just not the case.

In real life, the variable wind only blows enough for the turbines to generate one third of the electricity they could if they ran full power all the time. And, as every reader knows, the wind blows when it wants to, not when you want it to. In real life, the turbines are seldom if ever “switched off” if they happen to be turning. The wind companies are loathe to do so because they do not want to lower their average output to even less than one third.

The intermittent output of turbines is one of their big downfalls. Some people like to say that it’s not a problem because they are connected to the grid and some other generating source will fill in the gaps. Currently, the only reliable source of power that is always ready to ramp up at a moment’s notice is certain kinds of natural gas generators. In the end, they will generate the two-thirds of the electricity that the turbines were suppose to provide but can’t because of variable winds. If you like the fracking that enables the supply of natural gas, then you will love having more turbines. And, because of the physics involved in using gas as a backup, the inefficiencies cause as much or more gas to be used in backing up wind turbines as would be used in more efficient full-time gas generators making all the electricity and not building any turbines in the first place. That is why wind turbines do not save on CO2 emissions. And remember, whenever you read that “wind energy is now the cheapest form of electricity” the cost of backing it up when the wind slows is not included in that price. Intermittent electricity has little value to you as the end user.

But what about batteries, you say? Baldosser’s 55-gallon drums sound like batteries! Giant batteries that could soak up power when the wind blows and then disperse it when the wind slows would be wonderful. But the many stories we read about batteries for such purposes are talking about sometime in the future, if ever. While there are a few installed in California and Australia, they are only capable of storing a few seconds’ or minutes’ worth of power, and they do so at a very high cost. While there are many storage ideas being researched, there is nothing even close to being developed or deployed that can store the massive amount of electricity needed at an affordable price. Maybe someday, but certainly not anytime soon. If we were to ramp up current battery technology to the required scale, besides being extremely expensive, it would involve many environmental impacts and require moving mountains of earth on a scale even greater than mining coal to acquire the necessary natural elements like lithium, etc.

In the end, there is no perfect way to generate electricity without causing some issue. If we think CO2 is the immediate biggest problem, then we should be installing more nuclear plants, as they are the only thing that can generate massive amounts of stable electricity with no CO2. But then people worry about the waste lasting thousands of years. If, as we see in the news, the world is going to end in 10-20 years if we don’t stop emitting CO2, then which should be our top priority, the 10-year problem or the 1,000-year problem? It is too bad that we have to let politicians and politician-appointed state agencies sort this all out. Their focus will always be on doing whatever the current fad is to gain votes and collect money. Eventually, they will realize that large number of voters being forced to live near wind turbines will not be happy with their current politicians. At that point, the wind fad will be over, but we will be left to live among the huge flailing armed machines for decades into the future, while things like solar panels would have had very few effects on surrounding residents.

Some will make lots of money on wind power and they will be happy. They are the ones so busily promoting it now. Every fad in history was pushed to its maximum by those making money on it.

Jim Feasel,