I have to chuckle every time I read a story about “carbon-free” wind turbines.
These reports do a disservice to readers because they do not fully explain what makes these turbines run (hint: it is something we produce a lot of here in New Mexico) or that they are manufactured.
These stories also do not explain how much of our power comes from wind (hint: it is not a huge amount) and, very often, they do not explain the strides we have made toward addressing global warming because of the general shift away from coal.
Perhaps I actually should not chuckle. These issues, after all, are serious. They affect families’ electricity bills, our national economy and the state budget.
Consumers deserve the full story.
So here it is.
Large wind turbines are not self-sustaining. They need a lot of energy to operate, and that power comes from resources like natural gas. Cole Gustafson, a biofuels economist, has explained that wind turbine blades have built-in heaters that try to prevent icing, and these heaters could consume up to 20 percent of the electricity produced by the turbine. Turbines also have batteries that must be recharged with power from the electrical grid.
Manufacturers also require energy to build the turbines – again, provided by more common (and affordable) resources like natural gas or more unfortunate resources like coal.
Matt Ridley explained the manufacture of wind turbines, which are made mostly of steel and concrete. Ridley noted wind turbines “need about 200 times as much material per unit of capacity as a modern combined cycle gas turbine. Steel is made with coal, not just to provide the heat for smelting ore, but to supply the carbon in the alloy.
“Cement is also often made using coal. The machinery of ‘clean’ renewables is the output of the fossil fuel economy, and largely the coal economy.”
Coal and wind – joined at the hip.
The second fact the glowing stories about turbines gloss over is that while consumers are getting more of energy from renewables than they did, say, five years ago, we would need millions more turbines and thousands more farms to keep up with energy demand. Wind energy provides only 14 percent of electricity here in New Mexico. Natural gas provides about a quarter. Coal, unfortunately, provides most of the rest.
What this means is that while we should try to build more renewable capacity, it is irresponsible to suggest it can happen overnight, or even in a few years. Natural gas would provide a much more direct avenue away from coal.
What state officials can do – and what they already have done, in fact – is bolster production of clean-burning natural gas. According to the Energy Information Administration, New Mexico is one of the top natural gas-producing states in the country and it has more than 4 percent of the nation’s total proved natural gas reserves.
I can see readers shaking their heads now because they have been filled with warnings that natural gas is a fossil fuel – something that is no better than coal.
This point is where most news stories also err, or at least fail to give sufficient context. According to data from the EIA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methane emissions intensity declined by 57 percent in the Permian Basin from 2011 to 2017 despite the fact that natural gas production in that region increased 125 percent during those years. Methane is one of the most harmful greenhouse gases and even though gas production in our state is picking up, emissions rates are falling.
For me, this data changes the lens through which we look at wind power. If it is not as reliable, is not all that renewable and is more expensive than effective alternatives like natural gas, is there really that much to cheer?
I don’t think so.
Regulators, scientists, lawmakers and, yes, our newspapers, must do a better job of educating the public about how our energy system works. It is the only way we can have an honest debate about what type of infrastructure we really need.
Pat Lyons is a former state land and public utilities commissioner.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding