TCS Daily


Inherit the Wind?

By Peter C. Glover - July 7, 2006 12:00 AM

Anyone flying over the Scottish coast in the next few years might be forgiven for thinking that the land mass was taxiing for take off. Such will be the profusion of 400-foot-high wind turbine propellers on view if proposals to build more than 6,500 turbines on 200 wind farms covering more than 1,000 square miles get the go-ahead.

Yet Scotland is by no means alone in its rush to scar the landscape and make millionaires - as they are doing - of wind farm developers. However, in pursuit of environmentally friendly renewable energy sources, it appears that the enthusiasm of the Scottish Executive to throw the usual planning caution to the winds, may yet prove ill-conceived in terms of the high economic and environment cost.

The benefits of wind energy are unarguably attractive. Wind is an abundant, inexhaustible, clean power source that can help us to reduce global carbon emissions. The Scottish Executive has become so enamored with the development of wind energy technology that it wants to generate 40 percent of Scotland's energy from renewable resources by 2020 - twice its EU target. The British government too is committed to what is widely recognized to be an unrealistic target. It wants to produce 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2010.

The problem the Westminster and Scottish parliaments face however is growing evidence that claims for wind turbines' efficiency have proven somewhat overblown, extremely expensive and - in the case of wildlife - decidedly environmentally unfriendly.

British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott signaled the British wind energy industry equivalent of the California Gold Rush with his infamous revision to planning policy, known as PPS22. Though it has never had parliamentary approval, this new government policy effectively overrules all the normal objections to industrial development in the countryside. And the developers have not been slow to rely on it.

So what is causing governments to rush ahead with the Great Wind Farm Land and Sea rush? Well it might have something to do with false early claims made for wind turbine power generation made by the eco-industry itself. However, recent Department of Trade and Industry figures reveal that wind farm developers had exaggerated the power production capacity of their turbines by around 52 percent. Even against the British Wind Energy Association's figures, the wind energy's own lobby, the developers' claims were found to be exaggerated by 116 percent. And early claims suggesting that wind farms off the East Anglia coast could provide 25 percent of electricity needs have also had to be modified. The industry now says it can provide up to 6 percent by 2015, but only if it is given another large injection of public funds.

Offshore wind farms, where the visual aesthetic is also much less of an issue and where wind speeds are up to 90 percent greater, have a far greater power-producing efficiency. But building costs, previously estimated at £1.2 million per megawatt, have already crept up to £1.5 million and maintenance and transfer costs (to where the power is needed) are high. As a result investment in offshore wind power development has fallen away with highly unpopular onshore sites being pursued by developers and growing at twice the expected rate. Britain has only four working offshore wind farms producing 213 megawatts. Onshore wind farms, in stark contrast, now produce 1,125.

But both onshore and offshore wind farms are now being recognized as an environmental hazard - they are decimating the bird, and rare bird, population. In 2000 the National Energy Lab reported that wind turbines at Altamont Pass in California were killing birds at a rate five times higher than previously estimated.

It is fair to say that wind farms have evolved since Altamont Pass was built. The same amount of energy is now produced by far fewer turbines spaced much further apart. Even so, in 2005, the rotor arms at Altamont Pass were still killing more than 1,100 birds annually, including golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and owls. In June of this year, hot on the heels of a report claiming that the threat to the bird population was exaggerated, came another report showing that wind farms off the coast of Norway are destroying a population of Europe's largest rare bird of prey. In ten months nine white-tailed eagles have been killed, including all of last year's chicks. Chick numbers in the area have plummeted since the wind farm was built with breeding pairs now down from 19 to a single pair.

Now no one is saying that wind power does not have a part to play in the eco-revolution that can make us less reliant on fossil burning fuels. However, the belief that the economic, social and environmental cost of building a rash of wind farms may, at the very least, be questionable.

What is providing the greatest impetus driving the current political and developmental agenda is undoubtedly, however, the claims - and consequent fear generated - over man-made global warming/climate change. Yet here again the scientific case is far from proven, as an article by Professor Richard S. Lindzen in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial makes abundantly clear. As Lindzen says there is simply no such thing as a scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels by man is responsible for global warming.

And in recent days we have further learned from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that a global switch to low energy light technology would trim the world's electricity bill by as much as one-tenth. The IEA report makes the startling claim that a global switch to low energy electricity bulbs would dwarf the carbon emission savings thus far achieved collectively by wind and solar power energy developments. "19 percent of global electricity generation is taken for lighting, " says the IEA's Paul Waide. The carbon dioxide produced by generating all this electricity amounts to 70 percent of global emissions from passenger vehicles, for instance.

If the IEA is right, it suggests that we would be far better served prioritizing the much more immediate, easily achievable and cost-effective energy savings and enormous carbon emission reductions which lighting, not wind power, technology clearly affords.

Peter C. Glover is a TCS Daily contributing writer.

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1 Comment

RE-post - The trouble with new energy technologies...
Today, global primary energy is comprised of 87% fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas), with the remaining 13% about equally split between nuclear and hydro.

New energy technologies don't amount to much, in spite of all the hype. There is a reason for this, and it is not because (as many "greens" would have you believe) new technologies are inadequately subsidized - they are, but these huge subsidies are generally wasted.

The trouble with new energy technologies is that many of them are so inefficient that they just don't work in any practical sense.

For example, wind power is viewed as a panacea by many in the environmental movement. I wish this were true, but it is not.

An excellent report from Germany provides strong evidence that wind is highly uneconomic in most onshore locations.

The report is "E.On Netz Wind Power Report 2005" at www.eon-netz.com/EONNETZ_eng.jsp

A German leader in this industry, E.On Netz operates more wind power than the entire USA. Its Substitution Factor (the amount that wind power can displace conventional power stations in the grid) is very low at 8% now, dropping to 4% in 2020 - this is the key to why wind power is not economic.

At a 4% Substitution Factor, E.On must install 25 times more wind power capacity than the conventional power that the wind power replaces. In effect, this means that for every wind power project constructed, Germany still needs a similar-sized hydro, coal, gas or nuclear power plant to support it.

The E.On report demonstrates the key flaw that is ignored in virtually all analyses of wind power - the wind does not blow enough when you need it and so wind power is ineffective at replacing conventional power stations, especially as more wind power is added to the grid.

Some supporters of wind power say that it does not matter that wind power requires greater than 90% backup by conventional power stations, because when the wind does blow it allows those conventional power stations to shut down, saving gas or coal. This is not really correct either. Large power plants, particularly nuclear and coal-fired ones, cannot be easily shut down and brought back up in response to rapidly varying wind speeds.

Another problem is that the Capacity Factor, which is the amount of wind power actually generated divided by the nameplate capacity of the wind farm, is surprisingly low. E.On Netz reports a 19.3% Capacity Factor for their German gird, so they must install 5 times the nameplate capacity to actually generate that average amount of wind power.

Building these massive wind farms costs more than just money - money is a proxy for all the energy and pollution that goes into smelting the steel and copper, fabricating the components, erecting them, tying the towers into the grid, commissioning, operation, maintenance and decommissioning.

Taxpayer subsidies disguise the fact that wind farms simply move the pollution from one location to another and probably add to total pollution and energy waste rather than decreasing it.

The foolish government subsidies provided to wind power projects disguise the fact that wind power is incredibly inefficient and hence is highly anti-environmental, without even considering the visible pollution, noise or bird kill.

Another such example is corn ethanol for motor fuel - I used to have a corn ethanol plant in the USA and it was economically marginal, at best - it would have been highly unprofitable except for huge state and federal subsidies.

I finally came to understand why it was so unprofitable - the total full-life energy input to make the corn ethanol was greater than the energy within the ethanol! When the energy meters are running backwards, there is no way you can win. Perhaps fuel ethanol made from cellulose (agricultural wastes, wood, etc.) will ultimately prove more energy-efficient.

Undoubtedly others will challenge me on these points, and some may actually provide some credible data!

Here is the acid test - shut down all taxpayer subsidies to wind and corn ethanol and see how long they survive.

Lastly , some greens will counter that the fossil fuel industry receives even greater subsidies. Frankly, I have yet to see any credible case made for such Pavlovian statements. My home province of Alberta received about $14 billion in royalties and mineral land sales from the energy industry last year, and many more billions in corporate taxes. There is no question that this vastly exceeded any and all subsidies, real or imaginary, that were allegedly given to the energy industry.

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