July 25, 2005

WisPIRG hasn't really thought it through

Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WisPIRG) has released a paper arguing for building more wind power facilities. Like most advocates, they point out how awful coal and nuclear fuels (with which I completely agree) yet fail to show that wind power can actually reduce their use. It is like pointing to a person shot in the head to justify stabbing someone. "Not as bad" is still bad, especially if the "worse" is still going to be around as much as ever.

How bad is industrial wind power? At about 50 acres per megawatt capacity (see www.aweo.org/windarea.html for a table of facilities around the world), it simply takes up huge amounts of space, filling every vista with alien behemoths like a giant barbed-wire fence.

WisPIRG points out, "A single [coal] mine can strip up to ten square miles, disrupting individual animals and in some cases entire species." Ten square miles is 6,400 acres. Wisconsin's Forward Wind Energy Center will occupy 32,000 acres, or 50 square miles. Yet the entire facility's capacity will be only 200 MW. And because of the variability of the wind, its actual output will average at the most (developer's claim) 67 MW but more likely (U.S. average, Energy Information Agency (EIA)) only 26 MW of usable power.

As horrible as a ten-square-mile coal mine is, I dare say we get a hell of a lot of electricity out of it. Which cannot be said for industrial wind.

Here are some more numbers. According to WisPIRG's paper, Wisconsin uses 68 TW-h of electricity each year, projected to rise to 85 TW-h in 2013. Seventy-two percent comes from coal and 22% from nuclear. What would it take to replace 20% of that with wind?

The developers claim (and advocates such as WisPIRG swallow, despite evidence that it is highly inflated) that annual production from a wind turbine is 33% of its rated capacity. The EIA says that wind produced less than 5 TW-h of the electricity used in the U.S. in 2002, representing the output of, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) 4,480 MW of installed capacity (average between capacity at ends of 2001 and 2002). That's an annual output of only 13% of capacity.

[Technical note: A electrical generator produces power, measured in watts, which is used over time, specified, for example, in your electricity bill as kilowatt-hours (KW-h), which is a thousand watts used for one hour. A 10-million-watt (MW) generator producing full tilt without break for a year produces 10 MW × 24 hours × 365 days = 87,600 MW-h, or 87.6 GW-h. But no power plant, especially one dependent on highly variable wind, produces at its full capacity full time. The ratio of its actual annual output to its theoretical maximum output is called its capacity factor. As noted above, the wind industry insists that 0.33 is to be expected for wind turbines, but real data shows it to be below 0.13.]

Back to replacing 20% of Wisconsin's electricity with wind. Twenty percent of 68 TW-h is 13.6 TW-h. Divided by 8,760 (24 hours × 365 days), that's an average output of 1,553 MW. That would require at the least (developer's claim) 4,658 MW but more likely (EIA data) 11,942 MW of wind capacity. Even by the developer's wishful thinking that would require industrializing 364 square miles, but more likely 933 square miles -- of formerly wild or rural land.

That 20% will be only 16% in 2013, so ever more would have to be built. (No wonder the industry is lobbying so hard for renewables mandates. And no wonder people are becoming increasingly alarmed by the increasing encroachment of the giant machines.)

And the truly sad thing is that the wind is variable and often not there at all, and the output of a wind turbine falls off in cubic relation as the wind speed drops below the ideal 25-30 mph. Only one-third of the time would the turbines produce at their annual average rate or better. Most of the time, Wisconsin will still need those coal and nuclear plants as much as ever.

Large-scale wind is clearly not an environmentally sound option.

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