November 14, 2004

The 0.05% solution

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, less than 2.4% of our electricity is generated by burning oil. Yet it is common for the wind-power salesmen to insist that their product will make us less dependent on foreign oil. The amount of our oil consumption that goes towards generating electricity is also less than 2.4%, or less than 1% of our total energy use.

Let's say they get their way and 5% of our electricity is generated by a few hundred thousand giant windmills. That would theoretically replace (if we ignore the typical 2% annual growth in consumption) 5% of our current sources of electricity, 2.4% of which is oil. So at best it would reduce oil's share to just under 2.3%. It would similarly reduce our total use of oil -- only some of which is imported from troublesome regions such as the Middle East -- by 0.1%. It would reduce oil's share of our energy consumption by 0.05%.

Now the salesmen would say that every little bit helps, thinking we will overlook that billions of dollars spent to install hundreds of thousands of giant windmills blighting our every landscape must ultimately be a rather embarrassing way to help a very "little bit." They would also forget their original plea about foreign oil and talk about domestic coal instead.

Coal-burning plants are continually developing to be more efficient and cleaner. But the prospect of significant amounts of wind power on the grid requires keeping on the older dirtier plants -- and even building new ones -- because only they are able to respond quickly enough to the unpredictable fluctuations of wind-generated power to keep the grid supply steady. That is, large-scale wind thwarts cleaner coal.

Coal mining is a dreadful business, and the more we can move away from it the better (it is the source of over 50% of our electricity), but wind power does not move us away from it and in fact perpetuates the worst use of it.

So they move on to the fluctuations of natural gas prices, as if a few percentage points of wind power in the grid (should it ever actually get that far) would have any effect on another market altogether (only a quarter of our natural gas use is for electricity.)

So they point to the dangers of nuclear power. Denmark, which has shunned nuclear power and claims that 20% of their electricity comes from wind (in fact, it's more like 3% -- the rest is exported because it's produced when demand is already being met), now has to buy nuclear-generated power from its neighbors because their faith in wind leaves them in need so often (when there is demand, the wind is rarely blowing in proportion). In other words, wind power won't replace any nuclear power here, either, and may well make us more dependent on it.

Sad to say, wind power won't replace or even reduce any more dependable source of electricity. The only way to reduce fossil and nuclear fuel use is to reduce consumption -- not just of electricity but also the energy for heating and transport. Efficiency and conservation will take us a long way towards solving our energy problems. The depredations of the wind industry won't even point us in the right direction.

Data source: Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy. Figures are for the year 2002, in quadrillion btu:
total energy: 97.644
total electricity: 38.177
total oil: 38.401
oil used for electricity: 0.908
     (2.38% of total electricity, 0.93% of total energy)
5% less oil used for electricity: 0.863
     (2.26% of total electricity, 0.88% of total energy)