June 3, 2005

Wind power will not be useless (when?)

On May 7, James Adams responded to in the April 28 Albany (N.Y.) Times Union:
Regarding the usefulness of wind energy, how can one possibly say that wind turbines are a practically useless technology? When complete, the first phase of the Maple Ridge wind farm, currently being installed in Lewis County, will provide clean power to more than 59,000 New York homes and economic benefits for the Tug Hill Plateau communities. That hardly seems useless to me.
He also points out that wind "farms" are better to look at than nuclear waste, smokestacks, and acid rain -- who can argue against that?

The argument, of course, is whether giant wind power facilities (averaging about 1 megawatt of (unpredicable, variable) output per 200 acres of turbines) can actually replace even a portion of our coal or nuclear plants.

James Adams says that the Maple Ridge plant "will provide clean power to more than 59,000 New York homes," a benefit that easily mitigates any adverse "aesthetic" impact (especially for those who don't have to live near them). As with every instance of this argument, only the future tense is used. Even in Germany (6% wind) and Denmark (20%) they talk about success in the future. Why is no benefit provided by today's installations?

Further, that figure of providing 59,000 homes, as usual, is grossly exaggerated as well as misleading. First of all, the figure is meaningless without specifying the average electricity use of a "New York home" or the expected capacity factor of the wind plant. The latter is invariably inflated (i.e., every new wind power facility thinks it will produce a higher percentage of its rated capacity than almost every existing facility does).

It also inflates the impact on pollution by focusing on only one part (about a ninth) of our energy use: residential electricity. Finally, electricity use varies considerably hour to hour, day to day, season to season, as does wind power production. Unfortunately, the two have nothing to do with each other. Two thirds of the time, wind plants produce well below their long-term average output, making up for it with surges of production when the wind blows just right. Whether those surges correspond to an actual need on the grid is purely a matter of chance, so much of the wind plant's power is essentially dumped -- if not outright sent into the ground, then shunted around the grid until it disperses as heat.

Adams asks, "Would people rather have a nuclear facility or a coal-fired plant in their back yards?" It's like asking someone you're about to punch, "Would you rather I knife you?" Given those narrow options, the choice is easy, but given the fact that industrial wind turbines are a useless boondoggle people might say no to both. Two wrongs don't make a right.

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