September 7, 2005

Gas vs. wind

From the Miller (S.D.) Press, "Wind power development faces many challenges," Sept. 6, 2005: '"When the wind isn't blowing, it's not serving anyone," [Ron Rebenitsch of Basin Electric Power Cooperative] commented. "I think wind will become a partner with gas energy," meaning when the wind isn't producing, the gas will take up the slack.'

And Renewable Energy Access, "Wind, Natural Gas Hybrid Project Moves Ahead," Aug. 3, 2005, described an 108-MW wind facility proposed off the coast of Cumbria (U.K.) with its own back-up 98-MW natural gas–powered generator.

As noted previously, many advocates of industrial wind power argue that it will help stabilize or offset rising natural gas prices. (Natural gas is used to generate about 15% of the electricity in the U.S.) It has been frequently noted recently that wind power is now economically competitive with natural gas.

The use of natural gas has increased because it is so much cleaner than coal, which still provides over 50% of the electricity in the U.S. (Oil is not a significant source, providing only 2.4%; nuclear fission provides over 20%.) Now it appears that industrial wind power will only displace natural gas.

At best, expansion of industrial wind will fuel an expansion of natural gas, necessary to provide quickly responsive back-up to the unpredictably variable wind production. Increased use of natural gas may then further reduce the use of coal. The presence of wind turbines, with their fluctuating production, however, would require the gas plants to run less efficiently and with more pollution (and more expensively) than if they could run steadily. Obviously, rather than mitigating the demand for gas, wind turbines will be increasing it.

But rather than contributing to an albeit imperfect system of reduced emissions, wind power will be reducing the positive effects of natural gas vs. coal. If new gas plants are going to built anyway, it would be better if wind turbines weren't.

Summary: Wind power requires gas power back-up but reduces its efficiency, thus increasing the emissions of the cleanest fossil-fuel alternative to coal.

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