June 13, 2007

Working towards acceptance of wind

A concerned citizen writes:
To be quick and to the point, harnessing free wind makes way more sense than buying oil, burning it and polluting the planet.

What can someone do as an individual to help push wind power along? People resist it due to aesthetics I think but I want to know more and work towards acceptance of wind.
The response:

The first thing you should consider is that only a small fraction of the electricity in the U.S. is generated by burning oil. And most of that is sludge left over from gasoline refining.

But such oil-burning plants would probably be used more if substantial wind energy were added to the grid, because they can respond quickly enough to balance the fluctuations of wind-generated electricity. In fact, the company behind Cape Wind is trying to build such a plant along with the wind turbines in Nantucket Sound.

The other fossil fuel whose use would grow with wind energy is natural gas, which plants also can respond quickly (and much more efficiently than oil-fired plants). In Delaware, the proposed off-shore wind energy facility would be tied with a new natural gas plant.

Of course, new plants apparently have to be built anyway as the population or the economy or consumer and industry demand continues to grow, and if wind can sometimes fill in for them, then that may reduce the use of them somewhat. But that is hardly a move away from fossil fuels. Even the American Wind Energy Association can say only that wind will slightly reduce the growth of new fossil-fuel-fired plants.

The above is only the beginning of a slew of problems with large-scale wind on the grid. Aesthetics may be the most immediate problem for most people (since wind requires wide open spaces or long undeveloped mountain ridges -- the very places that we need to fight to keep unindustrialized), but the list of adverse impacts is long.

Whereas the list of benefits is regrettably short.

Here is a challenge, before you dismiss these arguments. I myself once assumed wind energy was good, but I am a science editor and began to notice that there was no clear evidence of its reducing the use of other fuels. The "penetration" figure (percentage of total generation produced by wind) that is usually provided is meaningless, because there are so many other factors operating in the power balance of the grid (spinning standby, line loss, ramping inefficiencies, variation tolerance, and so on).

The crucial data are:

fuel consumption per demand after wind energy installation
fuel consumption per demand before

Try to find such data showing a real difference. In four years of involvement with this issue, I have yet to find even a hint of such evidence, particularly in a large grid -- not even from Denmark.

The fact is, the more people learn about wind energy (from sources other than the industry sales material), the less accepting they are.

wind power, wind energy, environment, environmentalism, Vermont