September 15, 2012

Wind's reliably poor performance

Wind developer consultant Tiff Thompson, in the September installment of her Windtech International column, “Nimbyism”, takes on critics of climate change science. She acknowledges critics of wind's ability to affect climate change, but dismisses them with industry projections of more wind power and, therefore, more effect on climate change.

Like wind itself, it's a poor performance.

She notes, without clear citation — it may be from the Global Wind Energy Council — that 1 MWh of wind energy “will” offset 550 kg (1,200 lb) of CO₂. Elsewhere, the wind industry in the U.S. has been boasting of their reaching 50 GW of installed capacity. Since the industry also maintains that their average production is at least 30% of capacity (despite actual data showing much less), that would mean 50,000 MW × 0.30 × 8,760 hours/year × 550 kg/MWh = 72,270,000,000 kg (72,270,000 metric tons; 159,328,100,000 lb) less CO₂ every year.

In fact, energy-related CO₂ emissions totaled 1,340,000,000 metric tons in just the first quarter of 2012, falling slightly below the figure for 1992, when the Production Tax Credit jumpstarted wind development. The U.S. Energy Information Administration attributes this to a mild winter, increased use of natural gas instead of coal for electricity generation, and reduced gasoline consumption. It is revealing that 50 GW of wind power was not noted. In fact, even by Thompson's industry-approved boosterism, wind energy would have reduced energy-related CO₂ emissions by 1.3%. And energy-related CO₂ emissions are only about 80% of the country's total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in terms of CO₂ equivalence, so wind's theoretical effect would be to reduce GHG emissions by barely 1%.

But again, looking only at electricity, it is clear that emissions have decreased almost entirely because of increased use of natural gas, which releases half the amount of CO₂ as coal for the same amount of energy (ignoring, of course, the release of GHG methane in the fracking process to procure that natural gas).

In short, it is clear that wind does not, and will not, seriously affect climate change. So Thompson deflects that criticism by raising the demon of climate science denial. She closes her column with: “To deny climate change ... is to embrace ignorance.” She can not honestly defend wind as a means of addressing climate change, so she changes the subject to that of the importance of addressing climate change, digging herself into an even deeper hole, because addressing climate change is so important that we certainly should not waste our time and resources on such an insignificant player as wind power.

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In her cursory attempt to deny the evidence that wind does not meaningfully reduce CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels on the electric grid, Thompson draws a caricature of the criticism and then accuses it of being oversimple. But it is precisely her formula of x wind equals y CO₂ emissions reduction that critics show to be oversimple.

She starts with the apt simile: “It's not like riding a bike and leaving the car in the driveway ... Wind energy on the grid is more like riding a bike and having someone follow you in the car in case you get tired.” (She cites the source as the Energy Integrity Project (Idaho) web site’s home page, but it is on their “Not Clean” page and there credited to one Eric Rosenbloom.) Thompson makes a paper tiger out of this by asserting that “once the biker tires, he has one option: to drive the car at 60 mph, without stopping, wherever he goes”, which she then shows to be untrue — thus proving the validity of the analogy, because in fact someone else would be driving the car and they would be stopping and starting and slowing to accommodate the flagging and reviving energy of the cyclist, and it would be much more efficient to leave the bike behind and simply drive steadily.

So explaining the complex mix of baseload and peaking plants that meet the changing electricity demand through the day, Thompson offers the novel claim that “variable” energy such as that from wind turbines fills the gap (which never existed) between them. She makes the nonsensical claim that wind is “more readily dispatched than baseload”, as if the grid operator tells the wind when, how strongly, and in what direction to blow, and thereby provides cost relief to peaking gas turbines, which, she says, have high operational costs. Their operational costs are high, however, precisely because they provide only peaking power, so it takes more time to make up the initial capital costs. Wind energy cutting into their use only increases that cost burden. Plus the system as a whole has the added costs — and environmental burden — of the wind facilities and their associated infrastructure.

But Thompson’s charade of expertise avoids the main charge against wind on the grid, which is indeed suggested by the analogy of the cyclist followed by a support car. Like the difference between city and highway driving, more frequent startups and ramping of output levels of the gas turbines not only increase wear and tear (thus increasing costs again), but also reduce their efficiency, i.e., cause them to emit more CO₂ per unit of electricity generated.

Furthermore, there are two kinds of gas turbines: open-cycle and combined-cycle. Only open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) are able to respond quickly enough to fill in or make way for the variability of wind energy so that demand is reliably met. Not only does wind require them to operate less efficiently, it also prevents the use of combined-cycle gas turbines (CCGTs), which are much more efficient than OCGTs. In the interest of CO₂ savings, many analysts have determined that emissions from wind + OCGT (which wind requires) are not less than, and are in some cases more than, CCGT alone. (For example: here, here, here, here, here and here.)

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The controversy about climate change is not whether human activities contribute to it. It is about the activities excused in the name of fighting climate change. Industrial wind is a prime example of that deceit: furthering crimes against nature in the name of saving it. And rather than admit those crimes, wind's apologists tar any and every critic as a climate change denier. That is true for some critics of wind, who also might, as Thompson describes the Heartland Institute and Manhattan Institute, consider wind to be a pet project of “ecosocialism” (which they oppose), which is odd since big wind is clearly a playing piece in the game of big energy and big capital. It is that latter fact, and the depredation of nature and communities it is thus an active participant in, that advocates such as Thompson must hide by pretending concern for the planet.

It is a cynical and pathetically transparent performance.

wind power, wind energy, environment, environmentalism