It's An Ill Wind That Blows Nobody Any Good
In his recent State of the Union (SOTU) address, US President Barack Obama claimed that “America is number one in wind power.” This will come as a shock to China and several other countries that have led the way in green energy like wind and solar. That aside, expanding wind energy may not be the blessing its boosters tout. In Europe, many of the newly installed wind turbines are replacing existing older models, and in China as much as 15% of the installed turbines are not connected to the power grid. And with fierce winter storms in the news on both sides of the Atlantic, news comes from the UK of an epic fail for wind power. Are the fortunes of windpower shifting?
Barack Obama and most liberals go all weak in the knees over so called green energy—wind and solar. The fact that there are a multitude of problems inherent with both major types of “clean” energy only serves to heighten their appeal to progressive dreamers. There have been claims that the U.S. leads the world in wind, primarily from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), a wind power lobbying organization (note the hashtag sucking up to the EPA). Its claim requires a bit of arithmetic gymnastics to arrive at and others would dispute the statement. That, of course, was no impediment to its inclusion with all the other fabrications and outright lies in the SOTU speech.
China is racing ahead with wind energy development, but then, China is racing ahead with development of coal and nuclear energy development as well. In fact, China is developing every form of energy known to man trying to keep up with its rapidly developing economy. According to the less biased Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), in 2014, the wind energy market in the United States grew sixfold, but it was still dwarfed by China, the world leader in wind. According to an article in IEEE Spectrum on line:
China’s 2014 wind installations were up nearly 40 percent over 2013’s, according to new data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). China installed 20.7 gigawatts last year, nearly half of the world’s total and more than four times the 4.7 gigawatts installed in the United States.
The strong figures for wind reflect a solid year for clean energy investment worldwide. Global clean technology investment was $310 billion in 2014, according to BNEF—up 16 percent from the previous year, but still a little lower than its peak of $317.5 billion in 2011.
The wind market seems to be hopping, despite gloom and doom predictions based on the precipitous plunge in the price of oil. Prices at the gas pump have dropped over $1 a gallon in the US in recent months. The experts say that the impact of the fracking revolution has yet to catchup with the green energy market.
“Healthy investment in clean energy may surprise some commentators, who have been predicting trouble for renewables as a result of the oil price collapse since last summer,” Michael Liebreich, chairman of the advisory board for Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), said in a statement. “Our answer is that 2014 was too early to see any noticeable effect on investment, and anyway, the impact of cheaper crude will be felt much more in road transport than in electricity generation.”
Bloomberg also states that China remains the biggest market for wind. China’s grid-connected wind-energy capacity now is 96 gigawatts, more than that of the entire UK power industry. Wind energy is China’s largest power source after coal and hydropower. Other nations are not resting on their laurels: Germany installed 3.2 gigawatts in 2014, Brazil 2.7 gigawatts and India 2.3 gigawatts, according to BNEF. Both the German and Brazilian totals are yearly records for their countries.
Replacing small turbines with new bigger ones is the thing in Europe.
“This year has seen a couple of special circumstances come together, so it probably isn’t a blueprint for future development,” David Hostert, European wind analyst for BNEF, said in a statement. “What is remarkable though is that more than 1 GW was repowered with new turbines on existing projects.” Indeed, changing older small turbines for newer larger ones has become a bit of a fad in Europe.
“So what's the problem?” you might ask. Windpower seems to have a rosy future: investment is up and new installations are springing up all over. In reality, it is still the lure of subsidies and government mandates driving development, and no one wants to live near a wind farm.
How undesirable a neighbor is wind power? Bad enough for the US Department of Defense to file a formal objection to a proposed Maryland wind project. On October 30, 2014, the Deputy Secretary of Defense notified the Secretary of Transportation of the Department’s objection to the Great Bay Wind Energy Center (GBWEC) project proposed by Pioneer Green Energy, to be located in Somerset County, Maryland, and in the vicinity of Naval Air Station Patuxent River (NAS Patuxent River) and the Atlantic Test Range (ATR). Quoting from the report:
The Deputy Secretary of Defense determined that the proposed project, even as it may have been modified by the applicant after mitigation discussions, would constitute an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States because it would significantly impair or degrade the capability of the Department of Defense (DoD) to conduct research, development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E) and operations, and to maintain military readiness. This project has an unacceptable impact on the Department’s ability to characterize the survivability of DoD’s advanced airborne weapons systems. Because the applicant unilaterally requested the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issue a determination of no hazard before DoD and the applicant could reach a mutually acceptable mitigation agreement, should the project be constructed it would ultimately place our armed forces at greater risk when they go in harm’s way.
In these politically overcharged times, for the DoD to take a firm stance against “politically correct” wind power is startling. Even more startling is that in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that most liberal of American states, the long stalled plan to build an offshore windfarm off Cape Cod seems to have suffered a death blow.
“The decision by NStar and National Grid to cancel their contracts with Cape Wind is a fatal or near-fatal blow to this expensive and outdated project,” reads a statement by the coalition opposed to the venture. “For the fishermen, homeowners, towns, pilots, businesses, Native Americans, and visitors to Cape Cod who have opposed this project for 14 years, this news may finally mean the end of the long fight to save Nantucket Sound from industrialization.”
There'll be no offshore windfarm in Massachusetts.
In other news, over the years state legislatures have raced to prove their greenness at the expense of others, blindly passed laws requiring local power companies to derive a fixed portion of their energy from renewable sources. Some, starting with West Virginia, are having second thoughts, while a new report from the Reason Foundation rips those widespread mandates for renewable power sources found in 30 US states.
Some renewable energy technology installations conserve resources and some don’t: some are efficient and some are not. Renewable portfolio standards (further exacerbated by various federal tax treatments and local subsidies) fail to recognize this distinction and foster the development of inefficient installations, thereby discouraging the use of more efficient and environmentally effective facilities. For example, most of the compliance with state-level RPSs has come in the form of wind energy. Wind energy is unpredictable and volatile, leading to lower value and imposing significant costs on others. Advocating for RPS reveals the belief by proponents that the market would not otherwise embrace cost-effective, resource-conserving installations of renewables. History proves otherwise.
Another fly in the ointment is that wind turbines seem to have a knack for catching fire. According to new research from Imperial College London, the University of Edinburgh and SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, fires in wind turbines are happening ten times more often than they are reported. According to thatreport's abstract:
The three elements of the fire triangle, fuel (oil and polymers), oxygen (wind) and ignition (electric, mechanical and lighting) are represent and confined to the small and closed compartment of the turbine nacelle. Moreover, once ignition occurs in a turbine, the chances of externally fighting the fire are very slim due to the height of the nacelle and the often remote location of the wind farm. Instances of reports about fires in wind farms are increasing, yet the true extent of the impact of fires on the energy industry on a global scale is impossible to assess. Sources of information are incomplete, biased, or contain non-publically available data. The poor statistical records of wind turbine fires are a main cause of concern and hinder any research effort in this field. This paper aims to summarise the current state of knowledge in this area by presenting a review of the few sources which are available, in order to quantify and understand the fire problem in wind energy. We have found that fire is the second leading cause of catastrophic accidents in wind turbines (after blade failure) and accounts for 10 to 30% of the reported turbine accidents of any year since 1980’s. In 90% of the cases, the fire leads to a total loss of the wind turbine, or at least a downtime that results in the accumulation of economic losses.
There is little doubt that unreported fires and failures are leading to increased costs that remain quietly ignored by wind proponents. The same researchers plan to evaluate the frequency and impact of fire on solar panels in the future.
Most turbine fires go unreported.
But fires and hidden costs are not wind's biggest problem. The biggest problem with wind is it is often not there when needed. From the UK comes a story of an epic fail of wind power just a week ago. Electricity demand reached its highest level this winter on Monday, January 19, 2015, and yet on that very same day wind turbines generated their lowest output of the season.
“It was an embarassing moment for an over-hyped industry,” said Allister Heath in The Telegraph. Reported in the article, UK demand hit 52.54 gigawatts (GW) between 5pm and 5.30pm on Monday, according to official data from the National Grid. But wind contributed just 0.573GW during the same time, just over 1% of the total. The article continued:
Traditional sources of electricity were stunningly dominant; we often forget about coal, which to some minds has a 1980s feel to it, but it remains hugely important. It deserves greater attention and analysis. The figures reveal that wind output fell at one point on Monday to just 0.354GW, 0.75pc of the country’s needs. To put this in perspective, there is roughly 12GW of wind capacity, and the windfarms operate on average at 28pc of their theoretical maximum capacity. But those average figures have been of very little use when we actually need vast amounts of electricity. In fact, these numbers are a complete catastrophe and are a devastating indictment of years of UK energy policy, which has focused far too much on wind and been based on unrealistic targets and expectations.
And therein lies the main problem with wind power, the wind blows inconsistently in almost all locations around the world. Starry eyed greens envision a world where energy is free, carried on the breeze and by sunbeams of light. That is a recipe for disaster for a simple reason—power needs to be reliable. Wind power isn't there when the wind doesn't blow, just as solar isn't there when the sun doesn't shine. Heath sums up his article this way:
For all the vast subsidies it has been given, the wind industry is not fit for purpose. While it is clearly able to contribute during some periods, it cannot always do so and its cost is high, hitting the poor and taxpayers in an unacceptable manner. We will always need to rely on fossil fuel for the vast bulk of our energy consumption.
With all the economic woes spread around the world—trouble with solvency in the Eurozone, recession in Japan, America's on again off again recovery—is it really wise to pour billions of dollars into an unreliable and economically unproven power source? Even worse, government subsidies create artificial economies, leading to wind farms being installed where, unsubsidized, they can never compete with other, stable sources of energy.
More snow is forecast for the UK.
What a fallible friend we have in wind. It leaves us freezing in the winter, harms wildlife, is considered a threat by the military, discourages effective energy policies, and costs more than it should. Just imagine how much fun it would be, riding out the recent spate of winter storms with no electricity. Pushing wind as a solution to our future energy needs is the height of folly, because, as the Bard knew: It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.