Dirty truth about “clean” windpower? What the critics are saying

January 13, 2009

 —Eugene Goodrich (New Brunswick, Canada)

“Deer River Flow,” watercolor by Sandra Hildreth

RiverCityMalone was sent this essay by a reader.  It’s a concise correction to many of the exaggerations and half truths routinely expressed by the wind developers and slavishly repeated by the newspapers in Franklin & Clinton counties.  Anyone who has attended a town meeting over the past four years, where wind salesmen were pitching the benefits of their product, will resonate to Mr. Goodrich’s essay, which we reprint with appreciation. 

January 12, 2009

Soon, unless the economic gods or other angels intervene, our beautiful Tantramar Marsh [New Brunswick, Canada] will be sprouting a row of forty-three white steel columns along the High Marsh Road, together with another twenty along the Trans Canada Highway in the vicinity of Amherst. Nearly thirty stories high (80 meters or 262 feet), complete with flashing strobe lights and whirling rotors the length of a 747 Jumbo Jet (reaching 125 meters or 410 feet into the sky), they will drastically alter this historic landscape for the foreseeable future.

Opinions about them will vary. Some may think them beautiful (perhaps even after they have seen them). Others will consider them a hideous blight that completes the ugly work of the power lines. Most, perhaps, will merely find them distasteful. But, whatever our aesthetic responses may be, should we not all welcome them as a source of clean energy, or, at the very least, consider them a noble sacrifice in the war against global warming and environmental destruction?

Not if a growing army of critics are right, who argue that large-scale wind power used to generate electricity is not inherently clean at all, but only somewhat less dirty than the fossil fuels they are purported to replace. How large this “somewhat” is, is a bone of contention between advocates and critics of wind power, but it is disturbing, to say the least, that the criticisms seem to be based on certain facts that are disputed by no one with any knowledge of the subject, including wind farm developers themselves. In brief compass they are as follows.

“Installed capacity” is not the same as power actually delivered.

Although this point is somewhat tangential to the issue of how much fossil fuel wind power can actually save, it is worth knowing about, if for no other reason than to check the exuberance of enthusiasts. In their publicity literature, wind farm developers point with pride to what they call the “installed capacity” of their clean machines. Thus, for example, the forty-three turbines on the marsh will have an “installed capacity” of 64.5 megawatts (MW). What Acciona [the wind developer] does not tell us, however, is that this is the power these turbines would generate if the wind blew at an ideal speed of between 30-40 mph (48- 64km) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

You may have noticed that the wind does not do this, even in Sackville [New Brunswick, Canada]. (As a pilot, I can assure you that it does not do this even at 300 feet above ground). We are also not told, although it is a fact, that below 30 mph, the power generated by a wind turbine drops off dramatically, following an unalterable law of physics which dictates that the kinetic energy of wind varies as the cube of its speed.

Thus, if a turbine begins to generate 100% of its capacity at 30 mph (48km), at 15 mph (24 km, incidentally a much more common wind speed than 48 km/hr, even around here), it will generate not 50%, but only 12.5% of its “installed capacity”! It drops to 50% of its capacity at 23.8 mph (38km). Much below 8 mph (12 km) it will not generate enough electricity to say so.

Of course at wind speeds above 30 mph it will generate more than its rated capacity (236% at 40 mph), but how often does wind blow at this speed? And, at around 52 mph (83 km, in other words in a typical storm) it will be shut down altogether to avoid damage to the blades. The percentage of time the wind actually generates significant electricity depends of course on the region’s “wind resources,” as the developers delicately call them, and is expressed by the term “capacity factor,” which is the percentage of the “installed capacity” actually delivered in any given year. (This will of course vary every year within a considerable range, as some years are much windier than others).

Wind studies in this region have claimed a “capacity factor” of up to 40%, but this is unsubstantiated by actual experience (since wind farms have not been operational to any extent). In other regions of the world, some of which have “wind resources” every bit as good ours, the “capacity factors” range from 18-30%. In any case, even taking the developers at their word, the 64.5 MW of “installed capacity” of the Tantramar project (costing some 150-170 million dollars) translates into, at most, 25.8 MW of power actually delivered to the grid. Using a much more likely “capacity factor” of 30%, the figures would be 20 MW, less than one third of the “installed capacity.”

So much for truth in advertising, say the critics.

Wind cannot replace other sources of power in large scale electricity generation; it can only reduce their use by a limited amount.

Its low “capacity factor” is, however, the least of wind power’s limitations. After all, even if it is only 30-40% of the advertised “installed capacity,” is this not still clean energy that will replace a corresponding amount generated by polluting fossil fuels? Won’t our bucolic wind farm at least have the effect of removing 20-25MW of coal and oil generated electricity from the power grid, so that Belldune, Coleson Cove and the other dirty stinkers will spew that much less of their noxious vapours into the environment?

Again, not if the critics are right. To be sure, even the most rabid of the tribe would admit that wind power can effect some savings in fossil fuel consumption. But not even the most audacious enthusiast can truthfully claim that there is anything close to a one-to-one ratio between wind power generation and fossil fuel/greenhouse gas reduction, at least not if wind supplies more than a small (3-5) percentage of total electricity production.

If, for example, a country totally dependent upon fossil fuels for its electricity were to change course and generate 20% of it by wind power, it would NOT achieve a 20% reduction, either in fuel consumption or in greenhouse gas emissions. Not by a long shot. How long that long shot would be, is, of course, a matter of dispute, but before examining this issue, let us see why a one-to-one reduction ratio is impossible.

Electricity from wind farms does not go directly into consumers’ homes. If it did we would be very unhappy, as we would be totally without power about 30% of the time, and subject to wildly fluctuating surges and brown-outs for the remainder. Instead, it is fed into the provincial or regional grid where it is integrated with power generated by other energy sources, in New Brunswick’s case, coal, oil, natural gas, hydro and nuclear.

To appreciate how wind power is integrated, it is necessary to understand that any power grid must have three kinds of generators: (a) heavy duty units such as large coal or oil fired plants, hydro dams and/or nuclear reactors to provide the “base load” (essentially the minimum demand, typically at night) of 40-50% of total electricity consumption. Since these require long lead times to ramp up and throttle down, they cannot be used to meet “mid” and “peak” demand (typically during the day and/or in extremely hot and cold weather, etc). Mid and peak demands are met by (b) smaller, highly reliable quick-response units which are usually oil or coal fired. In addition to base, mid and peak demand cycles, which are fairly predictable, grid operators must cope with smaller scale fluctuations in power consumption which can occur at any time and are essentially unpredictable (as for example when an unusually large number of people watch a particular television programme). This “demand flux” must be balanced by very rapid-response generators, typically natural gas turbines; otherwise the grid would be “destabilized” and power outages could occur.

Since there is either too little or too much wind to generate significant amounts of electricity for much of the time (how much varies with the region and is to some extent a matter of dispute, but certainly not less than 40-50%), it is clear that wind power can never supply a very large portion of “base demand,” which is there whether the wind blows or not. In technical language, it has limited “capacity value” (as opposed to “capacity factor”). How limited is, of course, disputed; advocates claim it has at least some “capacity value,” critics that it has virtually none.

What both agree on is that, when it is available, wind-generated electricity can allow large coal or oil fired plants to be run at somewhat lower intensities, thereby lowering their fuel consumption, thereby lowering greenhouse gas and other noxious emissions. This, indeed, is the heart of the enthusiasts’ case for wind power, and some even purport to believe that, with enough of it, “some” (although by no means all) of the large plants can be shut down altogether.

Thus, for example, the wind integration study prepared for the New Brunswick System Operator and the New Brunswick Department of Energy projects that, assuming a huge increase in the number of wind farms over the next two decades, half of all thermal plants “are presumed to be decommissioned” by 2020. (The study does not, however, explain how this is to be done).

Critics have a number of objections. In the first place they point out that, even though the large base-load plants may be run at somewhat less than full capacity when wind power is available, they must also be ramped up again when it is not, and since it takes more fuel to “accelerate” than it does to remain at a steady rate, the savings are very much less than advertised.

Even more important is the fact (disputed by none) that wind-generated power, because it is intermittent, constantly fluctuating in volume and difficult to predict accurately, must be compensated for by the smaller rapid-response units, which typically burn very expensive oil and natural gas. Of course, these units are used anyway to respond to mid and peak demand as well as to demand flux, but with the addition of wind power, they must work overtime.

It is true that relatively small amounts of wind power, typically up to 5% of total electricity generation, can be integrated into the better equipped grids, such as New Brunswick’s, without too much additional balancing, but of course the impact on total greenhouse gas emissions is miniscule. As more wind power is added, integration and balancing become increasingly difficult and expensive, and the law of diminishing returns comes into force very quickly. The effect is said to be similar to driving a car in stop and go traffic, as opposed to cruising down the highway at the optimum speed for fuel efficiency.

Advocates answer that, with a “diverse portfolio of wind resources” (their term for plastering the countryside with wind farms), the volatility of wind power can be tamed to a large extent. Critics respond by concretizing what a “diverse portfolio” implies: literally thousands of turbines (actually hundreds of thousands continent wide), hundreds, even thousands, of miles of new power lines, enormous outlays of steel, concrete, gravel etc. (all with a large cost in greenhouse gas emissions) and, of course, billions of dollars of extra costs to consumers and taxpayers (wind farm developers salivate at this prospect), to say nothing of the havoc wreaked on the environment and the landscape.

Even more seriously, they point out that this carpeting “solution” has not worked in the two countries with the most wind power: Denmark and Germany. The same is said to be the case for Spain and California, two other areas with large numbers of industrial scale wind farms, but I don’t have the specifics on them.

The Danish Experience

With over 6000 turbines in an area half the size of New Brunswick [Canada], one of the largest concentrations anywhere, Denmark has become essentially one large wind farm, although not a very efficient one. The country has lots of wind, but the “capacity factor” of its wind farms has averaged only 20-24% over the last several years. Nonetheless, they do manage to generate about 20% of Denmark’s total electricity production.

On the other hand, they only produce about 4-6% of the electricity actually used in the country. The explanation of this mystery is that about 80% of this wind-generated power is exported to Norway and Sweden because it is not needed at the time it is available, owing to the perversity of the wind regime.

But, doesn’t that just make Denmark’s Nordic cousins that much greener (the critics hear you ask)? Unfortunately not, they answer, as it merely replaces hydro, which doesn’t emit any greenhouse gases in the first place. (Both Sweden and Norway rely mostly on hydro and nuclear power, making them among the greenest countries in the world; essentially, they are doing the Danes a favour, and themselves, too, as they pay only cut rate prices for the power). In the meantime, the Danes still have to use conventional fossil fuel plants for much of their base load and for “balancing” wind volatility.

Even more embarrassingly, they also import a good deal of electricity from France where it is produced by nuclear plants. The result of the “Danish Experience” with wind power is that, to date, not a single conventional plant has been shut down, while per capita CO2 emissions are among the highest in Europe, as are the costs of electricity. As an expert from one of the country’s biggest power companies put it: “Increased development of wind turbines does not reduce Danish CO2 emissions.”

In light of this information, it is interesting to note that the wind integration study of the New Brunswick Department of Energy (which became the basis of the decision to go ahead with wind power here) was prepared by a Danish consulting company. The study discourses at some length on the “Danish Experience with Wind Power,” and confidently “assumes” that half of New Brunswick’s fossil fuel plants will shut down by 2020, but these facts are never mentioned, although they are well enough known in Denmark.

The German Experience

With over 18,000 wind turbines, Germany is the world’s largest user of wind power, but the results in terms of greenhouse gas abatement are even more dismal than Denmark’s. With a capacity factor of about 18% , these “clean machines” only eke out a miserable 6% of the nation’s total electricity generation. And the largest grid operator in the country has, in one respect at least, sided with the critics of wind power. According to its report, published in 2005 and available in (rather awkward) English on the Internet:

“Wind energy is only able to replace traditional power stations to a limited extent. Its dependence on the prevailing wind conditions means that wind power has a limited load factor ( = “capacity value”) even when technically available. It is not possible to guarantee its use for the continual cover of electricity consumption. Consequently, traditional power stations with capacities equal to 90% of the installed wind power capacity must be permanently online in order to guarantee power supply at all times.”

Thus, far from the 50% “assumed” by the Danish consulting company that studied New Brunswick’s “wind resources,” the people who actually operate the grid in Germany say that, at most, only 10% of conventional power stations could be shut down, and this only after a 20% or more “penetration” of wind power into the grid (translation: lots and lots of wind farms).

Not that Germany has actually shut any of them down. On the contrary, it is building new ones, mostly burning lignite, the dirtiest of all coals, although to be fair, this is only partly in anticipation of yet more wind power which has to be “balanced” and backed up; Germany has also made the decision to phase out all its nuclear plants, and of course, like every other country, its electricity demands are rising.

Since even the Germans don’t believe that wind power can fill the gap, there is no alternative, apart from radical austerity. Reliance on “clean” wind power and dirty fossil fuels, of course, ensures that Germans will continue to be among the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases in Europe (they still have a long way to go to catch up with Canadians, however), and, along with the Danes, pay among the highest prices for their electricity.

So much for the “green” credentials of wind power in Germany (say the critics).

Who is right in this debate? I am certainly not qualified to decide, having no expertise in either engineering or electricity production. But I have read fairly extensively in the literature of both sides of the issue, and I know which one I find the most convincing. Of course, as must be clear by now, I am also one of those who thinks that wind farms are an ugly blemish on the landscape, and so I can fairly be accused of bias.

But I am bolstered in my perverse opinion by a study carried out by the presumably neutral National Research Council of the American National Academy of Sciences, published in 2007. It estimates, assuming a huge increase in wind power over the next two decades, “that wind-energy development probably will contribute to offsets of approximately 4.5% in U.S. emissions of CO2 from electricity generation by other electricity-generation sources by the year 2020.”  (In other words, not much).

I am also heartened by the British Advertising Standards Authority’s recent decision to force the British Wind Energy Association (a chief promoter of wind farms in Britain) to scale down its claims about how much carbon emission is saved by wind turbines, effectively halving the estimated amount, so there must be more to the critics’ case than the ravings of a few NIMBYs.

Whether we hate them, love them, or are indifferent to their aesthetic qualities, I think there is a real issue here, and one that has so far been swept under the rug in spite of, or perhaps because of, its serious implications. If critics have indeed revealed the “dirty truth about ‘clean’ wind power,” then, except for the developers and a few landowners who collect rents for turbines placed on their property, we are all victims of an “eco-swindle” that will make the ethanol scam seem like a schoolboy prank in comparison. Literally hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent, with much more to come, for an expensive technology whose only justification is greenhouse gas abatement as part of the war on global warming. If it turns out to have only a minimal impact on this, the greatest of all problems facing the planet, the repercussions will be truly tragic. Huge resources will have been wasted which could have been invested in solutions that actually work, and we will all pay the price.

It therefore behooves us as citizens to learn what we can about this issue. With huge funding behind them, advocates of wind power have long since gotten their message out in the mass media, and even managed to make it part of the culture of “political correctness”: to be against wind power is to be anti-green, a serious cause of social halitosis. With far less resources at their disposal, critics have so far been limited to citizens’ groups, the occasional article in newspapers or magazines and, above all, the Internet, where a number of excellent sites tell the story from a different perspective.

One of the most comprehensive of them is National Wind Watch. There you will find reams of material on all aspects of wind power, not just the issue of how much CO2 it saves from going into the atmosphere: health effects, impact on property values, impact on birds and bats, noise and light pollution from wind farms, despoliation of scenery (with lots of appalling pictures), news on wind farm projects throughout the USA and Canada, and much more besides. I particularly recommend the essay “A Problem With Wind Power,” by Eric Rosenbloom. It is elegantly written and covers all the basic points of the critics.

This essay may do little to stop the current wind farm projects on the Tantramar Marshes . Unfortunately (from my perspective), a twenty year contract with New Brunswick Power was signed last spring with virtually no consultation with the public, and certainly no discussion of the pros and cons of wind power (well, actually just not the cons). But I hope it will encourage reflection on, and, if you think it appropriate, resistance to, the next wave of wind farms, for they are surely coming unless a loud cry of protest is raised, and soon.

The study upon which the current wind farm projects are based recommends that New Brunswick have 3-4000 megawatts of “installed capacity” by 2025. At 1.5 MW per unit, this translates into 2000-2666 turbines splattered over the landscape, and this will no doubt eventually include several hundred on the Tantramar. You may have noticed tall slim towers cropping up everywhere on the marshes, and not just where the two current projects are sited. They are wind testing towers, and their purpose is to gather data for new proposals.

If wind farm developers have their way, the whole of the Tantramar Marshes, from Minudie to Midgic, and from Sackville to Amherst will soon be one vast wind farm, a little slice of Denmark, as it were. I, for one, will not be breaking out the Tuborg. If you feel the same way I do about this prospect, I urge you to arm yourself with solid information from both sides of the issue, decide what you think is best for our country, our region and our beautiful marshland home, and act accordingly.