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A chill hits wind power

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted February 1, 2010

As I write, a strong wind is blowing across the Alleghany Mountains onto my house. It's bringing an "Arctic Clipper" that drop my temperatures this past weekend to a frigid and unusual 6 degrees F. Why can't I get some good from this chill wind—with a wind turbine to harvest the "free" energy?

Out in Oregon, General Electric has just announced a big wind project: 338 turbines, rated at 845 MW. GE claims it will power for 235,000 homes, and is applying for the appropriate federal subsidies.

Will the wind turbines power 235,000 homes?  Don't bet on it. My friend Donald Hertzmark—an energy economist—warns the power deliveries from this wind project are likely to average only 25 percent of its rated capacity. That would serve only 58,000 homes, not 235,000.

But Hertzmark says even this is too high because the wind is highly variable. The Texas power grid's experience is to rely on no more than 9 percent of the wind farm's rated capacity. That would reduce GE's real subsidy claim to about 21,000 households.

It gets worse.

Most of Oregon's power comes from dams, and the lean period for hydropower is winter. That's when heating demand peaks—but also when the dams have to restrict their water flow to protect fish, control flooding, and save up irrigation water for the next summer.

How likely is it that wind turbines can add to Oregon's generating capacity in the midst of the winter electricity demand surge, and offset the hydroelectric generating restrictions?  Not very, says Hertzmark.

This January, Britain's wind turbines (6 percent of total generating capacity after many billions of dollars invested) supplied virtually no power on most days. The wind tends not to blow when and where it's already very cold.

The stars of the British winter power demand were natural gas turbines, which are 34 percent of capacity and supplied 40 percent of the power during the winter wind lull. But Britain's North Sea natural gas is running out; the only likely new source would be natural gas piped from Vladimir Putin's Russia. Ouch.

"Wind cannot be relied upon to provide firm generation at full capacity coincident with peak demand." warns Hertzmark. "Wind might be capable of contributing to the peak demand requirements at some times. However, this will rarely happen—and when it does, it will be for brief periods. For significant periods of time, no households will be served by the wind farms."

Nor have either of the worlds "wind leaders"—Denmark and Germany—decommissioned any fossil fuel plants. The fossil generators are kept in "spinning reserve"—burning fossil fuels—to keep the lights on in the schools, factories, and hospitals when the wind dies.

Why build wind turbines at all?  Well, wind and solar were the only energy sources the Greens would endorse, probably because they're so expensive and erratic that there's no danger of anybody getting hooked on cheap power again. Denmark was also selling wind turbines to other countries, so they had to be demonstrated at home. Now China is making cheaper turbines. Who will buy?

The cost of the "free wind"? Projections are about 17 cents per kwh—far higher than other energy sources.  One of my neighbors has just invested $100,000 in a wind turbine. I think he's wasted his money—and some of yours. ESR 

Dennis T. Avery is an environmental economist, and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net

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