PR’ing Industrial Wind: Government and Media versus Common Sense
The New York Times dutifully featured this week two media events primed to gin up public—and Congressional—support for industrial wind technology.
The first was a “study” by the Department of Energy and authored primarily by David Corbus of the National Renewable Energy Lab. It claims that, for a startup cost of around $100 billion public dollars, “wind could displace coal and natural gas for 20 to 30 percent of the electricity used in the eastern two-thirds of the United States by 2024.” Corbus acknowledged that such an enterprise would require substantial grid modification but said the $100 billion was “really, really small compared to other costs,” which the Times failed to identify.
A few days later, the paper of record ballyhooed the annual report of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), which touted the growth of wind last year and projected that the country would soon get 2 percent of its electricity from wind energy. The report fretted about the American wind gap with Europe, which AWEA alleged gets 5 percent of its electricity from wind, compared to only about 1 percent in the USA, while stating “Denmark has essentially achieved that goal already, and sometimes produces more wind power than it can use.”
AWEA’s stalking horse for this PR event, energy consultant Tim Stephure, said, “By 2020 wind’s installed capacity could be five times higher than it is today, reaching about 180,000 megawatts.”
To achieve this goal, from its present base of 35,000 wind turbines and an installed capacity of about 35,000 MW, the industry must build, in each of the next ten years, an installed capacity of 14,500 MW. This is pure speculation and, more accurately, nonsense.
Moreover, just to reach 2 percent of the nation’s electricity with existing wind capacity, current projects must produce at a capacity factor of 58 percent, their theoretical maximum, versus the current national average capacity factor of 28 percent.
Denmark’s Wind Indulgance
What about Denmark? As Danish engineer Hugh Sharman has noted, his country’s wind extravagence is made possible by a relatively huge Scandinavian “sink” in which the Danes dump their considerable excess wind. And if that sink did not have hydro as its principal source of power, Denmark would be awash in both carbon dioxide emissions and wind turbine output, which could severely disrupt its grid and cause stultifying brownouts or blackouts.
The Global Wind Energy Council [yet another wind advocacy group working in (mis)informational cahoots with AWEA] maintains that for 2008, wind will satisfy “about 4.2% of EU demand in an average wind year,” saving “about 100 tons of CO2 each year.”
This is poppycock. The capacity factor for installed European wind is about 20 percent. Consequently, the 24 GW of installed German wind, for example, is only producing an annual average of 5 GW to service that country’s demand. Touting the installed capacity of wind projects, without referencing their actual anemic performance, is yet another example of how half-truths mask unpleasant reality. And the thermal cost of wind integration in that country has likely increased CO2 emissions in the production of electricity, and throughout Europe. As in this country, none of the Brobdingnagian production tax credits for European limited liability wind companies are indexed to measured systemwide reductions in CO2 emissions.
NREL’s latest bluster for wind can be unmasked by means of an analogy. Would you espouse that ambulances be operated by drunks 20 percent of the time? Wind behaves just like a very drunk driver, never able to walk a straight line. Integrating either wind energy on the grid or drunk drivers on the highway has enormous consequences for public safety, reliability, cost, security, and productivity. Not to mention quality—and length—of life.
New York Times reporters should have a passing knowledge of the tenets of scientific methodology. Foremost is the desirability of eliminating or reducing to an absolute minimum any bias on the part of those participating in an experiment. This is why double blind experiments are so important. Magicians know how easy it is to fool someone who wants to be fooled. And snake oil salesmen have been expert in this endeavor since the dawn of time. Corbus and the NREL wind staff have a major stake in the perception that wind energy is effective. AWEA is a trade group. Sadly, the Times presents the “findings” of these organizations as if their conclusions were scientifically vetted and disinterested.
Influence on Public Policy
The NREL document, like a similar report last year issued by this agency, is essentially a prod to influence federal legislation (such as a national RPS) that would enable wind “all the hell over the place (to quote one wind booster).” Given such coordinated timing with the AWEA annual report, was it also released to complement yet another GE ad campaign in the upcoming Winter Olympic coverage on NBC? Some will recall that GE had purchased Enron’s wind projects when the latter company went belly up and now is the world’s fourth largest wind distributor. It is NBC’s parent company. Not least, the report will also reinforce the new national ad campaign designed to boost Congressional support for natural gas—the one that says how natural gas will enable “renewables” such as wind and solar (but fails to address the cost and thermal consequences of doing so).
Both AWEA and the NREL work synergistically to prime the public to support wind technology, trusting that their propaganda will be conveyed by the media as an article of faith, without, as far as I can discern, any fact checking whatsoever.
At several quiet junctions, the NREL admits wind cannot be a capacity resource. Except for a few engineers, almost no one understands how damning this admission is. Our modern system of power insists on capacity value–getting a specific amount of energy on demand and controlling it whenever desired. And so the issue is how to make people believe that a source of energy, which relentlessly, continuously, destabilizes the balance between supply and demand, is highly variable and unresponsive, and provides no capacity value while inimical to demand cycles, can effectively provide 20 percent of the region’s electricity by 2024–only 14 years from now. This claim is particularly egregious given that wind does not even provide modern power performance–only desultory energy. Since energy is the ability to do work and power is the rate work is done, wind technology delivers fluctuating energy at a rate appropriate for 1810, not 2024.
Is it possible to integrate such a random, variable, capacity-less source of energy with modern machine power at a level equal to 20 percent of the generation necessary to match demand in 2024? Yes, under the category that virtually anything like this is possible. But what are the odds? And who’s going to keep score? And what are the penalties if it does not?
The only place that is even close is the aforementioned Denmark, with about 20 percent of its installed capacity from wind. But most is shunted to Scandinavia. Germany, with about 5 percent of its actual generation from wind, is struggling mightily, and often must curtail its wind energy altogether to protect the grid. More wind there would require more conventional generation to shadow the wind projects–at between 80-90 percent of the installed wind capacity. And note this post from Der Spiegel about expanding nuclear reactor life spans in that country. There seems to be no penalty for selling snake oil in the energy marketplace.
Even if it were possible to integrate so much wind, consider the thermal consequences while thinking about whether or not such a volatile phenomenon could close fossil-fired or nuclear facilities. Every variation of wind energy must be balanced by reliable conventional generators, working overtime to do so. Occasionally, all that wind will produce virtually nothing. What conventional plants can then close so that the grid doesn’t have to shut down when this occurs? What will happen when all that wind spikes upward suddenly, requiring that conventional generators be shut off instantly?
Integrating a level of wind energy at 20 percent of the region’s total generation would (1) unleash large quantities of CO2 emissions as conventional generators would be operating much less efficiently (generally, a 2 percent increase in inefficiency results in a 14-16 percent increase in carbon emission for thermal plants); (2) require additional conventional wind shadowing units at 90 percent of the installed wind capacity; (3) require building thousands of miles of new—and virtually dedicated transmission lines to bring wind from remote areas and to keep it from tying up the transmission of existing production (that is, resolving the transmission scheduling problems); and (4) require installing whole new systems of voltage regulation to accommodate the wind flux. And there are many other things that would be necessary.
Consequently, $100 billion wouldn’t pay for a first installment. Indulging the fantasy that wind technology could provide 20 percent of the region’s electricity if only we could bypass a fusty federalism and spend trillions on a smart grid, retrofitting modern technology to meet the needs of ancient wind flutter, is monumentally silly, a sure sign that pundits and politicians, not scientists, are now in charge of the Department of Energy.
Wind technology was a bulwark of human enterprise for millennia, but largely disappeared as soon as steam technology was discovered. Instead of Clipper ships, we now sail almost entirely for recreation–not modern production. Instead of using wind to pump water and grind grain, as the Dutch did historically to reclaim the land from the sea and make their famous beers, we now use modern precision power to improve the quality of life for billions of people. There are compelling reasons related to vastly increased productivity and improved quality of life for this rapid technological changeover.
What About Common Sense?
Wind is, in the final analysis, a faith-based proposition, requiring people to close their minds and clap their hands to revive it from a life and death struggle against unbelief, bringing the technology back from the oblivion that the steam engine consigned it to hundreds of years ago.
One of the issues such wind promotions raise, particularly those from the NREL, is how political our information-assessment government agencies have become. And this indictment includes the National Academy of Science. The media don’t even question this anymore, simply taking it as business as usual.
The politicalization of knowledge, particularly in areas as important to our modernity as energy, is a major unreported story. It has more than immediate cost implications for our wallets, since it ultimately corrupts our base of knowledge and subverts our intellectual integrity, both essential for achieving wisdom and successful democracy.