A Free-Market Energy Blog

Windpower Consequences (Part I: Introduction and Summary)

By Kent Hawkins -- September 17, 2012

This post introduces a five-part series that summarizes some of the most important information about the present and future of industrial wind power in light of the growing backlash against the industry’s taxpayer dependence. Readers are invited to add anything that I have missed.

Continuing government support for windpower must confront two questions. First, why do so many people think that we have to revolutionize our energy systems right now to avoid the consequences of running out of fossil fuels (or suffering very high costs), climate change, or other possible challenges that we might face? Note the emphasis on “right now,” meaning starting now with substantial changes in energy system directions, especially electricity systems, involving massive implementation of grid-connected, industrial-scale wind and solar generation plants.

Second, what is required for wind-subsidy proponents to agree that forced energy transformation is not feasible? A notable and growing number of people have tried with some success to close the gap between reality and romance, but progress has been slow because of the size, power, and persistence of the pro-wind movement. Without enough knowledge on the subject, the general public and media naturally rely on this movement in government, some of the scientific community, and many environmental groups.

Later posts will show why industrial wind fails the feasibility test to constructively change our electricity systems. The implications for government/taxpayer policies are obvious.

Response to the First Question

Drastic measures appear to make sense if most people believe a “silver bullet” solution (to some perceived threat requiring immediate action) is truly at hand. Setting aside a lengthy and contentious discussion of threats, is a “silver bullet” solution available to such a threat anyway?

This is apparently so, or so the pro-wind movement would have us believe. It is a revolutionary change to massive amounts of “new” renewable energy sources, wind and solar, especially wind, with extension to “clean energy” electrification of the transportation sector. I use quotes around the word new because they are new only in the sense that some, indeed many, are re-branding these old energy sources as viable and relevant in our current, complex, and high-energy-need times.

Proponents of some of these “new” renewable energy sources will say that their position is not one of providing a “silver bullet,” but is that we must have a range of energy sources available to us. This is a poor argument as the same could apply to justifying the presence of unproductive, unreliable employees in a company on the basis that every little bit helps. A lot of the “silver bullet” aspects get lost in soft, persuasive language, which does not require us to think much. The “silver bullet” label is valid in part because if we do what the “experts” and those in authority are telling us, we believe, albeit somewhat unconsciously, we can comfortably continue our lives as before.

Regardless of any such claims, what they propose is a revolution that must start immediately, with fast and substantial change in our electricity systems to new energy sources. But this revolution is long on proclamations and short on substance, so it is bound to fail in time. Unfortunately if further pursued, its failure will have severe adverse consequences on all aspects of modern life, for example in government, law and order, food and water supply, education, health and medical care, all forms of emergency services, commerce, industry, economic well-being (add to this list whatever is important to you). This is due to the risks this revolution brings to the viability of our electricity and financial systems. Future generations will not thank us for such policies. They will curse us for our folly.

One of the conclusions I have come to is that if major change is needed earlier, it is in society. As it now appears, the societies of developed, developing and undeveloped countries must make substantial changes before better energy solutions become feasible. We could have a pleasant surprise putting less pressure on the need for societal change. More likely is an unpleasant surprise, for example in the form of economic failure, which would have the effect of addressing many perceived threats, but in a highly undesirable way.

Either way, in the meantime we need access to economic, reliable energy – as and when required – on a continuous basis, starting now and for the foreseeable future, that is, the next 20-40 years or so. This is the sort of minimum time frame for the types of changes that must start to occur, whether societal or energy supply and is the optimal approach to best prepare us to meet threats, forecast or not.

To those who would argue that time is not on our side, I would respond that the only more timely approach that will deal satisfactorily with any currently feared threats is aggressive conservation, which is a societal change matter.

This led me to some of the keys in understanding our current confusion. First, we do not adequately take time frames into account when thinking about energy sources and systems change. Second, we do not properly appreciate what we have, and the need to maintain and improve it as the first important step, which should occupy us for the next 40 years or so. Third, we do not comprehend the monumental task of change in our energy infrastructures. Electricity is so completely imbedded in everything that we do and is so vital to us that it will take well architected, engineered, and implemented programs for change. Significant changes will be a long time coming, and we should be thinking of the second half of this century for this.

So once more, let me outline in more detail why such currently proposed energy policies involving revolutionary change are wrong.

Response to the Second Question

The folly of current conventional wisdom on energy policy will be dealt with in summary form below under the following headings:

  • Energy return on energy invested
  • Costs
  • Subsidies
  • Emissions reduction
  • Other considerations, which include European energy policy flaws

Details will be provided in future posts in this series.

Energy Return on Energy Invested

This is commonly referred to as EROEI (sometimes simply EROI). I have not seen much emphasis on this way of looking at the viability of energy sources, but it seems to becoming more of a focus in energy analyses, even in the personal investment world.[1]

Tom Murphy of UCSD in his article “The Energy Trap: Do the Math” demonstrates the problems with the necessity of investing energy to access energy sources. His analysis looks at the impact of accounting for all the energy invested on a realistic front-loaded basis, but assumes the associated conversion means (generation plants) operate at full capacity over their expected lifetimes. The results after conversions to electrical energy are treated in general terms only, and I take this analysis further. My approach also provides the opportunity to expose more aspects of the associated energy sources, even if the upfront investment is amortized over the life of the energy source.

I also have had some correspondence with Thomas Homer-Dixon, who is (amongst other positions) the Director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation. One of his papers, “Complexity Science and Public Policy” discusses the importance of complexity in modern societies and its associated high energy needs. EROEI considerations are important, as Homer-Dixon points out in his paper:

“Taking the average energy return on investment of all energy sources in our economy, as we slide down that slope from 100:1 to 17:1 to 4:1 to 1:1, we’re inexorably using a larger and larger fraction of the wealth and capital in our economy simply to produce energy, and we have less left over for everything else we need to do – like solving our increasingly difficult problems.”

The EROEI for a number of energy sources is shown in Table I-1. Some obviously do not apply extensively to electricity systems but are included for general interest. I have purposely omitted hydro-electric energy, which has an EROEI of 100:1 because, like other renewable energy sources, it does not scale well, due to the size of reservoirs needed. Proponents of pumped hydro storage in support of substantial wind implementation take note.

Columns 1-4 are from the Murphy’s paper referenced above, and 5-7 are my further analysis.

Table I-1 – EROEI Before and After Conversion to Electrical Energy


T I-1

The EROEI ranges shown in column 1 represent declining trends, and I use the more current ones (column 2) in my subsequent analysis. The energy investment (EI) includes energy components for plant implementations and fuel provision.

Even given a positive EROEI before conversion to electrical energy, wind produces a negative post-conversion result. This alone should disqualify it from consideration for commercialization. Industrial-scale solar is not considered further in this analysis because of its already low initial EROEI.

Again from Homer-Dixon’s paper:

“A modern society can’t sustain its complexity with low-quality energy; it needs copious quantities of high-quality energy.”

Because of their persistent erratic behavior, wind plants do not provide high-quality energy and rather extreme measures have to be taken to integrate them into our electricity systems, which already have a high degree of complexity, and this is reason enough to be careful. These measures are often disregarded when assessing costs, emissions, reliability and impacts on users, residential, commercial and industrial.

EROEI an important measure of the viability of energy sources, but many other considerations are equally so. First, a look at costs.

Implementation and Levelized Costs

This and the next two sections are based on projections for five scenarios over a 13-year period, say from 2012 to 2025. In each scenario a generation technology is selected to fill the gap between plant retirement and growth in demand based on electricity production of 1 TWh in 2012. This allows for easy scaling, for example to the U.S., which consumes about 4,000 TWh today.

Table I-2 provides a summary of the findings. The wind scenarios demonstrate two levels of wind penetration as shown. In the first, Wind/Natural Gas, both plant types are used to fill the gap and in the second, wind alone is assumed. The wind alone scenario is not feasible for many reasons. For example, extremely high levels of curtailment would be necessary, but it is instructive, and as some might project high wind penetrations, it is included. Both wind scenarios require gas plant balancing to provide the steady, reliable electricity which we require.

Table I-2 – Total Plant Overnight Implementation Cost for the Scenarios

T I-2

Implementation costs for wind include the costs of gas balancing plants and grid changes unique to wind. The two values for wind are for the initial implementations only (15 year wind plant life) and for the wind plants being replaced twice in a 40 year period, respectively.

Total Costs

The total costs are based on the full levelized costs, which include financing and operations and maintenance costs, and in the wind scenarios, wind balancing gas plants and grid changes unique to wind. The analysis takes the year 12 new plant configuration and projects it over the 40 year life for most of the plant types involved, involving 19.2 TWh (which is 0.48 TWh x 40). As indicated above there are two possibilities for the wind scenarios: (1) Wind plants are not replaced at the end of their 15 year lives but some stranded costs persist for the wind balancing gas plants and unique-to-wind grid additions, as these are amortized over 40 years, or (2) Wind plants are replaced, which is unlikely but this provides a basis for some useful comparisons. Table I-3 shows the results.

Also shown is the effect of scaling to the U.S. electricity system.

Table I-3 – Total Costs for All Scenarios

T I-3


A natural progression from costs is the level of subsidies on the same basis, that is, per MWh. Table I-4 provides a summary of the findings. Note the costs shown here are as seen by the plant developer/owner, not society at large as shown in Table I-3.

Table I-4 – Levelized Costs (Plant Developer/Owner View) and Subsidies ($/MWh)

T I-4

This superficial view of wind subsidies appears to put wind at the same “cost” as the coal and natural gas plant types, and notably below nuclear. Comparisons cannot be made without the full wind costs taken into account. Remember this when claims are made about wind being competitive with other generation plant types.


Emissions savings and costs are projected over the expected plant life, and Table I-5 shows the results. In this table wind CO2 emissions savings per MWh are shown at two levels: (1) at 0.10 tonnes/MWh to avoid dividing by 0, which produces a result of infinity, and (2) a generous 0.30 tonnes/MWh, which illustrates the relative poor and expensive contribution of wind even in these circumstances.

Table I-5 – CO2 Emissions Savings and Related Costs Compared to Existing Coal Plants

T I-5

The implications for the U.S. are shown in Table I-6, based on the 2010 CO2 emissions from electricity generation of 2,389 million tonnes are shown in Table I-6.

Table I-6 – Scaling Emissions Results to the U.S.

T I-6

The most likely outcome of pursuing wind as a CO2 emissions reduction strategy would be the “Wind/Natural Gas” scenario with the “No Replacement” option. In this time frame it should be amply demonstrated that wind is not a feasible policy. However there is the risk of electricity capacity shortfalls as a result and precious time will have been lost.

For complete comparisons between the scenarios, the “Wind/Natural Gas” with “Replacement” option is more instructive as all plants being assessed are producing over the period of 40 years. The wind savings are most likely in the range of few percent over the life of the wind plants at a cost of $7.6 trillion, compared to nuclear with 88% emissions savings for the same cost and natural gas at 48% savings for $5.6 trillion.

The total costs are important considerations, because these investments will be made involving significant debt.

Other Considerations

There are many other negative consequences with industrial-scale wind plants, including:

  • No creation of jobs or a sustainable industrial policy
  • Harm to human health
  • Harm to other local flora and fauna
  • Reduction of property values for nearby home-owners
  • Contribution to widening of the gap between the wealthy and the rest of society
  • No decrease in use of fossil fuels
  • Do not provide energy independence/security
  • Significant threat to financial and economic systems
  • Creation of divisiveness within communities and families

European Energy Policy Flaws

European energy policy is not to be emulated for many reasons, including the notion that bureaucrats can successfully predict winners decades into the future, and the lack of understanding of the nature and size of the investments required for questionable energy sources. For an analysis of its many flaws see my article in the European Energy News, which was originally published at MasterResource as well as other analyses here.

In summary, there is no good earthly reason to pursue policies involving implementation of wind plants, and like renewable energy sources, for electricity systems. The consequences of doing so include putting our electricity, economic and financial systems, and ultimately the fabric of our society, at considerable risk.


Future posts:

  • Part II – Analysis Approach and Implementation Costs
  • Part III – Total Costs
  • Part IV – Subsidies and Emissions
  • Part V – Other Considerations and Conclusions

[1] I subscribe to an energy investment newsletter which recently had an article focusing on EROEI considerations for guiding energy investments. In the interests of full disclosure, I have not owned (to the best of my recollection and possibly through mutual funds at some distant time), do not now own, or plan to own, investment instruments in the energy sector. My only investments, outside of Canadian government guaranteed cash equivalent securities, is a small holding in gold stocks. I subscribe to this newsletter as another “window” on energy considerations. I have not received one cent for these posts from anyone, and I am not beholden to anyone who might benefit from them, except to the society in which I live, which I want to protect for the benefit of my grandchildren and their descendents.



  1. Eddie Devere  

    I wouldn’t pay much attention to an EROEI analysis. First, these analyses often confuse work, chemical potential energy, and thermal energy because they all have units of energy.
    Second, the relevant figure of merit should be the unsubsidized rate of return on investment (%/yr) given that the power plant has to sell its electricity into a supply-side free market (such as the PJM).
    Efficiency, fuel density, land density, sustainability, and ERORI are just ad hoc figures of merit that people have made up because it’s often difficult to calculate the rate of return on investment. There’s a lot of variables that go into the calculation of the rate of return, such as capital costs, O&M costs, fuel costs, possible pollution costs (NOx, SOx), de-construction costs, sale price of electricity, and availability. It’s up to a wise investor (forced to operate in a free-market) to do this calculation.

    I agree with most of your thoughts in this post, but the underlying principle of your post (and sometimes of this blog in general) gets lost in the attacks on renewable energy, attacks on environmentalists, and now the discussion of ERORI. The underlying principle is that there should be a free-market for energy. That’s it.

    In other words, as consumers, we should be free to chose the type of electricity and transportation fuels we consume, and as investors, we should be free to invest in any project that we choose (given some agreed upon environmental and safety regulations.)
    We sadly seem to move further away from a free-market in energy each day (e.g. just today there’s a new mandate for biodiesel), but there are encouraging trends as well (such as the growth in size of the PJM’s supply-side free-market over the last decade and the growth of the internet-based free-market of goods.) Most people today realize a free-market for goods is better than a regulated market for goods when the scale of the products are small.
    It’s just that when the scale is large (such as 1 GW power plants), some people lose faith in free-markets and competition. Our goal (as people who want to see the global economy grow) is to figure out how to either (a) explain to the public that large-scale free-market work better than regulated large-scale markets, or (b) develop technologies that allow consumers to generate cost effective electricity at home (using sunlight or natural gas), which could force competition into the regulated electricity markets of NY & CA.


  2. archaeopteryx  

    I may be jumping ahead, but I am apprehensive of certain statistics. For example, the EROEI. The number may be “nice” even for a wind generator, because it allows for averages over time. Averages imply storage. If you consider what it takes to actually manufacture a wind generator, you need steel, copper, plastic, fiberglass, concrete, diggers, cranes. Whlie you may have energy eqquations and show that you accumulate enough wind “energy” over 15 or 20 years for the above mentioned components and processes (never mind fiberglass and magnets), form a practical point of view, no number of wind generators can be reasonably interconnected, with real cables to ever produce enough energy to manufacture a single industrial ball bearing. Not if you think what it actually takes to manufacture one. From smelting, to metallurgy to forging or whatever. Things do not get manufatcuted with average energy, and averages imply “storage” which of course cannot exist. A smelter (or an elevator) cannot operate on stochastic power.

    Another way to say the same thing is that we are able to manufacture a wind turbine in a coal, gas and nuclear environment, but we could not be able to do the same in a wind generator environment

    So I go back to my quest for actual, measured, fuel replacement figures. As wind works with backup, how much actual, measured fuel does it substitute? This might be calulated by experts, or it might be measured. Of course, we cannot measure it as long as threre is a grid. The grid is nice but it also may be masking a failure to substitute real fuel.

    Some info has been had for the Falklands which are off grid. 4-8% diesel fuel savings. How about Hawai? Are there data from Hawai’s actual fuel savings pre and post wind?


  3. Jon Boone  

    I’m looking forwarding to the entire report, Kent. You’re off to a great start.

    But could you clarify a point in Table 1-2? In column 4–Wind/Gas, you assume a wind penetration of 11%, which contributes 55MW to the total wind/gas capacity of 143MW (is wind capacity actual or installed here?). Then, in column 5, you assume wind alone would be 38% penetration (actual or installed?), doubling the total capacity from wind/gas, but nearly quadrupling the wind capacity.

    I don’t understand your operative assumptions for any of this, although you surely have persuasive ones.


  4. Kent Hawkins  


    Thank you for your comments. Although I am aware of the issues with respect to reported EROEIs, nevertheless such reports exist with what would appear to be some consistency. There is some merit to them and, as will be explained in Part II, my approach, because of the inherent complexity of the matter, is to be approximately right as opposed to wrong with considerable precision. I also bring into consideration many other aspects of wind outside of EROEI, including costs without subsidization. To properly understand wind, I believe a broad context is necessary. Otherwise arguments are unproductively confined to the fringes of the matter. EROEI is one element of this context, which should not be avoided.

    With respect to free market discussions concerning wind, I would argue that you should carefully choose your weapon for the fight. The issue here is that wind is a significant and present danger that must be shown for what it is and avoided. Philosophical discussions do not meet the urgent steps that must be taken to reverse existing electrical energy policies. I think it safe to say there is sufficient case made on this site for free market basis for policy matters.

    As part of this, wind proponents, for example some environmentalist, are part of the immediate problem.


  5. Kent Hawkins  


    You are right to be apprehensive about statistics. See my comments to Eddie above, in this connection (EROEI) and with respect to being approximately right. Your concerns have been dealt with in my analyses, here and previously, which I have linked to for those looking for more in-depth information.

    With respect to averages, my analysis deals with the aggregate electrical energy produced over a year (or years). Wind will claim this level and governments tend to mandate this to be taken as available, but there are consequences as I will point out. There is a need for wind balancing gas plants, wind curtailment/dumping and grid changes unique to wind to accommodate it in an electricity system. Even then there are real limits.

    On storage, if the necessary large scale and capacity technologies were available today, this could be used as well, but it is separate from my analyses, and probably as unattractive overall.

    Your points about manufacturing are goods ones.

    With respect to useful, real world data, it simply does not exist, publically at least. The analysis of this would still be challenging to do properly and this is illustrated by the logic that I will be laying out in subsequent posts, which is one of the reasons for this series.


  6. Kent Hawkins  


    Sticks out doesn’t it? Let me briefly explain.

    When I started on this analysis path I included one scenario that had wind filling the electricity production gap created in year 12 due to plant retirement and increase in demand. This turns out to be 38% wind penetration in energy terms measured over a year. My aim was to show the consequences of that extreme measure.

    As the analysis progressed I realized how unrealistic such an outcome was, and on more than one occasion thought to remove it. I left it in because it addresses what some might think is feasible if not looked at in a broad enough context.

    The total capacity that would be required in year 12 is about 230 MW (to meet peak demand, excluding reserves) using “normal” generation plants. In the wind scenario it is 246 MW plus 137 MW of capacity old plants left over after plant retirement for a total of 383 MW (vs 230 MW level). With 184 MW of wind in this mix there would have to be substantial wind curtailment/dumping to keep the grid balanced or almost the entire non-wind plant fleet would be involved in wind balancing.

    I chose the curtailment/dumping route, which is almost as unrealistic but more manageable from an analysis point of view. In Part III I describe this in context, including the “place holders” I established to represent the need for the factors that would have to be considered. In summary, I expect that the wind costs here are understated, but I have put in the full complement of grid changes wind needs (the dumping option would require this), which may offset this.

    Perhaps this explains why I considered removing this scenario, but also why I kept it in – to show how unfeasible it was.


  7. Jon Boone  

    Thanks, Kent. Ridiculous doesn’t begin to describe 38% wind, although that still is far short of what the likes of The Sierra Club are calling for.

    As for EROEI, such analysis can only be a crude template for comparing generating systems that are relatively comparable. Using EROEI to contrast firm capacity units with zero capacity units is much like contrasting highly trained guide dogs with fleas. Even as a thought experiment, it can only be used at the level of a cartoon.

    Those interested in reality re wind induced fossil fuel reductions and CO2 “savings” should direct questions to their respective grid officials, where they will be told that such information is proprietarily confidential, despite the huge public subsidies enabling wind–uh–“integration.”

    Mentioning wind and solar in the same breath as free marketeering is an exercise in mental gymnastics akin to demanding people do something that is anatomically impossible.


  8. MarkB  


    I disagree with you about wind/solar and free markets. In fact, I’ve long believed that people should be able to sign up to get their electricity from wind power. That is, when the wind slows down, a smart meter would throttle down their power supply. When the wind falls below minimum generating speed, their power would get choked off.

    So there you have it – anyone can buy wind power if they want it. But they buy wind power, not the marginal contribution to the grid, supported by natural gas or hydro or nuclear. Let wind advocates sell that product on the free market. And let the fellow traveling consumers out there in love with wind power put their mains lines where their mouths are.

    needless to say, under these circumstances, no wind turbines would be erected in the first place. Which is the point. Being held responsible for consequences has a remarkable effect on clearing the mind – much like a hangman’s noose.


  9. Jon Boone  

    My point, Mark, about wind/grid solar is embedded in your last point. In a true free market circumstance, wind wouldn’t be on offer. Without one of the most warped public subsidy/government mandated (think RPS) market distorted “product/services in the history of the Republic, wind technology would be relegated to the museums and recreational pursuits modern societies create for historical curiosities.

    Pursuant to your idea expressed here, I once recommended that the entire State of California be hooked up for its electricity to only wind, solar, instate hydro, and biomass–allowing no imported generation whatsoever. After which, someone wrote that I was punishing ignorance in a far too perverse way, since so many in the state don’t understand the issue (although they keep voting for renewables mandates).

    So, yes, if I were king for an hour, I’d love to see your idea take flight, perhaps initially for government buildings in states that have passed RPS legislation.


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