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Energy Debate in Wonderland: Let's Go for the Kill Against Windgas (Part II: Effective Capacity)

By Jon Boone -- March 29, 2011
“… paying anything for resources that yield no or little effective capacity seems deranged as a means of promoting economic recovery for the most dedicatedly modern country on the planet.”

In energy debates (such as held recently by the Economist), arguments can be made against government-dependent renewables on grounds that coal and natural gas are in abundant supply and fossil fuels are being burned cleaner and cleaner.

These arguments, however, are mere body blows. Robert Bryce (see Part I) should have supplied the knockout punch by reminding all that any meaningful discussion of electricity production, which could soon embrace 50% of our overall energy use, must consider the entwined goals of reliability, security, and affordability, since reliable, secure, affordable electricity is the lynchpin of our modernity.

Effective Capacity

Economic recovery must be built upon such a foundation. At the core of this triad, however, resides the idea of effective capacity—the ability of energy suppliers to provide just the right amount of controllable power at any specified time to match demand at all times. It is the fount of modern power applications.

By insisting that any future technology—clean, cleaner, or otherwise, particularly in the electricity sector—must produce effective capacity, Bryce would have come quickly to the central point, moving the debate out of Wonderland and into sensible colloquy.

Economically and functionally, comparing wind and solar with conventional generation is spurious work. Saying that the highly subsidized price of wind might, maybe, possibly become, one day, comparable to coal or natural gas may be true. But even if this happens, if, say, wind and coal prices become equivalent, paying anything for resources that yield no or little effective capacity seems deranged as a means of promoting economic recovery for the most dedicatedly modern country on the planet.

Subsidies for conventional fuels—coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydro—make sense in that they are high-capacity generation. Subsidies for wind and solar, which are (as Bryce stated) many times greater on a unit of production basis than for conventional fuels, promote pretentious power that make everything else work harder simply to stand still.

Consider the following passage from Part II of my recent paper, which is pertinent in driving this point home:

Since reliable, affordable, secure electricity production has historically required the use of many kinds of generators, each designed to perform different but complementary roles, much like instruments in an orchestra, it is not unreasonable for companies in the power business to diversify their power portfolios. Thus, investment in an ensemble of nuclear and large coal plants to provide for baseload power, along with bringing on board smaller coal and natural gas plants to engage mid and peak load, makes a great deal of sense, providing for better quality and control while achieving economies of scale.


Traditional diversified power portfolios, however, insisted upon a key common denominator: their generating machines, virtually all fueled by coal, natural gas, nuclear, and/or hydro, had high unit availability and capacity value. That is, they all could be relied upon to perform when needed precisely as required.


How does adding wind—a source of energy that cannot of itself be converted to modern power, is rarely predictable, never reliable, always changing, is inimical to demand cycles, and, most importantly, produces no capacity value—make any sense at all? Particularly when placing such a volatile brew in an ensemble that insists upon reliable, controllable, dispatchable modes of operation. As a functional means of diversifying a modern power portfolio, wind is a howler.

Language Matters

All electricity suppliers are subsidized. But conventional generation provides copious capacity while wind supplies none and solar, very little. The central issue is capacity—or its absence. Only capacity generation will drive future economic recovery. And Bryce should say so in future debates. Birds and bats, community protests, health and safety—pale in contrast to wind technology’s lack of capacity. And Bryce should say so. Ditto for any contraption fueled by dilute energy sources that cannot be converted to modern power capacity—even if they produce no carbon emissions. Clean and green sloganeering should not be conflated with effective production.

Moreover, even if the definition of clean and/or renewable technology is stretched to mean reduced or eliminated carbon emissions caused by less consumption of fossil fuels, then where is the evidence that technologies like wind and solar are responsible for doing this? When in the debate former Colorado governor Bill Ritter claimed that the wind projects he helped build in his state were reducing California’s carbon emissions, why didn’t the Bryce/Hayward team demand proof? Which is non existent.

It’s not just wind’s wispy energy density that makes conversion to modern power impossible—without having it fortified by substantial amounts of inefficiently operating fossil-fired power, virtually dedicated transmission lines, and new voltage regulation, the costs of which must collectively be calculated as the price for integrating wind into an electricity grid. It is rather wind’s continuous skittering, which destabilizes the required match between supply and demand; it must be smoothed by all those add-ons. The vast amount of land wind gobbles up therefore hosts a dysfunctional, Rube Goldbergesque mechanism for energy conversion. Bryce and his confreres would do well to aim this bullet right between the eyes.


Robert Bryce remains a champion of reasoned discourse and enlightened energy policy. He is one of the few energy journalists committed to gleaning meaningful knowledge from a haze of data and mere information. His work is a wise undertaking in the best traditions of journalism in a democracy.

As he prepares for future debates—although, given the wasteland of contemporary journalism, it is a tribute to his skills that he is even invited to the table—he must cut through the chafe surrounding our politicized energy environment, communicating instead the whole grained wheat of its essentials.

The debate is his to win!


  1. CNY Roger  

    Good job. One other relevant point is that the expected life of solar and wind projects is 20 years. Fossil and nuclear plants have a projected life of at least 40 years. In my book that fact alone doubles the cost of wind and solar.


  2. Ken Langford  

    What a timely article! Our city politicians are contemplating forcing their public utility, by ordinance, into a 25 year PPA with a wind farm, as an answer to energy diversification. The cost per MWH is almost twice local production (avoided costs) and requires the utility to pay for regulation. The only thing the public hears is how their public utility “refuses free and clean wind power”. It’s criminal!


  3. Ed Reid  

    Ken Langford,

    It would be better if it actually was criminal. Regrettably, it is not.

    The poster child for “free” wind power is Cape Wind, the power from which will be far more than twice the avoided cost.

    If wind were truly the answer, I would have to ask: “What is the question?


  4. Jon Boone  

    Which brings us back to Wonderland, Ed. May I offer you a glass of wine…?


  5. nofreewind  

    Jon, want to read some real Wonderland and see how far things can go. For the cost of shipping from Amazon try.
    I am from Moscow.
    Workers Paradise Lost
    Both of these well-written books from the 1960’s show how far things can go. We have forgotten.


  6. When it’s a race to the bottom, do we really want to compete? | JunkScience Sidebar  

    […] Energy Debate in Wonderland: Let’s Go for the Kill Against Windgas (Part II: Effective Capacity) by Jon Boone “… paying anything for resources that yield no or little effective capacity seems deranged as a means of promoting economic recovery for the most dedicatedly modern country on the planet.” […]


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