A Free-Market Energy Blog

Wind Is Not Power at All (Part I – Overview)

By -- September 8, 2010

Based on policy pronouncements of governments, the media, and Left environmentalists, one might believe the world is about to enter the renewable energy era. In reality, however, the “new” is about a long gone era that ended before the dawn of the 20th century. Then the primary fuel was wood. Other renewables, including water and wind, were used because they were available and technologically harnessable for some very localized situations.

However primitive, renewables relating to the sun’s flow was the best our ancestors could do.

Will there be a renaissance of this era? Perhaps there will be, but it will be in a significantly different form and dependent upon a vastly transformed world, in both technological and societal terms, which will not be achievable for many generations. The question is: are we as societies and individuals prepared to make the necessary adjustments to realize the potential opportunities, which we do not currently understand sufficiently, that this may present in the future?

But this series of posts is about wind power specifically, a relic from this earlier period, which is inappropriately named, especially when applied to modern needs. Wind appears to be an electrical power source because it has some ability to generate electricity, which can be expressed as watt-hours, that is, energy. This is a term that we are fairly familiar with because it is the common measure of our use of electricity. But this is not power, which can be expressed as watts.

Power is the rate at which electrical energy is delivered, and can alternatively be viewed as watt-seconds per second, or watt-hours per hour, representing energy flux at any point in time or over an extended period of time. For effective use of electrical energy this must be consistently delivered, and reliable electrical power is the means to achieve this. This is one of the main, and generally overlooked, problems with respect to intermittent renewables in general, and wind in particular. The production of electricity, whatever the abundance of the energy resource, which is theoretically large for wind, without the coincident presence of sufficient, suitable and reliable power capability, negates the value of any source as a viable means of utility-scale electricity supply.

The reason for this is that reliable electrical power is vital for the needs of our modern world. It provides the necessary access to electrical energy in a timely manner. It is an important part of the foundation of the most developed countries. A reliable supply of adequate power enables us to do as much work as we need in the required time. In other words, the absence of adequate and reliable power limits our ability to access the energy that could be available to us. This is a major concern of the developing and undeveloped countries today.

There are drawbacks to the ability to access energy this effectively. An important one is the rate of pollution and waste produced in the process. Another is that economic and easy access can result in unnecessary and frivolous use. However, we cannot provide the essential aspects of the quality of life enjoyed in developed countries without some appreciable level of access. To start in determining what a reasonable level of energy use is, we have to ask ourselves if the profligate use of energy in developed countries has ensured: national security, sound economies, healthy and prosperous agriculture, cultural development, social cohesion and the assurance that the world’s population receives a decent level of physical well-being, nutrition, education and the basic freedoms.[i] Arguably it does not.

The time scale to transition, again in technology and societal terms, to a new energy conversion infrastructure, for example one that more effectively, and directly, harnesses solar energy, will take many decades/generations. This may not be compatible with the time frame of concerns, based on conventional wisdom, of an onset of substantial climate change impacts, which is, politically at least, a high profile initiative.

In this respect, one of the essential challenges for all countries in the near to medium term of one to three decades or more is to select and carefully use the most effective, and least harmful, generation means and invest national wealth in sufficient research and development to find better future ways of accessing energy. This applies to all energy uses, not just electricity generation, but the focus here is electricity, and electricity generation is arguably the most important form of energy conversion that exists today and for the future. Contrary to current major policy initiatives in some countries, wind does not qualify, and may never. This series of posts shows how the current set of new renewables, especially wind, are not ready for wide-spread utility-scale use. Two critical reasons are provided for this, both related to power.

As described above, power can be viewed as the ‘portal’ through which energy is accessed. Two important dimensions of power are:

  • Power density, in this context is the relationship between power and the land or water area required to sustain the power source, as explained by Smil. High densities are measures of the suitability of a power source’s capability to provide any worthwhile share of the total energy need. A measure of this is energy flux per unit of horizontal surface and can be measured in watts per square meter (W/m2). Our energy flux needs, especially those of the large developing nations, are too great, and our energy conversion and use infrastructures too established to allow the consideration of employing significantly lower power densities to access energy than now being widely utilized, for decades if at all.
  • Capacity (power) value is the rate at which energy flux can consistently be provided. In electricity terms it is, again, watt-hours per hour (or watts), representing the amount of useful activity that can reliably be performed in a given period of time (for example, lighting, heating, running computers and machines). This extends the view of power beyond power density considerations.

This three-part series will review how wind electricity production fails to qualify as a source of power in both respects–power density and capacity (power) value. Inadequacy in either of these categories, let alone both, means wind cannot be considered a useful source of electrical energy. As extensive wind implementation is projected, it represents a needless diversion of resources, financial and governance, that produces no benefits, for example, in terms of fossil fuel or CO2 emissions reductions, costs, and job creation. An appropriate label for modern times might be just ”wind activity”.

On a final note, inevitably the issue of utility-scale storage will be raised as the solution for wind. There is a growing body of information about this, the bottom line of which is that this is not feasible for reasons of technology, scalability to the massive sizes required by projected wind installations, substantial costs, and the challenging permitting process for the most promising, extensive expansion of water reservoirs for pumped storage.[ii]

Part II discusses power density and Part III, capacity (power) value.

[i]Smil, Vaclav (2008). “Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems”. The MIT Press. Pages 386-387. This book is recommended, and arguably necessary, reading, for an understanding of the general subject of energetics.

[ii] Readers are directed to the following as starting points in gaining the necessary understanding of the issues of utility-scale storage:

(a) Smil, pages 383–385

(b) MacKay, David (2008). “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air”. http://www.withouthotair.com/download.html

(c) For an overview of technologies see the Electricity Storage Association article at http://www.electricitystorage.org/site/technologies/

(d) On the advocacy side, there is an article in the September 2010 issue of Power magazine entitled “Bulk Storage Could Optimize Renewable Energy”. It is written by Jason Makansi, executive director of the Coalition to Advance Renewable Energy through Bulk Storage. It also chronicles the many problematic issues with wind production. Suggested solutions should be considered within the broader context of the first two recommended books.


  1. Jon Boone  

    Nice. I look forward to Parts II and III. Several quick observations.

    Windpower is an oxymoron. Responsible windpower is a double oxymoron.

    Civilization has had thousands of years to develop machines that convert the abundant energy of wind (which is a by product of the even more abundant energy from the sun) into modern proactive power requirements. The present incarnation of wind machines is about as efficient as the physics and external conditions will ever allow, and they still produce power apropos 1800. A bazillion hamsters might do as well, but, ah, they would be emitting carbon. Alas….


  2. rbradley  

    Adding to Jon’s historical point above:

    In his 1933 treatise World Resources and Industries, Erich Zimmermann devoted several pages to “The Place of Wind in Modern Energy Economy” (pp. 556-59) where he reviewed two “present proposals… trying to utilize improvements in technology and the development of interconnection in order to overcome the inherent weakness of wind-power reliability.”

    Zimmermann also saw then what we see today: it is cheap storage or bust for wind as for other intermittent energy technologies.


  3. T-m L.  

    Does zero resistance transmission and a cost effective, efficient storage medium change the analysis at all? And, if so, how?


  4. stas peterson  

    Wind “power” is virtually useless and a complete misnomer. The UK’s experience with windmills is that they produce 18% of nameplated rated power; and suppposedly designed for 30 years and financed that way, are in need of major service and major reconstruction and repairs in about 9 years. Putting the generating stationon apole a few hundred feet int helements with enormous airfoils subject to fatgue stresses and thrust bearings to being wiped, is not conducive to long life.

    The cost of which is more than a replacement with a new one. In other words, they are worth scrapping.

    The intermittant power could be of value for intermittent power needs for projects such as pumping water or desalinization or grinding cement or grain, whose output csan be designed to accomodate variable power input, but nothing that could not vary enormously in tune with the intermittent power output. That is why grinding grain was a good use for windmills, in olden times.

    The Nuclear Renaissance’s pouring cement phase begins in the later half of 2011. Then it is 5 yea to a wave of new nuclear additions; andt a scant 25 years to ITER’s successor the first Fusion power station. Energy and power becomes yesterday’s problem.


  5. KHawkins  

    T-m. L

    Go back and carefully read the first sentence of paragraph 8 that starts “The time scale to transition…”. The reference to solar is an example only, but one that offers considerable promise.

    The short answer is that none of the technologies you mention changes the analysis and the conclusions in the following paragraph.


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    […] Electric power is produced by coal-fired plants, natural gas-fired plants and hydropower. Based on policy pronouncements of governments, the media, and Left environmentalists, one might believe the world is about to […]


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