A Free-Market Energy Blog

“Wind Power Won’t Cool Down the Planet” (Robert Bryce exposes windpower’s dirty secret)

By Kent Hawkins -- August 30, 2010

Robert Bryce continues to bear down on the failure of wind as a useful and beneficial source of utility-scale electricity, as shown in his recent Wall Street Journal article. (The full text is available on Bryce’s website and is provided below for convenience.)

In his latest book, Power Hungry; The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, Bryce detailed the rationale underlying the inadequacies of renewables, especially wind, and their inability to make any worthwhile contribution to inexpensive, reliable electricity supply or “save the planet.”

Research into this topic is expanding (see this review of 2010 study by Peter Lang) beyond existing vague, high-level, general analyses that do not account for all the factors at play in integrating intermittent and volatile wind into an electricity grid. Such incomplete studies lead to the wrong conclusions, and my critiques of examples of these by Milligan, Komanoff and Gross are available at the links provided.

In the absence of comprehensive, definitive studies to show these effects, in previous posts I have described my fossil fuel and CO2 emissions calculator as a working hypothesis and framework to do this with available information. The calculator shows it produces similar results to two other new studies.

Without careful evaluation of the outcomes, such policies as a Renewable Energy Standard or Renewal Portfolio Standard will result in a needless industrialization of our natural environment, and require a large commitment of national wealth with ineffective results.

It is not easy to convey all the aspects and nuances in so short an article. But it should be remembered that:

  1. Wind can be allowed on a grid only if there is sufficient gas generation capacity available to provide balancing to ensure reliable electric service. Gas generation acting alone provides lower emissions than a gas/wind combination and avoids substantial duplication of costs and other undesirable effects.
  2. The “best-case scenario”, which generally assumes a one-to-one reduction in CO2 emissions for every unit of electricity produced by wind plants, is in reality a purely theoretical and unrealizable achievement, due to the substantial wind balancing activity required of fossil-fueled plants.

This is unquestionably an important subject, and a major advancement in the related knowledge exhibited by many in government, some scientists, the media in general, many environmentalists and most of the public is necessary. Robert Bryce in the Wall Street Journal (and his book) is making a major contribution to introducing and explaining the controversial aspects to a wider audience.

Here is his recent op-ed:

Wind Power Won’t Cool Down the Planet

The wind industry has achieved remarkable growth largely due to the claim that it will provide major reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. There’s just one problem: It’s not true. A slew of recent studies show that wind-generated electricity likely won’t result in any reduction in carbon emissions—or that they’ll be so small as to be almost meaningless.

This issue is especially important now that states are mandating that utilities produce arbitrary amounts of their electricity from renewable sources. By 2020, for example, California will require utilities to obtain 33% of their electricity from renewables. About 30 states, including Connecticut, Minnesota and Hawaii, are requiring major increases in the production of renewable electricity over the coming years.

Wind—not solar or geothermal sources—must provide most of this electricity. It’s the only renewable source that can rapidly scale up to meet the requirements of the mandates. This means billions more in taxpayer subsidies for the wind industry and higher electricity costs for consumers.

None of it will lead to major cuts in carbon emissions, for two reasons. First, wind blows only intermittently and variably. Second, wind-generated electricity largely displaces power produced by natural gas-fired generators, rather than that from plants burning more carbon-intensive coal.

Because wind blows intermittently, electric utilities must either keep their conventional power plants running all the time to make sure the lights don’t go dark, or continually ramp up and down the output from conventional coal- or gas-fired generators (called “cycling”). But coal-fired and gas-fired generators are designed to run continuously, and if they don’t, fuel consumption and emissions generally increase. A car analogy helps explain: An automobile that operates at a constant speed—say, 55 miles per hour—will have better fuel efficiency, and emit less pollution per mile traveled, than one that is stuck in stop-and-go traffic.

Recent research strongly suggests how this problem defeats the alleged carbon-reducing virtues of wind power. In April, Bentek Energy, a Colorado-based energy analytics firm, looked at power plant records in Colorado and Texas. (It was commissioned by the Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States.) Bentek concluded that despite huge investments, wind-generated electricity “has had minimal, if any, impact on carbon dioxide” emissions.

Bentek found that thanks to the cycling of Colorado’s coal-fired plants in 2009, at least 94,000 more pounds of carbon dioxide were generated because of the repeated cycling. In Texas, Bentek estimated that the cycling of power plants due to increased use of wind energy resulted in a slight savings of carbon dioxide (about 600 tons) in 2008 and a slight increase (of about 1,000 tons) in 2009.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has estimated the potential savings from a nationwide 25% renewable electricity standard, a goal included in the Waxman-Markey energy bill that narrowly passed the House last year. Best-case scenario: about 306 million tons less CO2 by 2030. Given that the agency expects annual U.S. carbon emissions to be about 6.2 billion tons in 2030, that expected reduction will only equal about 4.9% of emissions nationwide. That’s not much when you consider that the Obama administration wants to cut CO2 emissions 80% by 2050.

Earlier this year, another arm of the Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, released a report whose conclusions were remarkably similar to those of the EIA. This report focused on integrating wind energy into the electric grid in the Eastern U.S., which has about two-thirds of the country’s electric load. If wind energy were to meet 20% of electric needs in this region by 2024, according to the report, the likely reduction in carbon emissions would be less than 200 million tons per year. All the scenarios it considered will cost at least $140 billion to implement. And the issue of cycling conventional power plants is only mentioned in passing.

Coal emits about twice as much CO2 during combustion as natural gas. But wind generation mostly displaces natural gas, because natural gas-fired generators are often the most costly form of conventional electricity production. Yet if regulators are truly concerned about reducing carbon emissions and air pollution, they should be encouraging gas-fired generation at the expense of coal. And they should be doing so because U.S. natural gas resources are now likely large enough to meet all of America’s natural gas needs for a century.

Meanwhile, the wind industry is pocketing subsidies that dwarf those garnered by the oil and gas sector. The federal government provides a production tax credit of $0.022 for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by wind. That amounts to $6.44 per million BTU of energy produced. In 2008, however, the EIA reported subsidies to oil and gas totaled $1.9 billion per year, or about $0.03 per million BTU of energy produced. Wind subsidies are more than 200 times as great as those given to oil and gas on the basis of per-unit-of-energy produced.

Perhaps it comes down to what Kevin Forbes, the director of the Center for the Study of Energy and Environmental Stewardship at Catholic University, told me: “Wind energy gives people a nice warm fuzzy feeling that we’re taking action on climate change.” Yet when it comes to CO2 emissions, “the reality is that it’s not doing much of anything.”


  1. GM  

    Yes, of course wind can’t provide for a civilization the size of ours that’s not only as big as it is now but will have to keep growing forever or it will collapse (the logical impossibility of infinite growth aside).

    So through a series of brilliant exercises in sound logical reasoning, we reach the inevitable conclusion that if wind can’t sustain infinite growth, then natural gas and nuclear can, because something must be able to do that, right?


  2. KHawkins  


    Your argument breaks down when you think in terms of infinity. We live in real time and should think in shorter time frames. To look at time it is useful, if not important, to think in terms of manageable ranges of time frames. With respect to energy use thinking and planning today, I like near term (10+ years), medium term (10-30+ years) and long term (30-50+ years). These overlap on purpose. Within these time frames you have to think of practical realities, and needs and their associated consequences. Attempting to pick radical new winners beyond the near term, and betting heavily on them in terms of implementation today, is not a realistic strategy with our current energy use infrastructure. Equally important, the possibility of being wrong is too great and the consequences too unacceptable.

    If Bryce can be criticized for anything it is appearing to pick a winner for the longer term. Here are a few considerations in this respect: (1) at least nuclear plants are not a new major player in our current electricity generation portfolios, (2) their implementation time frames are long, and (3) they have important capabilities that offset climate change concerns. On the latter point you have to assess the associated risks on both sides of the matter and draw your own conclusions on this. Having said this, Bryce is making a major contribution in introducing and explaining the controversial aspects of the important subject of electrical energy to a wider audience.

    For a more in-depth treatment of the subject, for starters to help your thinking I suggest you read Vaclav Smil’s book “Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems.” He is one of the foremost thinkers on this subject.


  3. Jon Boone  

    Good introduction to Bryce’s piece, Kent, and good response. Perhaps it’s worth noting that the nation’s largest grid, the PJM, has safely deployed nuclear for many decades; nuclear now provides the grid with nearly 38% of its power generation. Moreover, the people of Maryland’s Calvert County overwhelmingly approved expansion plans for the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Lusby.

    The opportunity costs lost because of support for such silly, environmentally treacherous, and dysfunctional technology as wind are already enormous. Aside from reporting on how little greenhouse gasses wind can abate, he also points out the other elephant in the room: wind receives, on a per MWh basis, gargantuan subsidy–200 times greater than the amount provided to reliable capacity.

    Few examples better illustrate the lacuna in the soul of our national energy policy and the cognitive dissonance at work within mainline environmental organizations.


  4. GM  

    KHawkins { 08.30.10 at 8:09 am }

    Your argument breaks down when you think in terms of infinity. We live in real time and should think in shorter time frames. To look at time it is useful, if not important, to think in terms of manageable ranges of time frames. With respect to energy use thinking and planning today, I like near term (10+ years), medium term (10-30+ years) and long term (30-50+ years).

    Of course, you picked these numbers because surely nothing of particular significance for humanity happens on timescales longer than this, right?

    The argument doesn’t break down at all, it is as certain that growth will have to stop eventually as it is that if you throw a stone in the air, it will fall down due to the force of gravity. However, if growth is the fundamental paradigm under which we operate, with no sign of any intention to change that, then when exactly are going to decide that we there is no need for more growth and have to stop it? We simply aren’t going to so the only thing that will stop is ecological overshoot.

    What you are completely unaware of/in denial of/totally unable to understand is that the above are words that belong to the 1950s, because at this point we are already deeply in overshoot.


  5. Michael Goggin, AWEA  

    Actually, we already know a tremendous amount about how adding wind energy to the grid drastically reduces emissions of CO2 and other harmful pollutants. The government and grid operators have already conducted numerous studies and compiled a large amount of data, and the results show that wind energy is a very effective tool for reducing emissions. These data and studies are summarized here:

    Michael Goggin,
    American Wind Energy Association


  6. Jon Boone  

    The American Wind Energy Association’s evidentiary case for the ability of its limited liability companies to abate meaningful levels of greenhouse gasses in the production of electricity cannot withstand even casual scrutiny. The USEIA state by state fuel use and carbon emissions data do NOT show that wind is in any way responsible for achieving reductions in either fossil fuel consumption or carbon emissions. Quite the contrary.

    Paid lobbyists for an industry rooted in Enron marketing schemes, supported by the likes of Kenneth Lay, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Arnold Swarchenegger, and nurtured as a tax shelter by corporations swaddled in coal production, such as Florida Power & Light, General Electric, AES, and Siemens, have no business accusing responsible energy journalists like Robert Bryce as being a shill for or beholden to the fossil fuel industry. Character assassination, half truths, and outright lies–the stock and trade of AWEA’s public relations propaganda campaign, as evidenced by AWEA’s response to Bryce’s article–should no longer be allowed to coarsen public discourse about an antediluvian technology that was euthanized 200 years ago by the advent of the steam engine.

    Stay tuned….


  7. Kent Hawkins  


    I picked the numbers because I think they are relevant in terms of thinking and planning about electrical energy generation and use today. In the 50 to 100 year time frame, and longer term, we have to make substantial changes in our energy conversion and use infrastructure, in ways that we might not yet be able to imagine. There will have to be major societal changes as well, but these are very difficult to contemplate today. There is also the possibility that major events will intervene regardless of our intentions and efforts in this regard.

    I make no statements about growth and associated issues, although at some level I sympathize with your point of view. Again, I suggest Vaclav Smil on this subject. He has written substantially on this and related issues affecting mankind. This will provide some good grounding and understanding for your beliefs and concerns.


  8. Kent Hawkins  

    Mr. Coggin

    It is so nice to hear from you and the AWEA. I am very familiar with the document that you refer to and I hope that all readers will take the opportunity to look at it.


  9. Michael Goggin, AWEA  

    Thanks for the kind note Mr. Hawkins – I look forward to joining the discussion.


  10. GM  

    Kent Hawkins @ 7:

    You simply glossed over my post and didn’t address the most important points raised in it.


  11. WillR  

    I think that the document presented by Mr. Goggin is the same document discussed at Wind Concerns Ontario a couple of days ago. My opinion has not changed. It does not make the case that Wind Power reduces emissions.

    The document claims much == but the numbers prove nothing.
    See the discussion after the article:

    BTW I repeat! We have not disproved his case (Mr. Goggin) — simply pointed out that AWEA did not make their case. In the meantime we will simply state that Industrial Wind Turbines do Not deliver power of an significant value. Feel free to look in the WCO Viability section where you can find my paper showing that Wind Power in Ontario Canada simply does not deliver.


  12. Matthew  

    Though I can agree with the following statement, “An automobile that operates at a constant speed—say, 55 miles per hour—will have better fuel efficiency, and emit less pollution per mile traveled, than one that is stuck in stop-and-go traffic.”, it seems that the analogy is not correct. Rather than stop-and-go traffic the wind powered case should be compared with a car that sometimes got pushed by an invisible hand. Obviously the car engine will be less efficient for the miles it drives the car, assuming cold starts between pushes, but the total emissions per mile traveled will still be less.


  13. Jon Boone  

    Except, Matthew, that the hand is not invisible. Rather the hand is conventional generation that most of the time pushes the car, not just sometimes. This pushing hand contributes to the “total emissions,” and must be accounted for.


  14. Richard  

    I love the way you say “only 200 million tons of carbon” for an investment of 140 billion.

    A nominal 1000 MWe nuclear power plant goes for about 4 billion in the USA. So you’d be able to build 35 of those with 140 billion. 35 NPPs would deliver

    (35 million (kilowatt hours per hour)) * 1 year in kilowatt hours = 3.06803447 × 10^11 kilowatt hours.

    Since coal power emits about 2 pounds of CO2 per kilowatt-hour, the full equation is

    (35 million (kilowatt hours per hour)) * (1 year) * (2 (pounds per kilowatt hour)) in tons = 306 803 447 short tons

    In other words, IF (big IF) wind farms were able to avoid 200 million tons of CO2 for only 140 billion dollars, it would look pretty good.

    But you know what? You said 200 billion tons of CARBON, not carbon dioxide. 200 billion tons of carbon is 720 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

    In other words, BY YOUR OWN NUMBERS, wind farms would avoid more carbon dioxide for less money than nuclear power plants. Since we both know that’s blatantly impossible, by about an order of magnitude, YOUR NUMBERS ARE OFF.

    And you know what? Natural gas fired power plants don’t emit half the CO2 coal-fired plants do. They emit 2/3rds as per this Y2000 DOE report


    ed. note: edited to remove cuss words.


  15. Kent Hawkins  


    Without attempting to deconstruct the information behind the numbers you use, I did a few quick “back of the envelope” calculations, based on capital costs only, to try and put this issue in perspective.

    Reference data and assumptions:

    • Total annual US CO2 emissions: 2008 – 5,800 mega tonnes (mt), 2020 – 6,100 mt.
    • Capital costs: nuclear – $4 million/MW, wind – $3 million/MW (includes some offshore).
    • Plant life: nuclear – 40 years (y), wind 20 y (in this connection the life of a large wind turbine is looking more like 10+ years at, which time it has to be effectively replaced. I do not have ready-to-hand the refurbishment costs of a nuclear plant over its lifetime). A two to one factor will be used.
    • Capacity factors: nuclear 100%, although something in the nineties is realistic. Wind – 30% – arguably generous given the quantities involved (and related siting availability considerations) and the offshore experience in the UK, which has the largest offshore installations in the world, is about this level.
    • CO2 emissions offset by nuclear and wind assuming a 1:1 saving based on electricity production and coal replaced – 1 t/MWh. In this connection, due to the need to have additional fossil fuel capacity to balance wind’s volatile output, wind can be shown to have no net savings over leaving coal to operate normally, or gas replacing coal, with the gas plants operating normally.
    • An initial capital investment of $140 billion in either nuclear or wind plants.

    Installed capacity: nuclear – 35,000 MW, wind – 47,000 MW
    Annual electricity production: nuclear – 307,000,000 MWh, wind – 123,000,000 MWh
    Annual CO2 emissions savings: nuclear – 307 mt (5% of total), wind– 123 mt (2% of total). Remember this is the “best case” for wind considering that the CO2 savings are arguably zero.

    Taking the basic plant life difference into account effectively doubles the nuclear emissions savings per initial capital cost dollar. The other considerations mentioned might increase this ratio.

    Wind costs do not include (1) the substantial additional transmission lines required because of its necessarily inflexible, dispersed siting requirements, and (2) the additional fossil fuel plant capacity that must be built or left operating to balance wind’s stochastic and intermittent production characteristics.

    It is clear that the challenge of replacing coal-generated electricity in the US (and elsewhere) is a large one, for which there are no easy answers. Extensive, ineffective and expensive approaches must be avoided. In 2008 the total US CO2 emissions in electricity production was 2,300 mt, and about 80% (about 1,800 mt) of that was from coal. To replace this would require about 200,000 MW of nuclear or 700,000 MW of wind plants. This level of wind implementation is 70% of the current total US electricity generation capacity of 1,000,000 MW. All this wind would be unmanageable and again arguably would not reduce CO2 emissions. At this level of wind penetration, the CO2 emissions would likely increase dramatically.

    I hope this helps. Any additions/corrections to this necessarily quick analysis are welcome.


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