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Interior Secretary Salazar on Wind: A Reality Check

By Robert Peltier -- July 28, 2009

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, speaking in Atlantic City in April, added more hot air to the discussion about offshore wind when he stated that windmills off the East Coast could generate enough electricity to replace most, if not all, of the coal-fired power plants in the U.S.

Yet such would require offshore wind turbines stacked almost a hundred miles deep from Maine to Florida. I’m disappointed Salazar didn’t take a few minutes for fact-checking and back-of-the-envelope ciphering before his speech or he would have discovered that his estimates are pure bluster.

I am reminded of all this as I read of Germany’s plan to get offshore wind in the mix, forcing power-grid operators to build sea cables at their expense and requiring buyers to pay $0.21/kWh for the power. And all this for an inferior product–intermittent power.

Pushing Offshore Wind

Secretary Salazar spoke at four hearings in April to discuss resource planning and what role our nation’s offshore energy resources—specifically natural gas, oil, and wind—will play in future energy legislation contemplated by the Obama administration. During his first presentation, Salazar said, “With respect to renewable energy, there is tremendous potential concerning wind off the Atlantic.” He added, “there is over 1,000 GW of power or 1,000,000 MW of power developable off the Atlantic coast” that is “the equivalent of energy produced from 3,000 medium-sized coal-fired power plants.”

Part of me believes that Salazar really doesn’t expect that wind power parks along the eastern shore are “developable” to the degree he described, but that his statements were meant to engage the audience to consider the possibilities of offshore wind. The other part of me is very concerned that many listeners will selectively hear only the punch line: The developable potential for wind turbines off the east coast is equivalent to 3,000 mid-size coal-fired power plants, so therefore wind turbines off the Atlantic coast can replace all of our coal plants. I hope future energy policy will be more circumspect.

First, let’s clear up a misconception that could be created by Salazar’s statement. The U.S. does not have 3,000 coal plants. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) website, which provides the best data available, shows that at the end of 2007 (the last year for which data are available) there were 1,470 coal-fired plants in the U.S. with a nameplate capacity of 336 GW. Also, coal-fired plants account for 30.9% the nation’s total power resources with a net summer capability of 995 GW. More importantly, coal fired over 48.5% of the total generated electricity that year, as it continues to do today.

Unfounded Estimates

The EIA website also reveals that wind generated 42.1% of the nation’s renewable electricity in 2008. Renewables, less hydroelectric power, generated 3.0% of our electricity in 2008, so wind supplied 1.27% of our electricity needs. I’m not prepared to make the mental leap from the small contribution wind power makes today—with no U.S. offshore turbines—to an energy source capable of supplying all the nation’s electricity.

If we were to accept Salazar’s vision of the potential for offshore wind, the entire 1,800-mile length of the Atlantic coast would be filled with wind turbines to replace our 1,470 coal plants and more than 15,000 other power plants. Ignoring the obvious transmission and distribution difficulties, the cost of these installations, and the price of the power produced, a little elementary school math reveals Salazar’s vision as a fantasy.

As a template, consider the Cape Wind project, located in Nantucket Sound, which only recently received approval to proceed after battling government regulators for years. Cape Wind consists of 130 wind turbines, each rated at 3.25 MW, arranged in a grid pattern of parallel rows for a total of 420 MW. Within a row, each turbine is located 0.34 miles apart, and the rows are a little over half a mile apart, when viewed from Nantucket.

If we assume the entire eastern coastline were open to development, then there is room for 5,400 wind turbines, one row deep. Also, if the rating of all these new turbines were the same as for Cape Wind, then to replace the entire nation’s installed capacity with a like amount of offshore capacity requires 334,462 wind turbines. In other words, the entire east coast would have wind turbines located every third of a mile and 93 turbines deep, or over 30 miles out to sea.

Not One-to-One (kWh) Displacement

Salazar stated that 1,000 GW of East Coast offshore wind turbines could replace 100% of our nation’s electricity supplies (approximately 1,000 GW). He gave the same estimate of offshore wind power potential in testimony to the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resource Committee on March 17. But a typical offshore wind park along the Atlantic coast would have a capacity factor of less than 30%, compared to a capacity factor for our coal and nuclear fleet in excess of 80%. That means to replace 1 kW of coal or nuclear capacity, you would need nearly 3 kW of rated wind capacity—and that’s not even considering the obvious production timing issues.

What about the cost of offshore wind power? The Ocean Energy Institute, a self-described “independent think tank,” about a year ago proposed a giant 5,000-MW offshore wind farm in the Gulf of Maine estimated to cost $5,000/kW or a total of $25 billion. Extrapolating that estimate to perhaps the million wind turbines Salazar proposes produces an estimate with so many zeroes my calculator gave me a zero overflow error.


Whether or not energy policy should include the private development of offshore locations like Cape Wind is one (controversial) thing. But representing offshore wind as capable of supplying the nation’s entire electricity needs is just pure bluster unworthy of anyone in high political office.

Portions of this article first appeared in POWER magazine.


  1. Ed Reid  

    Based on a 25% capacity factor, Salazar’s “vision” would require at least 5 kW of “source of opportunity”wind capacity to replace each kW of reliable generation required to meet peak demand, assuming that compatible storage technology were available and that the in/out losses for the storage process could be offset by the output of the 5th wind turbine.

    Regrettably, the investment required is unknown and currently unknowable, since the compatible storage technology does not exist.


  2. Andrew  

    I can’t keep up with these names. Okay, Salazar-Interior, got it.

    You know, I’ve always thought that PJ O’Rourke was right to ask why the Secretary of the Interior is in charge of the Outdoors! Hehe…

    More seriously-one has to wonder how someone can be so deluded about wind’s “potential”…


  3. John Droz  

    This “Capacity” business can be very confusing. There are actually four different “capacities” regarding electrical power. The key one is not “capacity factor” but rather “capacity credit.” These have to be matched for wind power (or any other source) to replace coal.

    The capacity credit of wind is about zero — in single digits at the best.

    The capacity credit of coal is almost 100%.

    So, to REPLACE a 1 GW coal facility would require a faceplate wind facility of something like 300 GW.


  4. John Droz  

    Indeed the “Capacity” business can be confusing – especially when there are typos.

    I had meant to write “Capacity Value” — not “Capacity Credit.”

    Here is a good summary “http://tinyurl.com/np8pgk” (PDF).


  5. Bill Chaffee  

    I often use Wikipedia as source of information. However I have discovered that Wikipedia often violates its own neutrality policy. Wind energy is certainly a case in point. The trouble is that millions of people are unaware of this. There has been a battle within Wikipedia over nuclear energy. However anything negative about wind energy is simply blocked. Maybe that is an example of media control by the wind energy industry.


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