A Free-Market Energy Blog

Anatomy of a Debate: Rejecting Renewable Energy at THE ECONOMIST (Part II)

By Jon Boone -- December 14, 2011

“This house believes that subsidizing renewable energy is a good way to wean the world off fossil fuels.”

– ECONOMIST magazine, Online debate, November 8–18, 2011

Yesterday we reviewed the surprising rebuke of renewable energy–and the underlying premise that fossil fuels were inherently unsustainable–by an international voting audience.

Today we revisit the essential question: Can renewable energy really help ‘wean the world off fossil fuels’?

Although the affirmative’s Matthias Fripp, moderator James Astill, and their colleagues evaded this fundamental question, here is a sampling of oft-heard rationales, most if not all of which were implicit in Astill’s comments and final announcement. Windpower (providing more than 75% of any politically correct renewable portfolio), we are told, helps to:

(a) Reduce reliance on foreign oil;

(b) Substitute for coal;

(c) Complement the fuels used in our electricity generation portfolios;

(d) Provide a fair return to wind investors while making them feel good about helping save the world;

(e) Spawn discretionary revenues to help bootstrap our economic doldrums;

f) Create new jobs;

(g) Establish leadership credentials to encourage the rest of the world to follow our example; and

(h) Serve as a bridge to newer, better technologies in some more enlightened future.

All of the rationales are severely lacking. Even if one believes that fossil fuel usage is greatly harming the earth and its inhabitants, renewables, used extensively, can only make that problem worse.

Let’s critically examine each of the aforementioned arguments for renewables, with a particular focus on wind, since it has become an icon for the entire renewables fleet.

A) Oil provides little more than one percent of the nation’s electricity. Of that, only a fraction comes from the Middle East. Wind, because it only engages the electricity portion of energy usage, can do nothing about affecting what oil does for transportation and heating.

B) There is no empirical causal evidence that less coal is burned per unit of electricity produced as a consequence of wind performance. Quite the contrary. The stark reality is that subsidizing the renewable energy du jour is a terrific way of keeping the world in thrall to fossil fuels.

Consider Iowa, a state reliant upon coal for the bulk of its electricity while deploying increasing amounts of renewables in recent years, especially wind. In 2010, Iowa’s 2800 wind turbines, with an installed capacity of 4,375 MW, generated 8,800,000 MWh of electricity. But according to U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data, coal generation for that year increased to 41,128,000 MWh (1)up nearly 4,000,000 MWh from the previous year.

In fact, coal generation in Iowa has been incrementally climbing since the decade began; in 2000, coal had churned out more than 35,000,000 MWh. The surge in coal generation has occurred despite substantial increases in wind output since 2006, the year in which the technology produced 2,318,000 MWh, moving to 2,757,000 MWh in 2007; 4,084,000 in 2008; and nearly doubling again to 7,421,000 MWh in 2009.

Those who claim, with Fripp and Astill, that wind can help “wean us off fossil fuels,” must explain such data, which seem consistent across the board around the world. If a MWh of wind replaces a MWh of coal, as American Wind Energy Association and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory maintain, and as Fripp and Astill evidently believe, why don’t we see commensurate reductions in coal generation for high wind production regions?

Why in fact do we see increases in coal generation in heavy coal generation areas like Iowa, despite wind producing up to 15% of that state’s electricity at a time of relatively static demand? 

With 42 GW of installed wind, the nation increased its coal generation last year. Despite nearly 200 GW of installed wind capacity around the world, no coal plants have closed anywhere, and more are in the offing. (2)

C) Although the complexity of the nation’s electricity generation mix and dynamic interplay is daunting, difficult to pinpoint accurately because of many factors, such as the nature and extent of imports/exports through grid interconnections and the extent of thermal plant cycling, such data strongly suggests that wind does not—and cannot—work as an alternative power source to conventional generating machines in the production of reliable, secure electricity.

That is, it can’t play a zero sum game with coal—or natural gas, hydro, and nuclear. Although it can be integrated into the system so that it doesn’t generally affect what the consumer receives, it can’t replace the dependable machines that make the system work. Since wind output is always fluctuating unpredictably, uncontrollably throughout the entire range of its capacity, it existentially behaves much like a wandering piccolo that creeps into a symphonic orchestra production without concern for keeping time, without even any sense of the score. This piccolo—wind—is indeed an additive instrument. But much in the way that a fly is additive to soup. 

Unreliable and uncontrollable wind machines cannot replace machines that are reliable and controllable, for it is the latter that does all the important work, in the process making renewables only appear to be reliable and controllable by the way they shadow wind’s sputtering delivery. In most areas around the country, fossil-fired machines, mainly coal but increasingly natural gas, must produce on average about 75% of wind’s maximum capacity—and, when no wind production occurs, which is often the case at times of peak demand for electricity, they must provide all of that capacity. 

Since their desultory, unpredictable performance is inimical to that of the performance of reliable, high capacity machines, wind especially cannot complement any modern power portfolio as part of a “multi-pronged policy.” Although a consideration of the use of gliders in the air transport sector may reveal how problematic wind energy is as a means of generating electricity, it does not truly convey the hapless reality. For gliders have pilots who can negotiate thermal air pockets to obtain some directional control, thereby achieving a measure of productivity, as inconvenient and slow as it may be in terms of modern air transport expectations.

Wind turbine rotors can be turned to maximize wind capture. But this is the extent of what the technology can achieve by way of “control.” Wind production for electricity is otherwise uncontrollable, except through turning the machines off—curtailment—, which is also the one way of making the technology predictable. How can such machines usefully complement the portfolio of extremely reliable machines, so that the latter don’t have to work so hard or so much? The answer: they can’t.

D) It is true that federal and state subsidies are excellent revenue enhancers for corporations with a lot of discretionary income to retain through tax avoidance. Companies swaddled in fossil fuels are doing just this—and they are legion, knowing that wind will embellish their fossil fuel market share. Just a glance at the plethora of ecomagination ads for renewables from virtually all the energy giants (among the most galling for me are those from Chevron) should be instructive. Even Areva plays this game. (3)

Lackluster Economic Benefits

E & F) As for jobs, expanded revenues, and renewables, here’s the reality, focusing on Minnesota. Jobs for wind won’t materialize as claimed—but not because of a flatlined economy. Since most of the equipment and much of the labor installation force for wind projects comes from overseas, both direct manufacturing wind jobs for Minnesota residents and value added revenues that might enhance other vocations in the state would be in short supply.

In terms of wind employment over the long haul, say a decade from now, Minnesota will realize about three maintenance workers per 40 wind turbines. And perhaps one additional PR representative per 100MW project. It appears that Minnesota had about 1500MW of installed wind capacity through 2009, which during that year produced an average output of 400MW. Assuming a mix of 2.0-2.5 MW rated capacity turbines and a capacity factor of around 27%, Minnesota had constructed about 600 wind turbines in 2009.

Consequently, a good estimate for the total number of permanent wind jobs in that state through 2009 would be as follows: 45-50 maintenance workers; 15 PR types; 9-10 security workers.

That is less than 100 permanent jobs for the entire state. Since maintenance and security workers generally receive little more than a minimum wage; they would not have a great deal of discretionary income in any case to help bootstrap a sagging local economy.

Typically, a 100 MW wind project costs around $350 million to build, the bulk of it coming from the federal treasury. Minnesota’s 1,500MW of installed wind therefore cost billions of dollars—all for machines that produce no firm capacity, indeed, produce most at times of least demand and 10% of the time virtually nothing at all, often at peak demand times. The math shouldn’t be difficult for those who want to compute the direct cost per wind job.

This small number of jobs may be augmented by increases in jobs necessary to successfully integrate the wind energy, in the process ratcheting up consumer costs. At the same time, there will be substantial increased costs for new transmission/voltage regulation. The silver lining for wind in a depressed economy is that deployment of the technology does not reduce the need for jobs that deploy other technologies, including fossil fuel technologies.

This is not a good thing, however, if one of the goals of electricity production is affordability. All should be aghast at those calling for more jobs in the electricity sector—if they are concerned about the larger economy and the prospect of producing a jobs cascade. It is affordable electricity that is the fundamental, undergirding stimulus for productive modern economies.

G & H) Renewable technologies exemplify the energy/economic leadership circa 1750. There’s a reason that the Netherlands stopped using windmills to grind grain to make bread and beer as soon as it understood the productive potential of the steam engine. Claims from their proponents that success lies just around the corner; that “new technologies” like these require patient research and ubiquitous development (despite their actual antiquity and 40 year history of public subsidy); that add on developments such as sophisticated storage systems (pumped hydro or flow/vanadium redox) may eventually make them whole—are all akin to making larger closets for the emperor with no clothes.

Wind and industrial-scale solar are the energy sectors equivalent to Gravina Island’s Bridge to Nowhere, with no accountability for their generally dysfunctional performance. Matthias Fripp and James Astill, who pretend to know what they do not, offer a future bereft of intellectual rigor and integrity. Although, over the next three or four decades, some sort of distributive power source may be developed that will make local, perhaps even individual, electricity customization a reality, it is virtually certain that source will have nothing to do with wind or the current political definition of what it means to be “renewable.”

All systems of future power production will insist upon machines that are highly reliable and nimbly controllable in ways that permit them to interact with other highly reliable, controllable machines. This will be as true for electricity production as it will be for medical technology, transportation, and not least, networked computing. In this, wind machines, as they are today, as they were two centuries ago, represent retrograde technology. There is only a difference in degree, and not kind, when comparing today’s 450-foot tall windscrapers with those pastoral Dutch windmills of yore. And economists who attempt to compare wind’s cost and price with conventional generation don’t seem to have a clue about factoring relative value into their calculations.

Renewables are not all they’re cracked up to be. As Robert Bradley for the negative maintained, the diffuse energy of the wind and the sun (as it plays around the earth’s protective systems) is problematic for expectations of modern power delivery, though perhaps innovations in solar technology may provide for expanded local applications.

Biofuels, led by corn ethanol, degrade the soil, increase the price of food, and expand our carbon footprint. Geothermal is limited in range while large-scale excavation would have serious environmental implications. Even hydro, the technology that exemplified renewable success for much of the last century, has come up against both the rock of limited access and the hard place of environmentalism, since building huge impoundment reservoirs degrades millions of acres of sensitive wetlands habitat. Which is largely why it is not included as a player in contemporary renewables schemes.

Conclusion: Reality Bites

There is an adage in politics that perception is reality. Belief that something is true, no matter how preposterous, often results in pretentious public policy. The notion that volatile, intermittent “renewable energy sources” can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, make the air cleaner, shore up any shortage of electricity supply, and meaningfully abate CO2 emissions from fossil-fueled plants is now deeply entrenched in our political rhetoric. But such belief has the same basis in reality as the Wizard’s glitzy illusions had for the Emerald City of Oz. 

Environmental history is the chronicle of how adverse consequences flowed from the uninformed decisions of the well intentioned. Economic history is littered with the bones of failed enterprise. Political history is replete with subsidized bunkum resulting in failed policy.

When perception is wrong, reality will ultimately impose itself as itself, often with rude effect. Even in Kansas. Surely in Iowa. Perhaps in Washington, DC. 


1. Thanks to George Taylor for providing EIA 2010 generation mix data for Iowa.

2. Here’s a possible explanation why. Modern grid systems work the way they do because a constellation of highly reliable machines, mostly fossil-fired, are controlled—dispatched—in complementary ways to inject specified amounts of power—or retract power in specified increments—at specified times, all to keep supply matched perfectly to demand. The harmonics involved in this orchestration is one of the wonders of our era.

Wind technology is both at the mercy of the cube of the speed of its mercurial power source and the fact that supply must match demand precisely at all times. Small changes in wind speed produce large changes in wind output. Whereas conventional generators, including those fired by coal and natural gas, steadily produce their rated capacity, or a desired portion thereof, whenever asked, wind and, to a lesser extent, solar machines, unpredictably change their yield minute-by-minute.

Wind requires such substantial supplementation to achieve the “appearance” of providing modern power that it subverts the very reasons for its being. Any “power” wind generates is of the tail-wagging-the-dog variety, which is never going to cut it for modern power portfolios.

No one can foretell how much energy wind will produce at any future time. When grid managers need exactly 30MW of power in the next minute, the fluctuating energy from the wind machines may be providing nothing, or 10MW, or 100MW—all too little or too much to satisfy the need. But that’s not all. Since the wind production is continuously bouncing around, mostly fossil fired machines must be toggled, cycled–turned up and back—to keep the grid in balance. This cycling is in addition to that required to balance demand flux as people turn their appliances off and on—and much more intense.

Although it is true that wind must replace existing generation on a one-for-one basis to keep supply matched perfectly with demand, any fossil fuel saved when it is sporadically displaced by wind is often consumed in even greater volume as it is called upon to compensate for wind’s ongoing ebb and flow.

Therefore wind production must by its nature reduce the efficiency of these compensatory plants, especially raising the heat rate penalties of older, less efficient coal plants such that they may be forced to emit up to 40% more CO2 than when operating efficiently. Even efficiency penalties of 2% can increase emissions up to 16%, burning more fuel in the process. Depending upon the fossil-fired plant involved and the circumstances, a reduction or increase in output in response to the addition of wind may cause small reductions in the efficiency of that fossil-fueled power plant, as AWEA claims. But over time, these inefficiencies accumulate, consuming more fuel much like a car in stop-and-go traffic does.

This phenomenon has been virtually impossible to measure in real-time because actual wind performance—and the specifics of how its volatility causally affects the performance of fossil-fired plants—remains enshrouded in claims of proprietary confidentiality: no one can access the data at sufficiently revelatory time increments to account for the way wind skitter impacts the thermal performance of coal and gas plants.

For an expanded consideration of this idea, see especially parts I and III of my essay, Overblown. See also most of Kent Hawkins’ articles on Master Resource.

3. For a relatively thorough discussion of this situation, see Part II of my essay, Oxymoronic Wind, beginning with “An Exercise in Green: Follow the Money.”


  1. Kent Hawkins  

    If I was going to comment, I’d say, “I wish I’d written this”. But I’m not going to comment.


  2. Charles Battig  

    Your scientific analysis and reasoning seem to have left no room for item “d” in the enumerated list of windpower “virtues.” You have deprived the windpower promoters of their chance “to feel good about themselves about saving the world.” I venture to say that they were wanting to feel “god” like about saving the world. Sic gloria etc.


  3. Ed Reid  


    If you had commented, I would have agreed with you. But you didn’t, so I won’t. 🙂


  4. Tom Stacy  

    Hyperlink to part One?

    Nice job, Jon. If the Ohio lawmakers who still need to be converted would take time to read this, I would promise to be surprised.


  5. rbradley  

    Here is the vote totals from my source at THE ECONOMIST:

    “I predicted 6,000 votes – We had 17,262 (Pro: 8,346 Con: 8,916). Indeed, of the 92 debates that we’ve run to date, this is the third highest total! We had 70,000 visits, and 448 comments were left.”


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