A Free-Market Energy Blog

Wind Costs: Connecting Some Dots

By Kent Hawkins -- July 14, 2011

There has not been much published on wind costs, except, generally speaking to give the impression that they are reasonable and manageable. Unfortunately, at the level of wind implementation being contemplated, particularly in the Western world, the costs are an unsupportable amount of national wealth.

On the other hand, there has been a considerable amount published on the impact of introducing large amounts of wind into electricity systems, most of it again claiming manageable considerations. Those that cite Denmark should review this series of posts. I am not aware of any conclusive analyses supporting wind integration, as most are superficial at worst, or limited in some considerable way at best.

I expect in time, based on a proper analysis, or through further real, and unhappy, experience, that none of the claims for wind will be confirmed. I expect that such will show that wind is much more problematic, and risky to our supply of electricity than is generally believed. It also represents a substantial risk to our financial systems.

In particular, any analyses to date on the impact of reductions in CO2 emissions is suspect, due to the questionability of published information on these for electricity systems. Having looked at the documentation surrounding the measurement and reporting of electricity generation CO2 emissions by the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, I am left with the impression that the likely systemic error in these processes renders any evaluations based on them very questionable. In other countries the reported amounts may be even more suspect as shown by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland report in Appendix 1. This government organization may not be providing the official emissions, but this is indicative of the issues involved. Here is a quote from Appendix 1:

“The limitations and caveats associated with this methodology include that it ignores any plant used to meet the associated reserve requirements of renewables. These open cycle plants will typically have lower efficiency and generate increased CO2 and NOx emissions compared with CCGT and these emissions should be incorporated into the analysis. The purpose of presenting a simplified analysis here is to provide initial insights into the amount of fossil fuels that are displaced by renewables and the amount of emissions thereby avoided.”

The official source for Irish electricity CO2 emissions is EirGrid and it describes the approach as follows:

“EirGrid with the support of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, has together developed the following methodology for calculating CO2 emissions. The rate of carbon emissions is calculated in real time by using the generators MW output, the individual heat rate curves for each power station and the calorific values for each type of fuel used. The heat rate curves are used to determine the efficiency at which a generator burns fuel at any given time. The fuel calorific values are then used to calculate the rate of carbon emissions for the fuel being burned by the generator.”

In spite of the reasonable sounding wording, what this says is that the CO2 emissions are not actually measured but are calculated using algorithms based on assumptions. I do not mean to single out Ireland. However, it does provide these descriptions, which are likely typical. Therefore anyone using such reported emissions for analyses should be aware of likely inherent biases.

Having said all that, whatever the results of any analysis, the cost of wind is extraordinarily high, and an unsupportable CO2 mitigation means in these terms. In short, there are better solutions. The problem is the better solutions are not “quick fixes”, as wind is claimed or thought to be. This is a major discussion in itself. Those wanting some insights can refer to:

  • The Swiss 2,000 Watt Society concept here and here for some concepts, including timing considerations.
  • The work of international energy expert Vaclav Smil, and in particular his book, Energy in Nature and Society.[1]
  • The thinking of Dieter Helm, the Chairman of the Ad Hoc Advisory Group that the European Commission has established to provide expert advice. See his views on current European energy policies and on better approaches in this article under “Good News”. In considering his comments on renewables, one should consider that, in the time frame he sees, I suggest the likely solution will be solar technologies, not wind. This committee is reported to be preparing a paper this summer on future energy scenarios.
  • The analysis provided by David MacKay, Chief Scientific Officer for the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, in his online book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air.
  • The warnings of Hugh Sharman, the owner and managing director of Denmark-based energy consulting firm Incoteco, about the dangers of the UK energy policies in his European Energy Review article “The coming UK energy meltdown”.

I emphasize that you do not have to agree with everything that someone says to appreciate their approach. The issues are too challenging to expect that any one person will get everything right. Staying on our current sets of trajectories in many aspects of our human endeavours, and apparent “quick fixes” of any sort, are not the answer. My own, more limited, efforts in this can be seen at The United States Association for Energy Economics Dialogue.

Cost Overview of Planned Wind Implementation

My estimate of the cost of implementation of industrial-scale wind plants in the US and EU is in the $trillions on an order of magnitude basis. This includes the capital costs of the wind plants and the necessary grid changes to accommodate wind’s volatility and unreliability. As we will see there is also the additional cost of duplicate capacity required to compensate for wind’s unreliable and erratic behaviour.

Such grid changes include the infrastructure to collect the highly dispersed electrical energy produced by wind plants and subsequently to transport this over large distances to demand centers via grid backbones. These backbones have to be designed to carry the high levels of wind production that may occur from time to time, but not often. On average less than one-third the capacity will be used, which represents a considerable over-build of capacity. In addition the final distribution portion of the grid will be changed, in part, with the introduction of smart meters, which are largely needed (1) in the short to medium term to increase electricity rates to consumers to provide the funding to cover the high incremental, and unnecessary, costs of the wind plants and grid infrastructure, and (2) in the intermediate term to provide a basis for “rationing” electricity when needed as a result of the presence of extensive wind plants.

Comparison to the Sub-Prime Mortgage Schemes

Before a closer examination of wind costs, consider the financial system risk. This was suggested in a 2008 Harpers article, which described the next major “bubble” as follows:

“Like housing in the late 1990s, this sector of the economy must already be formed and growing even as the previous bubble deflates. For those investing in that sector, legislation guaranteeing favorable tax treatment, along with other protections and advantages for investors, should already be in place or under review. Finally, the industry must be popular, its name on the lips of government policymakers and journalists. It should be familiar to those who watch television news or read newspapers. (emphasis added)

The article identifies alternative energy and infrastructure upgrades as the likely candidate. What is identified as alternative energy is fairly complicated but, by any measure, wind is being positioned to play a leading role.

The sub-prime mortgage crisis was characterized by:

  • The substantial use of debt to finance an asset which was assumed to be secure because of presumed inherent value. It was assumed that the real estate market would not be affected by unduly expanding the mortgage market with teaser rates, and low equity positions to those that would not normally have the necessary credit rating.
  • It was promoted by, perhaps well-meaning, government policies to expand the availability of home ownership to more citizens. In effect it appeared that the US government was standing behind the financial viability of the program, in part through the auspices of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
  • This was followed by considerable financial engineering to better ensure against the risk of failure and synthetic financial instruments were created consisting of tranches of debt obligations to seemingly offset the risk of default by some. The problem was too many defaulted.
  • In effect financial institutions in the US and elsewhere did not understand the structure of the financial engineering and the inadequate insurance against default that was built at a rapid rate.
  • In effect the collapse of this “house of cards” nearly caused the failure of the world’s financial systems, and required substantial “bail-outs” of financial institutions, particularly by Western world governments.
  • The US sub-prime mortgage market was about $2 trillion.

The main question is: have we learned from this and put the necessary elements in place to avoid such in the future? Not likely!

Now let us turn to wind policy. It can be characterized as:

  • The substantial use of debt to finance an asset which is assumed to be secure because of presumed inherent value. It assumes that supposedly “green” wind plants will reduce emissions and use of fossil fuels, provide energy independence and provide sustainable economic growth. There is no conclusive proof of these claims commensurate with the size of the undertaking and associated risk.
  • It was promoted by, perhaps well-meaning, government policies to revolutionize the electricity systems from an environmental point of view. In effect it appears that Western governments are standing behind the financial viability of the programs, for example, by providing long term contracts (Power Purchasing Agreements) at premium rates with escalators to wind plant developers.
  • The need by financial institutions to reduce the risk associated with the large debt assets they are holding, giving rise to looking again to some form of “financial engineering”. This will be exacerbated with increasing questioning of the over-inflated value of the underlying wind assets. Also, there is likelihood that equity markets will also be further involved with considerable direct investment in energy companies by individuals, pension funds and institutions. Market values of other industry segments will also be affected, in part, because of their dependence on an adequate supply of economic and reliable electricity.
  • The size of the national wealth being invested in the US and EU alone is each about the same size as the sub-prime mortgage market.

Do we think that we can avoid the same result if we continue on the path of extensive implementation of wind? Will the world’s financial systems this time survive the larger resulting financial bubble?

Costs of Wind

Here is the basis for the costs referred to above.

First of all, I reviewed these as part of this larger article, which included details about the lack of real cost information. I calculated that the grid costs alone over about the next 20 years in the US due to wind would be at least $900 billion. The period of analysis of electricity investment was 30 years, but it is reasonable to suggest that grid aspects would have to be front-loaded, especially for wind implementations.

The argument that these grid upgrades, with some packaging as smart grid enhancements, are needed anyway is not valid, as I have previously described. The grid needs to evolve and improve over many decades to meet our medium to longer term electricity infrastructure and electrical energy conversions needs, and we simply do not know enough about this yet to warrant significant up-front commitments. This represents one component of the questionable value of the investment.

Another component, the investment in wind plants themselves will be $720 billion for 300GW of wind at $2,400 million per GW, giving a total of at least about $1.6 trillion.

Some estimates put the European grid investment alone at $1.6 trillion.

It has recently been reported that the cost of wind plant and associated grid implementation in the UK over the next 10 years will be about $226 billion (£140 billion). As the UK represents about 14% of the EU in economic terms this translates into a potential investment in the EU of $1.6 trillion. Compare this to the above level for the US, and both to the sub-prime mortgage market of $2 trillion.

Notably, the same report for the UK shows a further $161 billion (£100 billion) would be required for additional gas plant generation to shadow the unreliable and volatile wind plant production, or using the same ratio, an additional $1.1 trillion for the EU. This is a consideration not included in the above estimates. Should there be any doubt about the need for capacity in addition to requirements without wind see the presentation, slide 13, for Germany by Martin Hoppe-Kilpper, Managing Director of deENet, a consortium of 100 companies and research institutes.

Some wind proponents liken the rapid deployment of new renewables, particularly wind, to “green” our electricity systems to that of Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon. The difference is that Kennedy did not presume the means to achieve the goal. The analogy is properly focussed on investing the necessary national wealth in the challenge of properly developing the type of electricity system (and other energy conversions and uses), consistent with the necessary attendant evolution in lifestyle changes, that best meets our societal goals.

We must avoid the double calamities of electricity shortages and financial system failure. The results of which could produce a post-industrial society that, in unintended and undesirable ways, would achieve the environmental imperatives of the “greens”.

We have enough problems as it is without adding to them. We have the ingenuity to do better, and we must use it. We are not doing so now.

[1] Smil, Vaclav (2008). Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems, MIT Press


  1. Energy and Environment News  

    […] Wind Costs: Connecting Some Dots Kent Hawkins, Master Resource, 14 July 2011 […]


  2. Jon Boone  

    Retrofitting modern technology to meet the needs of ancient wind flutter is monumentally backasswards, a sure sign that pundits, lobbyists, and politicians are now in charge. Comparing wind technology to modern rocketry, as the wind woozlers attempt to do, is symptomatic of the utter mindlessness at work. It would take more than a smart grid to incorporate such a dumb idea successfully.

    This business is absurd. The whole point of modern power systems has been to move beyond the flickering flutter of variable energy sources. Prostituting modern power performance to enable subprime energy schemes on behalf of half-baked technology is immoral. As is implementing highly regressive tax avoidance “incentives” to make it appear that pigs can fly. The irony–not lost on companies like GE and AES–is that wind must enhance fossil fuel marketshare and marketability, and thus wholly subvert its very reason for being.

    Indeed, wind technology mirrors the subprime mortgage scams that wreaked havoc with the world economy. Both are enabled by wishful thinking; bogus projections; no accounting restraints, accountability, or transparency; no meaningful securitization; and regulatory agencies that looked the other way, allowing a few to make a great deal of money at everyone else’s expense while providing dysfunctional service.


  3. Brian H  

    Re: disaster-proofing;

    the Fukashima plant was state-of-the art proof against a major 7.2 earthquake.
    There was a 9.0 earthquake.

    The financial system can be made robust against an $x trillion shock.
    There will be a $2x trillion shock.

    This is the muscular version of Murphy’s Law.


  4. Brian H  

    typo: Fukushima.

    Murphy’s Typo Law is brutally efficient.


  5. Jon Boone  

    And then there’s Muphry’s law, another aphorism stating that “if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written”. The name is a deliberate misspelling of Murphy’s law, which is itself not a law but a spoof on “the best laid plans.”

    However, since Kent Hawkins here did not touch on nuclear technology in this article, but rather only exposed the wind con, it’s not clear what Brian H is trying to accomplish. Perhaps he’s trying to promote that scintillating rock band from Nairobi, Murfy’s Law….


  6. Kent Hawkins  

    For clarity, the sub-prime mortgage market at $2 trillion was the “tip of the iceberg”. This was the seed financial consideration that was then expanded (in terms of financial market impact) through debt structures, leveraging and the financial engineering approaches used (derivatives and associated insurance arrangements against default) to a size of about one order of magnitude (10 times or more) higher.


  7. Laughing out loud  

    You guys really are getting desperate. I understand that you are paid to be shills for the fossil fuel industry and attack clean energy so the big companies don’t have to. And I understand that being a shill for the fossil fuel industry requires a “creative” interpretation of the facts and reality. But you have to realize that at some point, your arguments are going to become so absurd that the people you are trying to dupe with your misinformation are going to catch on. You have now officially crossed that laugh test line – the point where any reader with half a brain who is reading your blog can’t help but laugh at loud at you. I am right now, after reading this section:

    “Having looked at the documentation surrounding the measurement and reporting of electricity generation CO2 emissions by the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, I am left with the impression that the likely systemic error in these processes renders any evaluations based on them very questionable.”

    I understand: After people have repeatedly pointed out to you that DOE data show CO2 and other emissions dropping significantly in states that have added wind energy to the grid, the only way for you to continue your line of argument is to try to call that data into question. But are you really prepared to add the (Bush Administration) DOE to the list of organizations who are part of the grand conspiracy that you guys pretend is out there opposed to the “reality” that you preach? And have you really looked at what goes into DOE data on CO2 emissions? It is based on straightforward calculations applied to data that tracks the amount of fuel that goes into a power plant. Before you try to invoke some type of Medieval alchemy and argue that the carbon in the fuel that goes into a power plant doesn’t come out, or that adding wind energy somehow makes more CO2 come out of the plant for an equal amount of fuel put in, I’d suggest reading the discussion at the bottom of this post from your fellow fossil industry misinformers. As you’ll see, that line of argumentation doesn’t end very well for your side:

    Also, you should check what a wind turbine and wind plant actually cost – it’s about half what you claim:

    And look at some real data on transmission costs, instead of just making it up:


  8. Jeffrey Eric Grant  

    To ‘hide’ the true cost for a “Wind Farm”, the company doing the proposal, as well as the regulators who are responsible for the proper implementation of the project do not add in the costs for transmission lines into the power grid, the upgrades to the grid to counter the inherent transients that the wind power produces, nor the cost of the (typically gas) fossil fuel electric generator needed on standby to take up the slack when the wind dies. If you add this in, the cost per KW is outrageous!

    The general public does not understand this, nor do they care. They think that Wind Farms implementation is a great way to limit global warming. Just think how high the temperature will get if we don’t do something (like erect wind generators). But, since we are, the temps won’t get that high. We are proactively working to limit the sea level rise, or death to those white bears!

    Only one problem, even with all those wind generators built in the EU, there has been absolutely no decrease in atmospheric CO2, so the temps will get as high as we thought. We are all doomed….no matter what we do, the temps increase anyway. This must be more serious than we ever thought.

    How is that? Because the CO2 increase is driven by the increased temps — not the other way around. So, ancreasing CO2 does not incrrease temps any more than the little bit that it’s greenhouse effects dictate (~ 1 degree C per 100 years).

    I think we can handle that.


  9. Jon Boone  

    What a load of shuck and jive. As someone who’s actually looked carefully at the country-by-country and state-by-state data on fossil fuel consumption/CO2 emissions claimed to be reduced by wind technology, I can vouch that data, if anything, shows wind is likely increasing fossil fuel usage and greenhouse gas emissions. See my essay published in three parts on MR:http://www.masterresource.org/2010/09/windpower-overblown-part-1. Note particularly what the USEIA says in Part III about the causes of reduced coal use and any reductions in CO2 emissions in the United States.

    Overwhelmingly, any reductions over the last several years have been due to reduced demand (it’s the Recession, stupid) and increased use of natural gas, particularly with more efficient CCGT. Any reductions claimed for wind are at best marginal and well within accepted statistical error ranges. No coal plants have been shuttered in North America (or anywhere) despite over 40GW of installed wind–and none will ever be. For the same reason that no 747 transport jumbo jets will ever be mothballed because of gliders.

    And tell ratepayers in Texas how little new and basically dedicated wind transmission systems cost: http://en.in-en.com/article/News/Renewable/html/200806167243.html.

    Slick economic analyses that seek to compare wind, which produces no capacity, with conventional generators that provide nothing but high capacity, are beyond ridiculous. On a per kWh production basis, the capital cost of wind projects are at least equal to the capital costs of nuclear. See http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703787304575075413484405770.html. But to obtain functional production parity with, say, a 1500MW nuclear park, more than 4000 wind turbines spread over hundreds of miles and a passel of natural gas units, hundreds of miles of new transmission/voltage regulation equipment would be required, all of which would continue to chug out greenhouse gasses.

    Big wind is essentially a creature of companies swaddled in fossil fuel production: GE, AES, BP, FP&L, Siemens, Chevron, Shell, Weyerhauser, ExxonMobile, and many others. These companies either own wind projects outright or have entered into equity partnerships with thwm–to milk wind’s tax shelters. There is no evidence these corporations believe wind is reducing their fossil fuel marketshare. Quite the contrary.

    You do share much in common with wind, however. You blow hard but produce only dysfunction. What evidence do you have that I, Kent Hawkins, or anyone exposing the folly of wind, is shilling for fossil fuel–and getting paid to do so? I take money from no one on this issue. Kent Hawkins should speak for himself. On the other hand, that rabid arch enemy of fossil fuels, George W. Bush, and his former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, are highly paid spokesmen for the American Wind Energy Association:http://archive.awea.org/newsroom/releases/05-25-10_AWEA_Statement_on%20Pres_Bush_WINDPOWER_address.html.

    Pretending that wind belongs in a modern power portfolio is a laugh-out-loud proposition that corporations without conscience are taking, literally, to the bank. With help from the best government money can buy….

    Increased wind energy will not actually change much of the actual electricity generation fuel mix or result in overall reductions in carbon-based capacity. Much grid activity, because it must have firm capacity, will be in disguise to placate deranged government policy (as it is in Europe). But this will be at substantially greater cost to rate and taxpayers, as it is in Europe or wherever windbaggery has gained a a physical foothold. The requirement to maintain reliability and security will come at the price of affordability. And the loss of intellectual integrity.


  10. Kent Hawkins  

    Laughing out loud

    We should be clear on one point in particular. I have been researching this subject for ten years since my retirement. I have not received one cent from any energy industry in this period, or from anyone in connection with my research and writing. I do not have any financial interests in any such industries. Prior to my retirement I have not been associated with any major interest in the energy field. My only commodity-oriented investment is in gold, in part as a result of my concerns about the Western world’s financial position and the threat that renewable energy policies represents to that.

    Your claim that I am a “shill” for the fossil fuel industry is presumptuous in the extreme and does you or your views no credit. I am reminded of an associate of mine in the campaign against industrial-scale wind, who while being interviewed by the media was asked how he would respond to being called a NIMBY. After a pause he said “You know, I haven’t been called a name since the schoolyard in grade school.”

    Jon Boone has already answered your question about the relationship between wind plant installations and CO2 emissions. Your superficial view simply does not stand the test of any reasonable analysis as his referenced article indicates, and is remarkably close to Goggins of the AWEA. More on this later.

    With respect to measured and reported CO2 emissions as published by the DOE, you are correct (as near as I can determine) in describing the DOE process of estimating emissions based on fuel consumption data and associated emissions coefficients. You are correct in saying that the carbon content has to be preserved in the process. The results though are not necessarily reality and are properly shown as “estimates”, which are claimed to be accurate to about 5%. I suggest that this is debatable.

    As far as the EPA is concerned, their process of CO2 estimation is actually based on measurements of flue gases, followed by “…(or if applicable, the missing data substitution value for the parameter.)”

    I have the extensive process documentation from both the EPA and DOE. My conclusion after reviewing it is that you would need a battery of people, who are very knowledgeable of all aspects of the process, immediately accessible to you to understand it, particularly the nuances and realities of what actually happens.

    Let’s be clear. These organizations are probably making perhaps the best effort of any country in this. However, my opinion is that there is sufficient systemic error in the process to give caution to any notion that analyses based on this provide definitive results. My opinion can be further extended to say that the measuring and reporting system is a “work in process”. By all means, perform analyses and read analyses about this, but beware of pronouncements of “Mission Accomplished”.

    With reference to the discussion involving Michael Goggins of the AWEA at the end of the Institute for Energy Research article that you cite, I am very aware of it, as I was indirectly involved in that thread of discussion. Goggins was debating this subject with Mary Hutzler, a former director of the DOE/EIA, and I suggest she adequately answered Goggins’ claims. I was not impressed with Goggins’ comments there, or with his attempts on the same basis on an Australian website on the same subject. There I did become involved directly to refute his unsupportable claims. Goggins: you can run but you can’t hide.

    Finally with respect to costs, I base mine on DOE published information and discussions with DOE staff about these. My basis for these costs was described in my referenced article. I hardly think that this qualifies as “…just making it up.” As far as wind turbine costs are concerned mine are based on all implementation costs (on an overnight basis). The costs you cite, although interesting, are for the wind turbine component alone.

    In connection with the wind transmission cost report you cited here are some quotes from it:

    “Here we describe our simple methodology for estimating this cost, and some of the limitations of that methodology. These limitations are due to the fact that the data available from many of the transmission planning studies in our sample do not allow for a direct estimation of the actual transmission cost attributable to increasing wind generation.”

    “On a capacity-weighted basis, the unit cost of transmission for wind in $/kW-wind terms is estimated by simply dividing the total transmission cost in a study by the total amount of incremental generation capacity (wind and non-wind) modeled in that study. In so doing, this metric assumes that within any individual study all incremental generation capacity imposes transmission costs in proportion to its nameplate capacity rating.”

    A capacity-weighted basis is a very questionable approach. Also as for most studies, there are sufficient limitations in it to suggest caution be applied in depending upon its results. I expect time will show that my estimates will prove to be more accurate.

    You attribute desperation to this post. I suggest the desperation lies on your side.


  11. Kent Hawkins  

    The CRO Forum (http://www.thecroforum.org/ ) is a professional risk management group that focuses on developing and promoting industry best practices in risk management. The forum was formed in 2004 to work on key relevant risk management issues within the insurance industry. Represented by Chief Risk Officers of the various members, the CRO Forum tends to work on topics of a more technical nature.

    In a recent CRO Forum report on the risks of projected electricity systems, “Risk Management Options” (http://www.thecroforum.org/assets/files/publications/CRO-Position%20Paper%20-%20Power%20Blackout%20Risks-.pdf ) it cites the International Energy Agency as projecting that by 2030 a worldwide investment of $13.6 trillion would be required to meet the outlook. This is divided equally between (1) transmission and distribution and (2) generation.

    Some parsing of these amounts would be required to isolate the impact of renewables, but expect this to be a substantial component, confirming the levels indicated in this post.

    On another topic, the report provides some insight (in my view) into why Spain is in deep trouble financially. In terms of renewables the report shows the top three in each category. In wind, Spain is #3, behind the US and China (and ahead of even Germany), and in solar, Spain is #1, ahead of Germany and Japan.


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