A Free-Market Energy Blog

PR’ing Industrial Wind: Government and Media versus Common Sense

By Jon Boone -- January 30, 2010

The New York Times dutifully featured this week two media events primed to gin up public—and Congressional—support for industrial wind technology.

The first was a “study” by the Department of Energy and authored primarily by David Corbus of the National Renewable Energy Lab. It claims that, for a startup cost of around $100 billion public dollars, “wind could displace coal and natural gas for 20 to 30 percent of the electricity used in the eastern two-thirds of the United States by 2024.” Corbus acknowledged that such an enterprise would require substantial grid modification but said the $100 billion was “really, really small compared to other costs,” which the Times failed to identify.

A few days later, the paper of record ballyhooed the annual report of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), which touted the growth of wind last year and projected that the country would soon get 2 percent of its electricity from wind energy. The report fretted about the American wind gap with Europe, which AWEA alleged gets 5 percent of its electricity from wind, compared to only about 1 percent in the USA, while stating “Denmark has essentially achieved that goal already, and sometimes produces more wind power than it can use.”

AWEA’s stalking horse for this PR event, energy consultant Tim Stephure, said, “By 2020 wind’s installed capacity could be five times higher than it is today, reaching about 180,000 megawatts.”

To achieve this goal, from its present base of 35,000 wind turbines and an installed capacity of about 35,000 MW, the industry must build, in each of the next ten years, an installed capacity of 14,500 MW.  This is pure speculation and, more accurately, nonsense.

Moreover, just to reach 2 percent of the nation’s electricity with existing wind capacity, current projects must produce at a capacity factor of 58 percent, their theoretical maximum, versus the current national average capacity factor of 28 percent.

Denmark’s Wind Indulgance

What about Denmark? As Danish engineer Hugh Sharman has noted, his country’s wind extravagence is made possible by a relatively huge Scandinavian “sink” in which the Danes dump their considerable excess wind. And if that sink did not have hydro as its principal source of power, Denmark would be awash in both carbon dioxide emissions and wind turbine output, which could severely disrupt its grid and cause stultifying brownouts or blackouts.

The Global Wind Energy Council [yet another wind advocacy group working in (mis)informational cahoots with AWEA] maintains that for 2008, wind will satisfy “about 4.2% of EU demand in an average wind year,” saving “about 100 tons of CO2 each year.”

This is poppycock. The capacity factor for installed European wind is about 20 percent. Consequently, the 24 GW of installed German wind, for example, is only producing an annual average of 5 GW to service that country’s demand. Touting the installed capacity of wind projects, without referencing their actual anemic performance, is yet another example of how half-truths mask unpleasant reality. And the thermal cost of wind integration in that country has likely increased CO2 emissions in the production of electricity, and throughout Europe. As in this country, none of the Brobdingnagian production tax credits for European limited liability wind companies are indexed to measured systemwide reductions in CO2 emissions.

NREL’s latest bluster for wind can be unmasked by means of an analogy. Would you espouse that ambulances be operated by drunks 20 percent of the time? Wind behaves just like a very drunk driver, never able to walk a straight line. Integrating either wind energy on the grid or drunk drivers on the highway has enormous consequences for public safety, reliability, cost, security, and productivity. Not to mention quality—and length—of life.

New York Times reporters should have a passing knowledge of the tenets of scientific methodology. Foremost is the desirability of eliminating or reducing to an absolute minimum any bias on the part of those participating in an experiment. This is why double blind experiments are so important. Magicians know how easy it is to fool someone who wants to be fooled. And snake oil salesmen have been expert in this endeavor since the dawn of time. Corbus and the NREL wind staff have a major stake in the perception that wind energy is effective. AWEA is a trade group. Sadly, the Times presents the “findings” of these organizations as if their conclusions were scientifically vetted and disinterested.

Influence on Public Policy

The NREL document, like a similar report last year issued by this agency, is essentially a prod to influence federal legislation (such as a national RPS) that would enable wind “all the hell over the place (to quote one wind booster).” Given such coordinated timing with the AWEA annual report, was it also released to complement yet another GE ad campaign in the upcoming Winter Olympic coverage on NBC? Some will recall that GE had purchased Enron’s wind projects when the latter company went belly up and now is the world’s fourth largest wind distributor. It is NBC’s parent company. Not least, the report will also reinforce the new national ad campaign designed to boost Congressional support for natural gas—the one that says how natural gas will enable “renewables” such as wind and solar (but fails to address the cost and thermal consequences of doing so).

Both AWEA and the NREL work synergistically to prime the public to support wind technology, trusting that their propaganda will be conveyed by the media as an article of faith, without, as far as I can discern, any fact checking whatsoever.

At several quiet junctions, the NREL admits wind cannot be a capacity resource. Except for a few engineers, almost no one understands how damning this admission is. Our modern system of power insists on capacity value–getting a specific amount of energy on demand and controlling it whenever desired. And so the issue is how to make people believe that a source of energy, which relentlessly, continuously, destabilizes the balance between supply and demand, is highly variable and unresponsive, and provides no capacity value while inimical to demand cycles, can effectively provide 20 percent of the region’s electricity by 2024–only 14 years from now. This claim is particularly egregious given that wind does not even provide modern power performance–only desultory energy. Since energy is the ability to do work and power is the rate work is done, wind technology delivers fluctuating energy at a rate appropriate for 1810, not 2024.

Is it possible to integrate such a random, variable, capacity-less source of energy with modern machine power at a level equal to 20 percent of the generation necessary to match demand in 2024? Yes, under the category that virtually anything like this is possible. But what are the odds? And who’s going to keep score? And what are the penalties if it does not?

The only place that is even close is the aforementioned Denmark, with about 20 percent of its installed capacity from wind. But most is shunted to Scandinavia. Germany, with about 5 percent of its actual generation from wind, is struggling mightily, and often must curtail its wind energy altogether to protect the grid. More wind there would require more conventional generation to shadow the wind projects–at between 80-90 percent of the installed wind capacity. And note this post from Der Spiegel about expanding nuclear reactor life spans in that country. There seems to be no penalty for selling snake oil in the energy marketplace.

Even if it were possible to integrate so much wind, consider the thermal consequences while thinking about whether or not such a volatile phenomenon could close fossil-fired or nuclear facilities. Every variation of wind energy must be balanced by reliable conventional generators, working overtime to do so. Occasionally, all that wind will produce virtually nothing. What conventional plants can then close so that the grid doesn’t have to shut down when this occurs? What will happen when all that wind spikes upward suddenly, requiring that conventional generators be shut off instantly?

Integrating a level of wind energy at 20 percent of the region’s total generation would (1) unleash large quantities of CO2 emissions as conventional generators would be operating much less efficiently (generally, a 2 percent increase in inefficiency results in a 14-16 percent increase in carbon emission for thermal plants); (2) require additional conventional wind shadowing units at 90 percent of the installed wind capacity; (3) require building thousands of miles of new—and virtually dedicated transmission lines to bring wind from remote areas and to keep it from tying up the transmission of existing production (that is, resolving the transmission scheduling problems); and (4) require installing whole new systems of voltage regulation to accommodate the wind flux. And there are many other things that would be necessary.

Consequently, $100 billion wouldn’t pay for a first installment. Indulging the fantasy that wind technology could provide 20 percent of the region’s electricity if only we could bypass a fusty federalism and spend trillions on a smart grid, retrofitting modern technology to meet the needs of ancient wind flutter, is monumentally silly, a sure sign that pundits and politicians, not scientists, are now in charge of the Department of Energy.

Wind technology was a bulwark of human enterprise for millennia, but largely disappeared as soon as steam technology was discovered. Instead of Clipper ships, we now sail almost entirely for recreation–not modern production. Instead of using wind to pump water and grind grain, as the Dutch did historically to reclaim the land from the sea and make their famous beers, we now use modern precision power to improve the quality of life for billions of people. There are compelling reasons related to vastly increased productivity and improved quality of life for this rapid technological changeover.

What About Common Sense?

Wind is, in the final analysis, a faith-based proposition, requiring people to close their minds and clap their hands to revive it from a life and death struggle against unbelief, bringing the technology back from the oblivion that the steam engine consigned it to hundreds of years ago.

One of the issues such wind promotions raise, particularly those from the NREL, is how political our information-assessment government agencies have become. And this indictment includes the National Academy of Science. The media don’t even question this anymore, simply taking it as business as usual.

The politicalization of knowledge, particularly in areas as important to our modernity as energy, is a major unreported story. It has more than immediate cost implications for our wallets, since it ultimately corrupts our base of knowledge and subverts our intellectual integrity, both essential for achieving wisdom and successful democracy.


  1. John Droz  

    One more consideration about Denmark’s “success” with wind energy. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) the average cost of electricity for residential customers in the US is about 10¢/KWH.

    The average cost of electricity for residential customers in Denmark is about 35¢/KWH!

    This is what we want to duplicate?

    Note how often the NYT, REL, AWEA mention that fact.


  2. Kent Hawkins  

    Jon Boone’s timely essay is a wake-up call.

    What happens when the underlying rationale for all this “investment” is finally realized to be totally invalid? It simply will not accomplish what is claimed for it and at tremendous cost. Don’t even try to hide behind the 21st century industry development and job creation need. Industrial wind power will not deliver. Too many big players globally will be chasing a market that cannot support them.

    We will have created another financial “bubble”, which has been projected to be larger than the sub-prime mortgage fiasco, involving even the small investor. Considering how close we may have come to financial system collapse last time, it is hard to imagine how we will withstand it when this one bursts.


  3. Joe Heater  

    Wonder why information like this never appears in the NYT and other well known outlets? Perhaps it is because it does’t conform to their reality. That aside, just a couple of other observations.

    In checking the Energy Information Administration’s web page on wind turbine installed capacity and annual generation I found that the capacity factor for 2008, the latest year for which data is available, was 24.9%. Then I reviewed the American Wind Energy Association 2009 annual report and see no mention of the capacity factor, just a lot of information on the name plate capacity installed. Hmmm, wonder why?

    According to numerous news accounts and many wind energy publications, the current 35GW of installed base is enough to theoretically supply enough power for 9 million homes. Again looking at the EIA site for data, we find that the average home in the U.S. consumes 11,232 KwH/Year. If one applies that to the 35GW installed base and uses the historical capacity factor, 24.9%, we find that the theoretical number of homes that could be supported would be about 6.7 million. Any of you smart people out there have any idea of where the 9 million figure came from?

    Another question for industry experts, to reach the 180,000 MW of installed turbines by 2020 and starting the process on 1/1/2010, working 6 days/week the industry would be required to install 16-17 2.5MW turbines/day, a little over 13,000 Mw/Year. I would observe that in 2009 over 9,000 Mw of capacity was brought on line but don’t know how much was actually installed. Do we have the manufacturing capacity and enough skilled labor available to accomplish the task? What labor to design and install the connectivity infrastructure?


  4. Major Mike  

    For nine years I lived on a small ranch east of Livermore, California. Two of my closest neighbors were the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and the Altamont Pass wind farm. I could only see a hint of the sprawling Livermore Lab campus, but from my backyard I could watch many of the wind turbines at Altamont not doing much. On two occasions recently I drove through the Altamont Pass on Highway 580 and both times did not see even one wind turbine turning. The first time was understandable; it was just after noon on a desultory summer day. The second time, however, was during a driving rain storm.

    Aside from their demonic ability to kill Eagles and raptors during the rare periods of operation, Altamont Pass should be viewed as a living laboratory of the futility of wind power.

    Its near neighbor, the Livermore Lab, is another matter. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/01/29/MN5K1BOF4V.DTL ) reported: “Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory reported Thursday they have taken a major step toward harnessing the forces that power the sun in an effort to create unlimited energy on Earth.”

    There it is in a nutshell. On the one hand, the supposed scientifically enlightened pursue a very limited, costly, and as common sense demonstrates, futile method of meeting burgeoning energy needs. On the other hand, science is just taking baby steps to develop nuclear power production, which assuredly will one day become the means of satisfying mankind’s ever increasing energy needs. One direction leads nowhere while fueling the cry that what must be done is for mankind to stop economic progress. The other direction unleashes the potential for mankind to achieve economic security for all, thereby reducing the need for politicians and their acolytes to preside over the division of shrinking resources.

    We know which road politicians will choose, so common sense (and science) must lead us to choose the other.


  5. Tom Stacy  

    To Joe Heater’s first question – “have any idea of where the 9 million figure came from?” The simple answer is “ECOMAGINEERING”

    We have to realize that the statement “wind powering homes” is a very intentional misnomer pulsed over and over by the wind lobby. Fulfilling the precise energy flow needs of a fixed number of modern homes – refrigerators and all – with bursts and lulls of wind energy, makes as much sense as professing you can derive your year’s supply of potassium and vitamin C from a shipment of very ripe bananas which arrives on January first, with no further processing or preservation methods at your disposal.

    The “slogan” of powering homes might or might not assume any number of unrealistic side show caveats such as man-made-global-wind-regime increases due to climate change, or some yet-to-be invented electricity storage technique that overcomes unavoidable entropic and frictional losses associated with energy conversion from one state to another and back again.

    It’s encouraging to see people like you challenging the propositions of industry stakeholders. Your diligence reminds me of the ad campaign “For a Better Life,” the punch line for this episode is perhaps “Accountability – Pass it On.”


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  7. Ralph Hartmon  

    Benefits should include the energy used to maintain power lines which at times would have to come from reliable generating sources. A reliable source of power from the grid is needed to operate electrical components in the industrial wind turbine. At times industrial wind turbines use more energy, taken from the grid, than they make. If all these “energy expenses” are taken into consideration “net production” would be less than reported. Meters do not measure electricity coming off the grid so consumers are expected to pay for the electricity industrial wind turbines use. It could be taken further if the electric generators used to start the industrial wind turbines were used to produce energy. Free electricity to produce electricity we pay for.
    Costs to consumers do not take into consideration the energy that must be pre-purchased for peak demands from reliable sources to guarantee grid stability. In Ontario industrial wind is guaranteed first access to the grid. To maintain grid stability the pre-paid reliable energy has to be either dumped or curtailed if wind starts to blow. We pay for the high costs per MW from wind and pay for pre-paid power that was not used.


  8. Craig Marlowe  

    Two fundamental comments:
    First the 58% theoretical capacity factor that is used in the column is referring to the Betz limit. This is the limit of the power that can be extracted from the air stream. It has nothing to do with capacity factor. The underlying point, that wind has no capacity factor is somewhat correct; however, it also requires an unfair use of statistical behavior. For example, does the fact that coal fired plants sometimes fail and must be taken off line instantaneously also mean that they have a capacity factor of zero? Today, every major grid is backed up by a reserve capacity equal to its largest source of electricity. This reserve capacity is ready to immediately supply power should the grid require it. This is done with a minimal cost and carbon impact. So where’s the smoke?

    Second, the statistics of wind production are not as steady as they are for coal; however, they do have statistically quantifiable behavior and our knowledge of this behavior is improving. The following information is from PJM themselves:
    “Large Wind” – ELCC is quantifiable
    PJM experience shows following:
    80% chance that wind speed will be within ±10% one hour later
    60% chance of same tolerance level five hours later
    PJM’s Planning purpose – 20% of rated capacity can be used for ELCC

    If you don’t know what ELCC is then you probably are not in a position to contribute to this discussion. While not intending to be confrontational, the underlying argument being made by the column is not supported by PJM and is fundamentally flawed.

    Thank you,


  9. Jon Boone  

    Craig Marlowe’s comments here are not even wrong. The effective load carrying capacity of variable generating units like wind are not reality based at all; rather, as the PJM indicates, they are statistical wannabes for planning purposes, and cannot be booked upon, in the same way that a baseball player’s batting average can foretell what his next at bat performance will yield. In reality, such capacity “credits” are technical mumbo jumbo pretending that the pigs of wind can fly. There is in fact a dialectical difference between the production delivery of conventional generators and wind–the former steady and controllable, the latter in fits and starts, controllable only upon curtailment.

    The 58% limit expressed has everything to do with wind’s capacity factor, for that is the most performance that can be squeezed from its rated capacity as wind machines work vainly (actually fairly efficiently) to convert their energy diffuse fuel into modern power quality. Given that increasing wind variability imposes substantially increasing dysfunction on any grid, the lower wind capacity factors, the better for grid performance–both for consumer’s wallets and for carbon emissions. All things being equal–that is, no increase in nuclear, natural gas, hydro, or demand–the more wind, the greater use of coal….

    Marlowe is most disingenuous here when he attempts to compare the rare unplanned outages of coal plants with the existential outages of wind plants. Any conventional generator that fails to performance as expected even twice would be quickly taken off line and replaced. Moreover, while any grid has “reserve capacity”–both in the form of regulating and spinning operating reserves on hand to backstop the largest single generating unit–it is simply irresponsible to claim that this security measure should be engaged to handle wind instability. Aside from risking overall grid security, this kind of inanity can only increase costs and thermal activity.


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