The Wind Technlolgy Scam

Robert Bryce, in his recent book, Gusher of Lies, says that limited liability wind companies are “the electricity sector’s equivalent of ethanol,” which he documents as one of the worst of our energy “scams:” He continues: “The hype [for wind] has lost all connection with reality.” Those who would profit from this industry mill a forest of halftruths to frame a house of lies.

Let’s start with the claim that wind technology provides “power.” Physicists define energy as the ability to do work, while power is the rate at which work is done. Huge turbines can convert wind energy into electrical power. But they do so with the same capacity standards that powered sailing craft and water pumps in the early nineteenth century.

For nearly two hundred years, industry has deployed far more effective ways to produce power. Contrast the ability of sleek clipper ships to deliver small, typically specialized cargo across the Atlantic in three or four weeks with today’s freighters that can make the same trip in days, often on schedule, while carrying many thousands of tons of diverse cargo: the power (the rate work is accomplished) of the latter is many times greater, allowing exponentially more productivity. Although we may applaud the skill of the sailor, we rely for our well being on the performance of highly responsive power.

The ability to convert prescribed amounts of energy at high rates of power at specified, convenient times is a cornerstone of modern society. Imagine the long lines at filling stations if wind power pumped the gas: your tank might get filled eventually but the wait would be infuriating, costly both to your time and that of your fellow travelers.

Like its power source, wind energy is unpredictably intermittent and highly variable.  Typically, it generates most when demand is least and, at times of peak demand, often produces nothing. More problematically, it produces only a statistical fraction of its installed capacity in a highly desultory, sporadic fashion. Since wind energy is proportional to the cube of the wind speed, small changes in wind velocity affect output enormously. For example, a doubling of wind speed from 11 mph to 22 mph increases power from 6% to 73% of rated capacity—a 12-fold increase. Of course, the converse applies as wind speeds decrease.

Given contemporary performance expectations, boasts about wind power, with its hit or miss fluttering rate of production, are buffoonish bluster. Supplying the annually increasing demand for electricity is much like continuously replenishing a large, leaking tub of water. Whimsical wind power can add only a few sporadic drops, which cannot even keep pace with the water loss (demand increases). The real work is accomplished by high-powered, precision-tuned machines that reliably pump in just the right amount of water at critical times to keep the tub from overflowing or from eventually emptying out.

Although wind technology does provide energy, it is inconsistent, even incompatible, with modern machine power performance.

Now let’s examine the claim that wind plants are not really much different from conventional generating units, and that compensatory generation is required for all generating systems, not just wind. In light of how grid systems work to provide electricity to billions of people, this idea is not only wrong; it’s preposterous. All conventional generating plants are controllable; they’re dispatched for prescribed amounts of power at specific times–and withdrawn as needed, much in the way a conductor orchestrates various instruments over time in a concert. Violins may dominate the performance, but occasionally an oboe is asked to play a few measures, and then is followed by a piccolo.  All these instruments have a role to play together in enabling the intentions of the composer and the expectations of an audience.

Wind energy is not controllable. It behaves much as demand fluctuations but is much more unpredictable. Imagine the performance of a wind-powered chain saw or stove.  Loggers and cooks might well be able to “integrate” such unreliable machines. But why bother? In a symphony orchestra, there are indeed “wind” instruments. Again, these are controllable. Imagine the dissonance if piccolo noises wandered into the ensemble at random, fluttering in and out with varying intensity, uncoordinated either with the other instruments or with the music score–and then you can imagine the problem the grid has integrating unpredictably fluttering wind energy.

The thermal implications of “balancing” wind flutter are enormous, in the process subverting wind technology’s ability to offset much carbon emissions throughout the system. The grid is so sophisticated that it can integrate a kumquat or a potato, if its political bosses so required. But there are high carbon costs in doing so, as fossil-fired conventional plants are throttled back and forth inefficiently to balance the wind flux, which, at the low levels of wind now on the system, merely adds to the task of balancing demand fluctuations. However, even this relatively low amount of wind volatility destabilizes the grid, requiring existing conventional generators to work harder to smooth it out. But if wind energy penetration reaches, say, 4 or 5% of the grid’s total generation,  then additional conventional generators must be brought on line to balance the wind flux, a situation now occurring in Germany (in Denmark, 84% of the wind energy generated is dumped on Norway and Sweden, where it replaces hydro, with no carbon savings.)

Despite 60,000 industrial wind machines encumbering the world, no coal plants have closed, many new ones have been built, many more are in the offing. Moreover, no transparent, independent measurement has verified that wind technology has offset significant levels of carbon dioxide emissions anywhere, including Denmark, Germany, and California.

Between the: (1) uncertainty about what power sources wind energy would replace or avoid from minute to minute, (2) the operational inefficiencies inherent in switching conventional power sources off and on to accommodate wind’s continuously changing intensity, and (3) the emissions created in the construction and operation of the wind facilities, actual measurement of emissions offsets due to wind installations is difficult to calculate accurately. This is made even more problematic because wind operatives typically refuse to make public how their turbines are actually performing on the grid, claiming this information is proprietary.

Reasonable people should investigate this issue much more thoroughly, if for no other reason than their common sense. If something seems too good to be true, it nearly always is.

On a kilowatt-hour basis, wind energy is by far the most heavily subsidized source of power in the nation, receiving 25 times more than coal, hydro, and natural gas, and 16 times more than nuclear, despite the fact that it produces no capacity value, unlike the rest. Wind LLLs are relative small fry that assemble the capital and grease the local authorities, promising the moon while fostering conflicts of interest and doling out breadcrumbs to local landowners. Once built, they either sell their projects to large corporations in need of an increased bottom line or enter into an “equity” relationship with those companies. Today, Florida Power and Light, the nation’s third largest utility, owns the largest number of wind facilities in the US. Close behind is General Electric, which bought Enron’s wind plants when that benighted company went belly up.

Using primarily Congressional and various state subsidies in the form of production tax credits and an accelerated capital depreciation schedule, these megacorporations can avoid much of their tax obligations. According to the Palm Beach Post, Florida Power & Light Energy, a subsidiary of Florida Power & Light Co, claimed its quarterly earnings would surpass its parent company by 2012. I quote from that article: “FPL Energy boasted a 2006 profit of $610 million, triple its earnings in 2005. That followed an earnings increase of 200 percent between 1998 and 2002, then significant profit growth each year thereafter, mostly fueled by wind power projects.” According to Citizens for Tax Justice, FPL has paid no federal income tax for the last five years, despite having revenues in the billions. FPL Energy is the owner of both the Mountaineer Wind facility in West Virginia and Meyersdale Wind in Pennsylvania.

Maryland’s electricity playing field is aquatic–a sea of big fish and bigger fish playing tag at the expense of rate and taxpayers–and the fun will only become more frolicsome as wind energy joins the fray. If big corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes to the federal treasury because of boondoggles like industrial wind, then either those loses must be made up by average taxpayers–or services must be cut. The lack of funds to adequately service our schools, our departments of natural resources, our health care, among many others, is due in no small part to the predatory tax loophole “subsidies” the government extends to the slap and tickle of corporate wind. Le plus ca change le plus ca le meme chose….

Jon Boone

September 29, 2008

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