at the Citizen Power Alliance 2010 Wind Conference
ENVIRONMENTALISTS NEED TO RE-THINK WIND ENERGY
|Written back in 2008, and still right-on seven years later...|
By Margaret Collins
One of the most bizarre aspects of the debate over “wind farms” in West Virginia and surrounding states is the unquestioning acceptance by many environmentalists of wind energy as a credible and environmentally friendly energy source. I have read many articles and letters written by dedicated environmentalists touting the benefits, and discounting or completely ignoring the adverse consequences of wind energy. The prevailing belief of these individuals is that we must embrace wind energy as at least a partial solution to the increased burning of fossil fuels and global warming.
This belief, while undoubtedly sincere, represents a triumph of hope over reality. While wind energy appears at first glance to be a clean, renewable source of energy, it brings with it two fundamental and essentially insurmountable problems, particularly in the eastern U.S.
First, it does not and cannot be made to accomplish its sole intended purpose, that is, to reduce CO2 emissions from America’s electric utility industry. Second, even if it could be made to do so, the environmental consequences of wind in the eastern forested mountains would be so great in comparison to the benefits, that wind should not even be considered in a rational society.
Although most people believe that wind turbines can replace fossil-fuel generating facilities, this is a fallacy, relentlessly promoted by the wind industry and its very slick and effective ad campaigns, lobbyists and promoters. No scientifically valid study has ever shown that the tens of thousands of wind turbines already operating in the U.S. have displaced any CO2 emissions. In fact, a 2007 report of the National Academy of Sciences concludes (assuming extremely and improbably optimistic conditions) that at best, by the year 2020, CO2 savings from wind energy would amount to only 1.8% - a trivial quantity.
The ugly truth is that no matter how many thousands of wind turbines we build, they will have no meaningful effect in reducing the burning of fossil fuels or alleviating global warming. They have not and will not result in the decommissioning of any existing power plant or negate the need to build new conventional fossil-fuel plants.
How can this possibly be? How can America currently be on a course to spend over a TRILLION taxpayer dollars on an alternative energy source that doesn’t work? If wind energy is completely emission- free, how could building more wind turbines not result in reduced CO2 generation? The reasons are complex, but become obvious upon undertaking a little research.
BASIC WIND ENERGY FACTS – WHY WIND WON’T WORK
Let’s begin with the fact that wind turbines are very inefficient. A wind turbine nominally rated at 1.5 megawatts (MW) will actually produce only a small fraction of its rated capacity of 1.5 MW. “Rated capacity” or “nameplate capacity” has nothing to do with how much electricity a wind turbine actually produces. It simply reflects the amount of electricity a turbine could produce over a year’s time if it was working at full output, 24/7.
Turbines don’t begin generating electricity until wind speeds hit around 8 mph, and their output is very low until wind speeds reach 32-37 mph, at which point they achieve their rated capacity. At wind speeds over 55 mph, turbines must be shut down to avoid gearbox damage. Because of wind’s unpredictable intermittency (a 100 MW wind facility, for example, might generate at a rate of 80 MWs for a few minutes and a few minutes later generate at a rate of only 5 MWs) engineers use the term “capacity factor” to assess what percentage of its rated capacity a wind turbine is likely to deliver over the course of a year.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the average capacity factor for U.S. onshore wind turbines is a paltry 26%. No wind plants located in the United States—and few in the world—have achieved a capacity factor of more than 30%.
Consequently, a 100 MW wind plant (approximately 70, 1.5 MW turbines) will actually produce on average, less than 30 MWs annually, which is 30% of its rated capacity. Although no power plants work at their rated capacities all of the time, the intrinsic capacity factor for wind is far below other power sources (conventional coal and nuclear plants typically operate at capacity factors of 90% or better). And in summer months, when demand for electricity is highest, but average wind speeds are at their lowest, the capacity factor for wind is less than 10%.
But inefficiency is just the beginning of the problems with wind. A much more serious limitation is the random variability of wind and the fact that the electricity produced by industrial scale wind turbines cannot be stored. There are no batteries large enough to store the electricity produced by a large turbine, and no reasonable expectation that there ever will be. Other technologies for storage such as pumped hydro, giant flywheels, compressed air and supercapacitors are for various reasons, impractical in the eastern U.S. This has profound consequences for “The Grid.”
West Virginia is one of 13 states connected to the PJM Grid, the largest in the U.S. This grid, like all others, requires that electricity be produced as quickly as it is consumed. For grid operators, insuring that supply and demand remain roughly equal is akin to a high-wire balancing act. When customers on the grid increase their demand for electricity by turning up their air conditioners, some generating facility connected to the grid must begin to produce more electricity. When customers reduce their demand for electricity, the output from some generating facility must be reduced.
If too much or too little is produced, brownouts, surges and grid shutdowns occur. Nuclear, coal, gas and other fossil-fuel plants produce steady amounts of electricity more or less continuously. These sources of electricity are able to provide base load (the minimum amount of steady electrical power required 24/7), load following (small changes in output in response to moment-by-moment fluctuations in demand) and peak load (the maximum load during any period). Grid operators control and adjust output through a complex, computerized grid monitoring system which accurately predicts demand within plus or minus 1%, based upon historical usage data, temperature data and other factors.
Now imagine connecting to the grid a power source that is constantly fluctuating, with an unpredictable and uncontrollable output that varies greatly, minute by minute. Adding any significant amount of wind energy to the grid will substantially complicate the already difficult task of instantaneously balancing demand and supply. Because it is unpredictable, uncontrollable and variable, windgenerated electricity is fundamentally different from, and far less useful than electricity generated by other sources. Wind cannot provide base load, load following or peak load. Backup generation from fossil-fuel plants is essential.
As more wind turbines connect to the grid, more conventional generation will be necessary to ensure system adequacy and reliability during periods of peak demand or low wind, and more ramping up or down of fossil-fuel output will be required to compensate for the extreme variability of wind plant output.
The random unpredictability of output and resultant need for backup generation is the Achilles Heel of wind energy. Since base load generation cannot be rapidly varied to match the unpredictable fluctuations in wind plant output, more fossil fuel plants will need to be built and these plants will need to over-generate and maintain a higher level of spinning reserves (idling, but producing no power) to compensate for periods of low winds. This over-generation will be wasted when winds are high. This will in turn, cause more burning of fossil fuels and more emissions than would otherwise be the case. Thus, the more windmills we have, the more back-up generating capacity from conventional fossil-fuel plants we will need and the more over-generation from these plants is necessary. This will result in a near one-to-one duplication of generating facilities, all in a futile attempt to accommodate the transient nature of wind.
How will this reduce emissions and global warming? Of course, it won’t, and in accordance with the law of unintended consequences, erecting thousands of wind plants may, when all of the CO2 - increasing activities attendant to the construction and distribution of wind power are considered, actually cause an increase, rather than a decrease, in the burning of fossil fuels.
Our system of regional grids is based upon the assumption that output of our generating facilities can be controlled to produce “dispatchable supply.” Utilities are obligated to provide electricity instantaneously, when customers demand it. Wind does not, nor can it ever, do that, since it cannot provide base load, load following or peak load. In fact, even when the wind is blowing and the turbines are spinning, it is likely that their output is not being used, because the grid cannot accept the spikes and troughs inherent to wind generation.
Because of the unpredictability of wind and the distance of ridgetop wind plants from the energy-hungry east coast, it will require a near-complete rebuilding of our regional grids to accommodate wind energy of any significant amount. This will require many thousands of miles of new transmission lines, interconnects and substations, which will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, destroy even more of our fastdisappearing rural landscape, and take decades to accomplish. Electric rates will skyrocket. Add the clearcutting of thousands of acres of CO2-absorbing trees to make way for the wind turbines, access roads and additional transmission lines and interconnects and the thousands of square miles of valuable land that must be taken and you begin to appreciate the absolute insanity of this technology as a “solution” to global warming.
These basic facts make it clear that industrial wind energy is essentially useless, or worse. While it does produce electricity, it does not increase capacity, since it cannot be controlled to produce dispatchable supply. In other words, it has an “effective capacity” of zero. Contrast this to the effective capacities of coal, gas and nuclear plants which is above 99.9%!
Contrary to the claims of wind energy developers, electricity produced by wind turbines does not simply “go into the grid” where it can be used when needed. It will not “power” any homes without the backup generation available for dispatch when the winds are calm. It will not replace any fossil-fuel generating plants and it will not reduce C02, mercury or other emissions, but may actually increase them. Even if we windmilled every ridge in the East, the reduction in fossil fuel use and global warming would be essentially zero. All of this is disputed by the wind industry, but they have not and cannot show that it is false. They offer only self-serving trade association “research” as evidence (which does not survive even casual scrutiny) and promises for future technological solutions that never seem to materialize.
The inefficiency, cost and impracticality of wind should alone be sufficient reason to abandon it. But far more problematic is the environmental destruction about to be inflicted on the entire Appalachian Range, from Maine to Georgia.
In the West and Midwest, wind turbines are placed mostly in remote cornfields, prairies and desert lands that are easily accessible by roads, are not forested and are not wilderness. The environmental consequences, while significant, are not catastrophic. However, in the East, the only locations windy enough to justify installing wind turbines are ridgetops. Modern wind turbines are immense - over 450 feet tall, with blade diameters wider than a football field, and getting larger with each new generation. Would you be concerned if a drilling company proposed to erect thousands of drilling rigs on our mountain ridges? Well, they would only be about one-tenth the size of a wind turbine, and they don’t move.
The construction of an array of wind turbines on a forested mountain ridge is a case study in environmental mayhem. Access roads must be bulldozed and blasted out and heavy equipment must be moved into formerly pristine mountain ridges. Hundreds of acres of trees must be clearcut. Topsoil and large rocks must be blasted away and removed to level the ridgetop. The entire mountain ridge becomes a vast construction site up to 15 or 20 miles long. Large foundations (over 60 feet square) are dug and blasted out, and thousands of yards of concrete are trucked up the mountain and poured. Oversize trucks then begin delivering the column and blade sections and giant cranes are moved from site to site as the structures go up.
After construction, security fences are installed and patrolled. Massive erosion and sediment runoff from what is essentially a mountaintop removal job fills streams and creeks. What was once many miles of quiet forestland becomes a huge, constantly spinning industrial complex. The effect on wildlife is catastrophic. Eagles, hawks, songbirds and bats which migrate along ridgetops are chopped to pieces by the thousands. Forest fragmentation and the relentless noise cause habitat loss far beyond the actual acreage affected. Large mammals such as black bears are driven out.
Wind farms will virtually destroy the lives of families who live near them. The constant noise, strobe lights and slowly turning blades create an alien world that permeates all daily activities. Many will not be able to leave, since their property will be significantly devalued. Hiking, backpacking and other outdoor activities in the mountains in a forest of giant spinning turbines will be a strange experience, to say the least. All of the mountain ranges in the East are at risk, even National Forest lands. The transformation of the last remaining wild and scenic areas into industrial wasteland will be accomplished in just a few years if wind developers have their way.
When wind developers target a community they typically employ three very effective strategies. First, they cleverly use their “green” facade to gain acceptance by local politicians, environmentalists and an uninformed public. Second, knowing that few people understand the complexity of wind power issues, they make unsupportable claims. Finally, if the first two don’t work, they garner support from locals by essentially buying them off – with taxpayers’ money! Other than a handful of property owners who will make a few thousand dollars a year leasing their land for wind turbines, the only people who will benefit are the outof- state wind developers and their wealthy investors who are hoping we are too foolish to realize that we are once again about to be exploited.
Unquestionably, mountaintop removal and strip mining have been harmful to our mountains, but building thousands of wind turbines will not result in any reduction in these activities. Why would we accept and even encourage another round of devastation from those seeking to exploit us? How can true “environmentalists” possibly condone the conversion of our signature ridges to the industrial wasteland they will become? How can anyone who truly loves mountains possibly support this absurdity? We need to think clearly here and do our homework, rather than just accepting without questioning the lies and distortions being pushed by big industrial wind interests.
WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?
If wind turbines don’t work and are immensely damaging to the environment, why are we building them? As you no doubt have guessed by now, it’s all about the money. The only reason wind turbines are built is because they are fantastic tax shelters for wealthy investors. Federal tax subsidies for wind now exceed $7 billion, and at over $23.00 per megawatt hour, far exceed those for any other type of generation facilities. These billions are shrewdly applied by the wind industry to hire lobbyists and make political donations, thus keeping the subsidies flowing. Taking advantage of the fear of global warming, the industry has very skillfully lobbied and placed promoters in government positions so as to influence Congress, governors and legislators to enact “renewable energy mandates” and provide ever-increasing tax breaks favorable to wind development. Crafty entrepreneurs like T. Boone Pickens create $50 million saturation ad campaigns to curry public support for continuation of these massive taxpayer subsidies. He does not plan to lose money.
Gullible local officials are easily swayed by the promise of huge tax revenues that rarely materialize. Unions and workers support these projects, hoping to get a piece of the action, only to find out later that most construction work is performed by out-of-state workers, and permanent jobs relegated to one or two low-paying maintenance positions.
Sadly, the vast majority of people have successfully been brainwashed and are clueless as to the folly of wind turbines and the damage they will cause. Support for wind energy is based solely on politics, ignorance and smart lobbying, not on science.
At some point it will become apparent that wind simply does not and cannot be made to work, just as it is now becoming obvious that corn-based ethanol does more harm than good. Eventually, governmental and public support will wane and the increasingly expensive tax credits will be eliminated as we turn to clean energy sources that actually work, such as geothermal and nuclear energy. But before that occurs, many more billions will have been wasted and much damage will be done, irrevocably. Wind developers hope to get as many turbines up as quickly as possible before the subsidy spigot is turned off. When that happens, there will be wide-scale abandonment of existing wind turbines. Since removal costs will be prohibitive, they will become rotting hulks, littering hundreds of miles of ridgetops, a sad legacy to inflict upon our children.
So, I ask all environmentalists who “believe in wind” to please do some research and become informed of the realities of industrial wind energy in the eastern highlands. Be skeptical of the claims of those who have financial incentives to promote this scam. Go to www.wind-watch.org , www.windpowerfacts.info and www.windaction.org to learn more and view the destruction occurring under the guise of “green energy.” Consider intervening in PSC hearings and oppose the coming onslaught of “wind farm” applications. If nothing is done, in a few years our once-beautiful mountains will be littered with thousands of massive industrial wind turbines, strung along the ridgetops in every rural, mountainous county in the East, especially West Virginia. Their slowly turning blades, flashing lights and relentless noise will permeate the entire Appalachian Plateau. You will not recognize this place. It will become a vast and otherworldly industrial site. If we let this happen, we will forever regret it. Surely, we are smarter than this.
This article was written by Margaret Collins of the WV Highlands Conservancy
posted by Mary Kay Barton at 12:47 PM - permanent link
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