Opposition to wind power used to be the province of NIMBY’s who quailed at the supposed intrusion into their viewsheds and soundsheds. No more. Wind power is big — its share of U.S. electricity reached 1.3% last year — and getting bigger fast enough to alarm the Far Right and other feeders at the trough of coal and nuclear.
The latest poke at wind was posted yesterday on the American Spectator blog, and it’s a doozy:
[W]ind does not directly displace fossil fuel generating capacity, but will make this capacity less profitable to maintain.
Translated: wind turbines, with running costs of zero, will cause fossil units with running costs of several cents or more per kWh to be used less. Bummer!
But a bummer with ironic echoes from the 1970s, when nuke plants similarly displaced coal- and oil-fired units that cost more to run. The fossil units’ capacity factors went to hell, but the plant owners didn’t complain since their backs were covered by “rate-base” provisions guarded by utility “regulators.” Now that power deregulation has lifted the protection, look who’s complaining — the guys who masterminded it.
Of course, to the American Spectator and their brethren at the Wall Street Journal,
All this is being driven entirely by government mandates and subsidies. In America, wind gets a 1.8-cents-per-kilowatt-hour federal tax credit.
The horror! Coal plants get a free ride for mountaintop maiming and climate clobbering. Reactors got subsidies up the wazoo, including almost $20 billion in federal R&D just to get them to the point in the late sixties where their share of U.S. electricity could reach the level that wind reached last year) — and they still get a free pass on insurance. But those dreadful wind turbines get 1.8 cents/kWh (actually, 1.9 cents). How unspeakable.
Wait, it gets worse, according to the Spectator:
[Y]ou can never count on wind. You can’t even predict it from hour to hour with 100 percent accuracy and the windiest sites can go calm for days. On a national electrical grid, where supply and demand must be kept within 5 percent or each other in order to maintain voltage balances, this becomes very disruptive.
Baloney. Study after study by grid operators and transmission experts has found that wind turbines place little or no strain on system reliability until wind power’s penetration reaches 20% or more. Partly it’s because
if a wind generator is operating at a certain level at present, there is an 80 percent probability that it will be operating within ±10 percent of that level one hour from now. And, there is a 60 percent probability that it will be operating within ±10 percent of that level five hours from now.
That’s not me talking, it’s the CEO of PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization that coordinates wholesale electricity flows in a region of the east-central U.S. reaching into 13 states. Indeed, the output from wind turbines is constant enough that many grid operators here and abroad are now assigning “capacity credits” equivalent to 20% of the turbine peak ratings, thus putting the lie to the Spectator‘s claim that wind displaces zero fossil capacity.
What’s more, grid rules already provide sufficient synchronized reserve and regulation reserve to compensate for most short-term fluctuations in both demand and supply. The lone new burden that wind farms impose on power grids is for extra supplemental reserve from fossil units that must be kept ready, and the resulting energy-inefficiency is modest: an average of 5 to 10 percent of the fossil fuels that would have been burned generating the energy provided by the wind turbines.
For details on this last point and others here, please see the new 11-page paper I’ve posted on my Web site. It debunks not only the Spectator‘s canard that wind farms will destabilize the grids but also the old NIMBY nonsense that wind generation doesn’t displace fossil fuels.
Note: My nuclear subsidies figure in the text is calculated from Table 13 of my 1992 report for Greenpeace, Fiscal Fission. 1950-1969 expenditures for Federal R&D for Conventional Fission sum to$12.7 billion in 1990 dollars, or $19.0 billion in 2008 dollars. Nuclear power’s share of U.S. electricity generation in 1969 was 1.2%, or slightly less than wind’s 1.3% in 2008.
Get Grist in your inbox