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June 2007
Energy Tribune

Wind power is the electricity sector's equivalent of ethanol -- the hype has lost all connection with reality. Last month, a coalition of renewable energy boosters, the American Council on Renewable Energy, released a report claiming that it is "technically feasible to increase wind capacity to supply 20 percent of this nation's electricity by 2030." The group also claims that the U.S. could have some 340 gigawatts of installed wind-generation capacity by that time -- or about one-third as much of the country's electric generating capacity now in place.

But during the council's telephone press conference trumpeting the new projections, this reporter asked a question: how many kilowatt-hours does the group expect all of those windmills to generate? The answer: they hadn't done any estimates and are "going to continue" working on it. They might have estimates of actual output in 2008.

It was a telling response. It's "technically feasible" that we could send all of the residents of Wyoming to live on the moon. But we haven't done that because it costs too much. And yes, it's technically feasible to install 340 gigawatts of wind turbines, but if only a small fraction of them are producing electricity, what's the point?

Wind-power advocates are selling America a false promise. The promise is that wind power will play a large role in America’s overall electricity supply. That’s just not true.

On average, windmills only generate power about one-third of the time. Thus, a 300-megawatt wind installation will only actually generate about 100 megawatts of power on a given day. And since there are no viable ways to store large amounts of electricity, the intermittent nature of wind power means that any region using it will always require fossil-fuel power plants to supply base-load power. And keeping that base-load power in place, and ready to turn on (or off), depending on the vagaries of the wind, is an awfully expensive exercise. In fact, it means that wind turbines won’t actually displace any existing electric generating capacity, just add to it.

The stochasticity of wind-power generation can be seen by looking at July 2006. During that month, wind turbines in California produced power at only about 10 percent of their capacity; in Texas, one of the most promising states for wind energy, the windmills hit about 17 percent. Studies in Europe have shown similar results. In Britain, a recent study found that between October 2006 and February 2007, there were 17 days when the output from the country’s windmills was less than 10 percent of their rated capacity and 5 days when output was less than 5 percent. The Europeans are also questioning the high cost of wind power, particularly when it comes to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. A 2005 study done by Britain’s National Audit Office said wind energy was the most expensive way to cut carbon dioxide emissions in Britain, putting the cost at up to £140 (about $278) per ton of avoided carbon.

Even more offensive is that wind advocates purposely conflate the issues of energy independence and wind power. One page of the American Council on Renewable Energy’s report shows a lovely picture of several wind turbines set in front of verdant hills. Beneath it is a photo of a solar panel array set against an azure sky. Immediately adjacent to the photos, in a block of text headlined “National Security” the group declares that a “reduction of imported energy provides a more secure future….If we can tap the potential of our domestic renewable energy resources, we can make real progress towards achieving true energy independence.”

Wind power won’t do anything to displace imported oil and refined petroleum products because the American automotive fleet runs on liquid fuels – not on electricity.

None of this means that wind power should not be pursued or that wind energy is bad. Rather, the point is that wind cannot displace significant amounts of fossil fuels at any time in the foreseeable future. As Richard Smalley, the 1996 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, explained shortly before he died in 2005, “wind will be a player” in the world’s future energy mix. “But it’s not going to be big enough, not ever going to be big enough.”

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