Monday, February 26, 2007

Disinformation from the Mackinac Center

Add the Mackinac Center for Public Policy to the list of organizations spreading disinformation about wind power for reasons known only to them.

According to the Feb. 22, 2007, issue of the Detroit News:

"The question is at what cost? The technology is there, but all of these renewables have very high costs to produce energy," said Diane Katz, an energy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market research and education institute.

Katz also pointed out that renewables pose their own threats to the environment. Windmills, for example, kill huge numbers of birds, take up about 2.5 acres of land each, and destroy scenic vistas through the power lines that connect wind farms to power grids.

"I'm not saying the tradeoffs aren't worth it. But we have to recognize there is an environmental impact to these as well," Katz added.

Let's take the misrepresentations one by one:

Very high costs: The cost of electricity from new wind plants is in a competitive range with the cost of electricity from new power plants of any kind. Here's what a Feb. 12 article by Rebecca Smith in the Wall Street Journal had to say on the subject: "The Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration has concluded that there isn't much difference between the cost of new power plants using wind and other traditional fuels, such as nuclear, coal and natural gas, if you take into account a broad array of expenses. A plant entering service in 2015, the administration said in a 2006 report, could make electricity from wind for 5.58 cents a kilowatt hour -- versus 5.25 cents for natural gas, 5.31 cents for coal and 5.93 cents for nuclear. The report didn't quantify the differing environmental impacts."

kill huge numbers of birds: Not so. Birds do collide with wind turbines, as they do with other tall structures, but the numbers are typically very small. If the U.S. obtained ALL of its electricity from wind, the total number of bird kills might get up to 1% of the birds that die today due to collisions with buildings OR house and feral cat predation OR pesticides. Here is what the U.S. Department of Energy has to say on the subject: "[Myth #9:] Wind turbines kill birds and thus have serious environmental impacts. Bird kills have caused serious scientific concern at only one location in the United States: Altamont Pass in California, one of the first areas in the country to experience significant wind development. Over the past decade, the wind community has learned that wind farms and wildlife can and do coexist successfully. Wind energy development’s overall impact on birds is extremely low (<1 of 30,000) compared to other human-related causes, such as buildings, communications towers, traffic, and house cats. Birds can fly into wind turbines, as they do with other tall structures. However, conventional fuels contribute to air and water pollution that can have far greater impact on wildlife and their habitat, as well as the environment and human health." Source: Wind Energy Myths.

take up 2.5 acres of land each: There are about 2 billion acres of land in the U.S., so we are not exactly in danger of running out. Besides, "farming" the wind provides a better return on land to farmers and ranchers than any other typical "crop."

destroy scenic vistas through power lines: Power lines are used by all power plants. In addition, the U.S. has put off building transmission for 20-30 years and now urgently needs more, to improve the reliability of the whole electric system.

It would be interesting to know more about why the Mackinac Center feels the urgent need to educate us on wind energy's supposed shortcomings. Yes, wind power has its environmental impacts, no question, but there is also no question that they are far fewer than the environmental impacts of fossil fuels. With wind power, the HUGE environmental impacts of (1) mining and drilling for fuel, (2) air pollution and (3) greenhouse gases are all avoided.

The Mackinac Center is "conservative," but that doesn't really tell us much either. Wind energy has aspects that should make it appealing to conservatives: it's an all-American, domestic energy source, so there are no energy security problems; it's renewable and uses no fuel except the wind, so it reduces fuel price risks; and it doesn't emit greenhouse gases, so it reduces climate risks.

One can only conclude, it would seem, that the Mackinac Center's pronouncements somehow serve the interests of the energy status quo.

More troubling is the fact that an organization that describes itself as a "research and education institute" sees no problem with propagating information that is demonstrably false and misleading.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Yet Another Foolish Column on Wind Power

This poorly-researched, one-sided screed, aptly if not creatively titled "Tilting at Wind Energy," comes to us from the American Spectator and William Tucker, whose biography describes him as "a writer in Brooklyn, New York."

Mr. Tucker begins going off the rails early on, describing anti-wind groups as environmental in nature. While there are certainly a few environmentalists in the anti-wind camp, by far the largest group of opponents is the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yarders)--folks who are happy to use electricity, provided that the mining or drilling for fuel, the pipelines and transmission lines, the waste, the air and water pollution and other consequences are all borne by someone else. Many major environmental groups--the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Defense and more--strongly back wind power as a part of the solution to global warming.

Going even deeper into the swamp of error, Mr. Tucker then informs us that " . . . [T]he real question about windmills is whether they are producing any useful electricity at all." Stop the presses! $125-150 billion has now been invested worldwide by governments, utilities, banks and other companies in an entirely fraudulent industry!

This is followed by much handwaving about how the electricity system is very sensitive, system operators view wind "more as a liability than an asset," and so forth. If this were true, of course, the system would collapse on a daily basis due to fluctuations that occur from hour to hour and even minute to minute in consumer demand. As I have written elsewhere, adding wind typically increases the system's natural variability only slightly, and the increase can be handled with existing utility practices.

Next comes this whopper: "Still, as long as those windmills are turning, they must be producing some electricity, right? Unfortunately, even this may not be true. Because wind power is so unpredictable, fossil fuel plants must be kept running all the time anyway for backup." I've addressed this in detail in earlier posts, so will only summarize here: all power systems keep small amounts of spinning reserve running, whether there is wind on the system or not, to insure against the unexpected outage of a power plant. In fact, one of the most important reasons for this reserve is nuclear power, because of the large size of nuclear generators. Adding wind to a system does slightly increase the need for spinning reserve, but the amount needed is only a fraction of the wind generation.

Finally, says Mr. Tucker, "Beyond . . . 20 percent wind will not be able to penetrate. It would be impossible -- i-m-p-o-s-s-i-b-l-e -- to run a contemporary electric grid on wind power alone. Its role will remain marginal and supplementary." First, we don't run the electric system on any other power source alone, so why use that criterion to bash wind? Second, no electricity source except coal generates more than 20 percent today (nuclear is at 20%, natural gas about 17%, hydropower 8%).

A poor (or should we call it marginal?) performance, Mr. Tucker. And the sad thing is,the information I have provided above is all available, from public, credible sources. Try checking out the U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Powering America Web site, for example, or the Utility Wind Integration Group, which has a number of very detailed studies on the questions you raise. If only you had bothered to look somewhere besides the NIMBY sites before putting your foot in it.