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.

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