A recent article from the Institute for Energy Research slams the wind industry again for claims the wind industry has not made and problems that don’t exist. The criticisms show the Institute does not understand how wind farms and utilities can work together which is sad commentary for an energy institute. And as critics before, the organization ignores all the positive workings and beneficial spinoffs from the industry, such as the regular and substantial lease payments to rural communities.
Let’s start with the idea of free wind power, which the Institute dismisses. Actually, the industry does not claim that power from wind is free, only that the fuel to drive a wind turbine is indeed free. Natural gas in the ground is free too, but once someone pipes it out, it becomes a commodity with a price. Bloomberg.com/energy at this writing, says natural gas sells for $3.16/million BTUs, and that figure is up from about $2.50 a year ago.
While we are on the topic, you can be sure the price of natural gas will rise as more utilities and companies tap it to replace more expensive fuel. A figure of $7.00/million BTUs, not far away, would be music to a gas company’s ears. And when that happens, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the cost of wind as a fuel will remain exactly zero.
Another error in the article refers to wind as intermittent. No. Windshield wipers are intermittent, going quickly from on to off. Wind is variable. It blows strong and then less strong, and in a predictable manner. Keith Parker at Global Weather Corp., reports that the company can predict wind speeds up to 168 hours in advance, sufficient to let utilities plan their purchases of wind generated power.
Here’s an old chestnut wind critics love to pull out of the fire: Wind power needs full conventional generators to back up the grid when the wind is not cooperating. The flaw here is a lack of perspective. Back up a bit and look at the big picture. Power generators sell to utility companies that put power on the grid. Wind farms are just one source.
Wind farms complement conventional generators. In fact, one reason for the grid is to let many different power plants serve many customers, even when conventional generators are out of service. In this arrangement, all plants back up all others because none runs all the time. One high cost that utilities grapple with comes from keeping fast-acting or spinning reserves constantly available for sudden increases in demand, such as when a large conventional plant goes off-line. Utilities are adept at dealing with variability because customer demand changes throughout the day. Wind’s variability adds little to a wide system variability that already exists.
That’s not all. Utilities and wind-power generators agree on long term power purchase agreements (I’ve heard 10 to 15 years) which locks in the price the utility will pay for the wind power. That stabilizes the cost consumers pay despite the volatility to fossil fuels. Try and get a 10 year PPA for natural gas.
The Institute’s criticism goes further and uses California as an example of how bad things can get in an energy market. The wind industry did not make California a negative role model. The state’s predicament comes from short sighted leaders making bad decisions. I’d suggest Iowa or Texas as examples of how the wind industry and government can do things right.
On this next point, the Institute and I will agree: Your electric costs are going up, but not for the reasons the Institute would have you believe. The cost of power will rise because new combined-cycle gas fired plants with efficiencies reaching 60% will replace aging nuclear and coal plants, and because the transmission infrastructure, most of it built in the 1950s, is just maintenance intensive and inefficient low voltage. One estimate says about 8% of the power generated in the U.S. is wasted in transmission – gone to heat the wires. Newer lines carrying higher voltage will conserve some of that power, but those necessary improvements will not come cheap.
Lastly, the most unfair criticism the uniformed make is that what we know now about generating power from the wind is all that we will ever know. You can almost hear them wishing: things will not change because we have no capacity whatsoever to learn or invent or improve.
Shame on them. That thinking is dishonest and deceitful. With a little investigation or by reading the WindWatch section of Windpower Engineering & Development, the institute will find many developments from creative engineering teams ready to make wind power more competitive with the current price of natural gas.
So count on this: wind power supplementing that generated by natural gas will become dominant power sources over the next few decades. That will happen because those two sources provide the least cost and cleanest power available. Wind power will improve living conditions for the entire world, even for wind critics.
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