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Posts Tagged ‘wind turbines’

The Beauty and Power of Wind Energy

Wed ,12/02/2014

Before fossil fuels, wind was man’s major source of power for sailing ships, grinding grain, and pumping water.  The beauty of ships and windmills were an endless source of inspiration for painters and photographers. Windmills were once the source of power for providing water in rural America, such as the one in the picture with the giant wind turbines towering over it. Though some criticize the wind turbines for being unsightly, they have a majestic beauty of their own. Their real beauty is in their utility as,  windmill4once built, there are no fuel costs or emissions. Much of the criticism of wind power has come from the fossil fuel industry, as it is hard to compete against a technology with no fuel costs and few  regulatory problems.

Fossil fuels now have a near monopoly on providing energy, and consumers would benefit from more competition in that market. Fossil fuels have served us well and we will certainly need them far into the future – even to develop sustainable energy sources.  But there is a trap if we wait too long, as the rising  price of traditional fuels will also increase the cost of  building the renewable sources,  possibly leading to an energy shortage before renewable sources can make up the difference.

Cost: As the cost of building new coal fired plants has increased prohibitively, a number of US power companies have taken advantage of wind energy to  increase the supply to their customers and lower their costs.  Recently, AEP/PSO  in Oklahoma was able to meet the demand caused by the heat wave in 2012 by bringing 200 megawatts (MW) of wind energy online. It recently planned to purchase 200 MW more, but took advantage of an opportunity to contract for an additional 600 MW of wind energy from facilities being developed in northwestern Oklahoma. AEP/PSO said the cost was now less than building new coal fired plants, and that the purchase will save an estimated $53 million in the first year and even more thereafter. The declining cost of wind energy is making it competitive to natural gas as well. Wind contracts in Texas, about one quarter of all US installations, are now regularly below $30/MWh. Even with a tax incentive, this still puts wind well below $50/MWh, while the comparable cost for a new gas plant is above $60 /MWh. New design and siting where there are good wind conditions allows Texas wind farms to get capacity factors around 50%. Nearly half of that occurs during peak load, defying characterizations of wind as essentially an off-peak power source.

Capacity: One criticism of wind energy is that it will not be able to supply enough power to replace the fossil fuel sources.  WindWind currently supplies about 3% of the worlds electricity and is growing 25% each year, meaning that it will double about every three years.The graph on the right shows the worldwide growth of wind power. Last year, wind farms in the U.S. generated 60,000 megawatts of energy, enough to power 15 million homes, and provided 81,000 jobs nationwide. Another criticism, based on a misunderstanding, is that there is not enough available space. Each windmill requires about about 14 acres of air space to insure they do not interfere with each other but they  require much less land space,  about 0.3 acres per turbine. Landowners can use the area below the windmills for farming or livestock, and they are compensated by a 5% royalty, about $3000 to $5000, as  each turbine generates about $80,000 in electricity.

Startup costs: To compare the costs of building new plants, the levelized costs of primary energy sources have been estimated for different regions  of the country. CostLevelized costs include all the costs of building a new plant and running it for a 30-year cost recovery period, regardless of the expected lifetime of the plant. Wind turbines may have a much longer recovery period, as some windmills in Holland have been operating for two centuries, though some of the gears are made of wood.  Though the table show some types of gas fired plants to be less costly that wind energy, the levelized costs do not include external costs, i.e.,  the costs indirectly borne by society. The external costs for fossil fuels do not include health and environmental damage from particulates, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, chromium, mercury, arsenic, and carbon emissions. An EU funded research study, Externalities of Energys ,  found that including externalities would increase the cost of producing electricity from fossil fuels by a factor of 30% for natural gas to about 90% for coal, if costs to the environment and to human health were included. If we include the  costs of letting fossil fuel release  their waste products into the environment, then sustainable energy sources have a big cost advantage.

Criticisms: The  intermittency of the wind is a problem, as is the lack of a way to store the energy. Putting wind electricity into the power grid solves some of the problem, as conventional sources can take up the slack. Each unit of wind energy put on the grid saves about three times as much in fuel energy, as conventional plants are only about 30% efficient. Better storage technology is under development , but conventional sources will be needed  as backup in the mean time.

Wind turbines are also criticized, somewhat unfairly, for their noise and for bird deaths. The noise underneath a well maintained turbine is not much louder than from the wind turning it. The turbines are responsible for bird deaths, but they are not among the top ten human causes of bird mortality. A peer reviewed Canadian study of bird mortality finds that less than 0.2% of the population of any bird species is currently affected by mortality or displacement by wind turbine development. The study concluded that even though the number of windmills are projected to grow ten times over the next two decades, “population level impacts on bird populations are unlikely, provided that highly sensitive or rare habitats, as well as concentration areas for species at risk, are avoided.”

Subsidies: While once the problem was getting electricity to rural America, the problem now is getting wind electricity from rural areas to population centers. It will require a large investment in research and infrastructure to develop wind energy. As Washington struggles to balance the U.S. budget, possible cuts in subsidies has created an uncertainty hindering investments in wind energy. While it is the national interest to subsidize the development of sustainable energy resources, a much larger share of tax breaks go to well established and profitable fossil fuel companies. The United States’ yearly subsidies to the fossil fuel industries amounts to about $13.6 billion, while all renewable energy subsidies together amount to about one sixth as much.

Our energy needs will best be served by a mixture of traditional and alternate energy sources, and we should not let unfair criticisms or politics keep us from developing the alternate sources.

(c) 2014  J.C. Moore    

Wind Energy and Bird Mortality

Tue ,07/01/2014

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A rather curious letter recently appeared in the Tulsa World Editorial page titled Wind Turbines, by Jim Wiegand, Redding, CA.  Mr. Weigand has no ties to Tulsa, yet the editor published it and added a note: “Wiegand is a nationally recognized wildlife biologist and expert on the effects of wind turbines on birds.” The letter started with, “The wind industry is hiding massive turbine-related bird and bat genocide. The industry has created fraudulent mortality studies and been given voluntary guidelines in order to hide its slaughter.” The letter never mentioned birds again but went on into conspiracy theories and a criticism of wind energy.   

 Wind-turbines do sometimes kill birds and bats, but bird genocide? In other of his writings, Mr. Wiegand claims windmills are responsible for dozens of Whooping Crane deaths, and that wind turbines will cause their extinction within five years. So far, there is not one Whooping Crane death that can be attributed to windmills.  Carla Gilbert, in a post to the article, disputed the danger to similar birds. “When I was traveling in Portugal a number of years ago we could see many wind turbine farms from the highway. We were informed that the storks like to build their nests atop them. When the bus stopped for refueling I took pictures of the storks sitting on their nests atop the turbines and saw several storks coming and going from their nests. I did not see any injured or dead birds.” And, the storks are not becoming extinct as a result of the windmills. One falconer, who was at first worried about the windmills, now puts his falcon boxes on wind turbines and does not consider them a greater threat to birds than his picture window.

There has been considerable opposition to windmills and of renewable energy in general, so it is difficult to know whether all the criticisms are factual. Studies have found about an average of five to eight dead birds per windmill. That is about the number of birds who do themselves in on a picture window each year. When you add in the birds killed by cars and by hunting, it would seem that man’s other activities are a greater threat to the birds than wind turbines. For birds, the main threats are windows, cars, climate change, disease, hunters and pesticides.

There is a concern for protected species such as lesser prairie chickens and eagles. There are severe penalties for harming eagles, so to be on the safe side, the owners’ of windmills apply for permits to legally kill eagles. That has caused quite an outcry, but recently, the government gave the companies a 30 year moratorium on enforcing protection laws, while they study the problem. HPIM2053aIt does not seem likely that an eagle would fly into a windmill, particularly since another criticism is about the noise windmills make. Still there are confirmed reports that 85 bald eagles were killed by windmills in the past five years,  about 17 per year. Eagles are at the top of the food chain, so any environmental pollutant is likely to harm them, and DDT was the main cause of their population decline. Once DDT was banned and eagles became protected, their population recovered to about 140,000 in North America. They have been taken off the threatened species list. They are harmed by many pollutants associated with energy production – about 280 were killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It is a shame when one of the magnificent birds is killed by accident, but if we cut out any activities that might harm them, then we would have to cease much of our energy production. **

 

The concern about the lesser prairie chicken is that they avoid tall structures, and windmills might cause them to move from their normal habitat. Prairie chickens gather to mate each spring in large communal areas called leks. One enterprising oil company, opposed to wind power, drove a group of reporters up to a lek in the Osage Hills. They wanted to show the reporters what might be lost if windmills were built there, as if driving a van full of reporters around their lek is not going to disturb them. Many of the problems with wildlife and noise could be addressed by where the windmills are sited, and reasonable laws are needed to see that the windmills will disturb animals and people as little as possible.

Research finds the actual evidence of bird kills by windmills to be greatly exaggerated. In the Journal of Applied Ecology Volume 49, Issue 2, pages 386–394, April 2012, the authors found the impact of wind farms on bird populations to be minimal with the greater impact being during construction than during subsequent operation. A comprehensive study of bird mortality in Canada found most human-related bird deaths (about 99%) are caused by feral and domestic cats, collisions with buildings and vehicles, and electricity transmission and distribution lines.  A related peer reviewed Canadian study of bird mortality says their data suggests that less than 0.2% of the population of any bird species is currently affected by mortality or displacement by wind turbine development. They concluded that even though the number of windmills are projected to grow ten times over the next two decades, “population level impacts on bird populations are unlikely, provided that highly sensitive or rare habitats, as well as concentration areas for species at risk, are avoided.”

Mr. Wiegand’s letter is mostly fiction. A search shows that Mr. Weigand has a degree in biology from the 1970’s and makes his living by selling antiques.  He has done nothing that would qualify him as an expert in wildlife biology, and none of his claims, here or elsewhere, are backed by credible research. His avocation is writing letters to newspapers and posting comments on websites critical of wind energy. Some people can’t see the value, or the beauty of windmills, and they look for any excuse to criticize them.

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Smoky Hills Wind Turbines Greet the Sun.

**Note  added on  09/20/2015:  Here is an estimate of the number of birds killed by  each  major energy source from US News and World Reports..

 

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(c) 2014 J.C. Moore