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Posts Tagged ‘windmills’

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    

Robert Bryce's "Myths about Green Energy"

Thu ,13/05/2010

“Our energy needs will best be served by a mixture of traditional and alternate energy sources and we should not let Mr. Bryce’s opinions keep us from developing the alternate sources.”

Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has written a number of entertaining books and articles about the energy industry. However, his latest book, “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future” (1) is an attack on “Green Energy”. It is not surprising that he is not a fan of green energy as the Manhattan Institute receives large donations from the Koch Foundation and Exxon/Mobile. That may not mean he is biased, but Mr. Bryce’s latest article “5 Myths about Green Energy” (2) would make one wonder. He uses false comparisons, misquotes, scientific inaccuracies, and the omission of pertinent facts to try to make his case. Most myths are based on a small element of truth, but what Mr. Bryce claims as “myths” are mostly true and he has had to stretch to find reasons they are myths. You can judge. His five myths are:

Myth 1. Solar and wind power are the greenest of them all. Actually, they are. If you trace the energy back to its source, you will find that all fossil fuel energy originally came from the sun’s energy. Photosynthetic green plants formed fossil fuels by converting CO2 to carbon compounds  and oxygen over many millions of years and it is stored beneath the Earth. Wind energy and hydroelectric energy come from the Sun as well and using solar energy directly cuts out carbon as the middleman. That avoids many of the problems we have today with diminishing supplies and environmental damage from fossil fuel use.

Mr. Bryce criticizes solar and wind power for the “huge amounts of land to deliver relatively small amounts of energy”. It seems a stretch when he compares the watts/area of wind farms with that of a gas well. What is the area of a gas well? And, what would he make of the Gulf oil spill that has produced no energy but covers an area the size of New Jersey? Mr. Bryce also says “Because the wind doesn’t always blow, utilities must use gas- or coal-fired generators to offset wind’s unreliability. The result is minimal — or no — carbon dioxide reduction.” Actually, no one is denying the need for back-up sources but surely the alternate energy placed on the grid reduces the need for an equivalent amount of energy from fossil fuels.

Trying to make his point, Mr. Bryce goes on “Denmark, the poster child for wind energy boosters, more than doubled its production of wind energy between 1999 and 2007. Yet data from Energinet.dk, the operator of Denmark’s natural gas and electricity grids, show that carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in 2007 were at about the same level as they were back in 1990 before the country began its frenzied construction of turbines.” Wrong. The truth is that Energinet.dk’s 2007 Environmental Report says that from 1990 to 2007, CO2 emissions in Denmark were not flat but had an overall reduction of 23% . For comparison, the US’s CO2 emissions rose by 19% during that time.

2. Going green will reduce our dependence on imports from unsavory regimes. You would think this would be about importing 70% of our oil from the Middle East – but it’s not. It is about importing rare earth metals needed for green technology from China. Mr. Bryce does not mention that we now import the metals anyway and that reducing our use of these as catalysts in the fossil fuel industry would more than make up for increased use in green technology. Also, perhaps, we should not consider our biggest creditor “unsavory”.

3. A green American economy will create green American jobs. It’s true, as Mr. Bryce claims, that many of the manufacturing jobs for solar panels and windmills have gone abroad because of high labor costs in the US. However, for many years, the US did not have a sound energy policy and certainly did not promote the development of green energy. If the US had subsidized the production of alternate energy sources at even a fraction of what it subsidized the fossil fuel production, many of the green jobs would have stayed at home. Still, some manufacturing is done here and the installation, maintenance, and the business end of green energy cannot be outsourced.

Mr. Bryce also brings up the fact that the use of ethanol fuel only created 27,000 jobs rather than the 136,000 jobs a lobbying group predicted. A lobbyist’s claim is a strange standard to measure by and he neglects that ethanol was necessary to replace the lead and MTBE as antiknock compounds in gasoline.

4. Electric cars will substantially reduce demand for oil. While admitting that the electric car “has long been recognized as the ideal” because it “is cleaner and quieter” and “much more economical” Mr. Bryce criticize them because” the same unreliability of electric car batteries that flummoxed Thomas Edison persists today”. Mr. Bryce does not seem to realize that there have been a few improvements to batteries since Edison, such as the lithium ion battery he mentions in the article. He claims another problem is that “the GAO reported that about 40 percent of consumers do not have access to an outlet, near their vehicle at home”. Eh? Is there a serious shortage of electricians or extension cords?

He also claims that electric cars are sidelined “by physics and math”. One of Bryce’s best is “Gasoline contains about 80 times as much energy, by weight, as the best lithium-ion battery.” He neglects to say that you can use gasoline just once while the battery can be recharged hundred of times. Besides, a battery is just a storage device – one that can convert energy to work much more efficiently than an internal combustion engine.

He does say, “Sure, the electric motor is more efficient than the internal combustion engine. ” Isn’t efficiency what it is about? The internal combustion engine is about 10% efficient at converting heat to work. A fossil fueled power plant, including transmission losses, is about 25% efficient, and electric motors are about 90% efficient. Considering that, electric cars are over twice as efficient in converting fuel to work. If alternate energy sources are used to produce the electricity, we reduce our demand for oil even more.

5. The United States lags behind other rich countries in going green. Mr. Bryce says “Over the past three decades, the United States has improved its energy efficiency as much as or more than other developed countries” …” except Switzerland and Denmark, and the United States achieved it without participating in the Kyoto Protocol or creating an emissions trading system like the one employed in Europe.” He compares the reduction in CO2 emitted per dollar of GDP as a basis for this claim. He does not mention that we have much further to go. The US has 6% of the world’s population but uses over 30% of the world’s energy.

Mr. Bryce writes as if  our fossil fuel supplies will last forever and as if there are no environmental problems with their use.  His plan for alternate energy is:  “The United States will continue going green by simply allowing engineers and entrepreneurs to do what they do best: make products that are faster, cheaper and more efficient than the ones they made the year before.” I could almost agree with that if we subsidize all energy sources at the same level and charge each source fairly for pollution it produces. Our energy needs will best be served by a mixture of traditional and alternate energy sources and we should not let Mr. Bryce’s opinions keep us from developing the alternate sources.

1) Bryce, Robert, “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future,” PublicAffairs (2010)
3) http://www.energinet.dk/NR/rdonlyres/EC3E484D-08D5-4179-9D85-7B9A9DBD3E08/0/Environmentalreport2008.pdf

(c) 2010 J.C. Moore