Conca comes up short again

20 January 2014 by Michael Goggin Michael Goggin

This isn't the first time James Conca, who works in the nuclear waste industry, has used his regular column on Forbes.com to misleadingly attack wind power. However, Mr. Conca’s latest column reaches new depths of falsehood to make the ridiculous claim that wind energy in the Pacific Northwest produces “no net benefit in carbon emissions or energy cost.”

The article’s entire argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the power system and hydroelectric dams work. Once that mistake is corrected, it becomes obvious that wind energy greatly reduces fossil fuel use and emissions, in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.


Photo credit: David Clarke

The article’s crucial mistake is a failure to understand that when the output of a hydroelectric dam is turned down, the water that would have been used to produce power is not lost. Rather, that water is simply stored behind the dam where it is used later to offset fossil fuel generation, much like a very large battery.

In fact, by using wind energy to increase the water level in the reservoir behind the dam, you actually get bonus clean energy because the energy production per gallon at a dam greatly increases with the vertical distance the water drops through the hydroelectric turbine.

So even in the Pacific Northwest and other regions with a significant amount of hydroelectric energy, wind energy still displaces the most expensive and least efficient fossil-fired power plant that is operating. Grid operators choose which power plants to operate based on their fuel cost. Zero-fuel cost wind energy is always used to displace output from the most expensive power plant, which is almost always the least efficient fossil-fired power plant and is almost never a zero-fuel cost hydroelectric dam. This is why the current U.S. wind fleet reduces carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 100 million metric tons per year, the equivalent of taking 17.5 million cars off the road.

Detailed analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory confirms that wind energy in the Western U.S. produces drastic reductions in fossil fuel use and pollution. The report used real-world emissions data collected from nearly every power plant in the Western U.S. to confirm that on average, a MWh of wind energy, enough to power a typical home for a month, offsets 1190 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. This finding took into account all impacts of wind energy’s interactions with other power plants, which were found to have a negligible (0.2%) impact on wind energy’s pollution savings.

Mr. Conca’s column also presents some misconceptions about how wind energy is reliably accommodated on the power system. A chart included with the article directly contradicts the article’s claims about wind energy’s variability. For one, the chart shows that the large swings in hydroelectric output areprimarily accommodating the far larger changes in electricity demand, both demand on the BPA system (red) as well as the changes in demand on the power systems (chiefly California) that are receiving power exports from BPA.In fact, the chart shows that wind energy output is fairly constant and typically only experiences relatively gradual changes.

Mr. Conca also neglects to mention that grid operators must maintain expensive backup at all times to accommodate the frequent, abrupt, and unpredictable failures of large conventional power plants, which can take 1000+ MW offline in a fraction of a second. In fact, it is typically far more expensive to maintain these backup reserves for conventional power plant failures than to accommodate the gradual and predictable changes in wind energy output.

In other words, the variability introduced by wind energy is nothing new for grid operators, many changes in wind output are canceled out by opposite changes in electricity demand and unexpected deviations in output at conventional power plants, and the tools grid operators have always used to accommodate supply and demand variability can be readily used to accommodate wind variability.

The article does correctly note that steps are being taken to make the Pacific Northwest power system operate more efficiently, although there is still much to be done in reducing generation scheduling and dispatch intervals and coordinating grid operations with neighboring power systems before the region catches up to the efficient grid operating practices already being used in most of the rest of the country. A side benefit of making power system operations more efficient is that it will be even easier to integrate wind energy

Finally, regarding the article’s false and misleading claims about the incentives for various energy technologies, the Nuclear Energy Institute's own tally of federal incentives given to various energy sources over the last 60 years explains that nuclear and fossil have received almost 10 times more than all renewable sources combined.

In short, each of James Conca’s attacks on wind energy comes up short, as he can’t escape the fact that wind energy greatly reduces fossil fuel use and emissions.