Fact check: Debunking Howard Rich's errors on wind

1 April 2013 by Michael Goggin Michael Goggin

A recent column by Howard Rich on Forbes.com simply repackaged many previously refuted myths about wind power. Recent posts on this blog have already debunked a study on wind resource potential and explained that wind energy has been a success story for reducing fossil fuel use and emissions in Germany and other European countries.

However, it is worth reiterating why wind energy: (1) does not negatively impact the reliability of electric utility systems; (2) only requires a relatively small amount of land; and (3) is at a historic disadvantage in terms of federal energy tax incentives.

Fact #1:  Studies and real-world experience clearly demonstrate that significant amounts of wind power can be integrated into the utility grid without negatively affecting reliability.

Dozens of wind integration studies have confirmed that adding wind and solar to utility systems only results in modest increases in total system variability. This is partly because changes in wind and solar output occur slowly, as it takes hours for a weather system to move the hundreds of miles necessary to affect a large share of a region’s renewable energy capacity. In addition, changes in wind or solar output are often canceled out by opposite changes at other wind or solar plants, or by opposite changes in other sources of electricity supply or demand. Moreover, changes in wind and solar output can be forecast by using advanced weather models, allowing grid operators to plan ahead and even more readily accommodate their output. Any incremental variability that is not accommodated through these factors can then be addressed by using slightly more of the same type of reserves that are already used to deal with the variability and uncertainty that has always been on the power system.

In contrast, failures at large fossil and nuclear power plants occur instantaneously and without warning, requiring grid operators to keep large quantities of expensive, fast-acting reserves on hand 24/7/365 to be ready in case an outage occurs. For example, in February 2011, dozens of fossil-fired power plants failed in a cold snap in Texas, causing rolling blackouts. In another example in 2012, a nuclear power plant in California had to be taken offline after jellyfish clogged its water intake equipment.

The success of European countries in reliably integrating large amounts of wind energy is itself a testament that these reliability concerns are unfounded. In 2011, Denmark reliably obtained around 29% of its electricity from wind energy, Portugal 19%, Spain and Ireland 18%, and Germany 11%.

Fact #2: Real world experience and U.S. government studies both demonstrate that a significant amount of wind power can be integrated into the utility grid using only a relatively small portion of land.

Humorously, Mr. Rich attacks wind energy by claiming that “in order for [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel to achieve her objective, she would have to cover an area six times the size of New York City with turbines.” While that may sound impressive, one should keep in mind that the total land area of New York City is less than 1/8000th of the land area of the U.S.


Moreover, only 2-5% of the land area of a typical wind plant is actually taken up by wind turbines and other equipment, while the remaining 95-98% can continue being used for farming, ranching, or whatever its prior use was.

In fact, a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that obtaining 20 percent of the nation’s electricity from wind energy would use less land than is currently occupied by the city of Anchorage, Alaska. That report also noted that the amount of new land despoiled by mining coal for producing electricity each and every year in the U.S. far exceeds the amount that would need to be occupied once and only once by the wind plants needed to reach 20 percent wind energy.

Fact #3: Government reports note that federal energy tax policy has historically benefitted oil and gas industries nearly five times more than renewable energy during their early development.

While all energy sources have received incentives over time, for a fair comparison, one must have a historic perspective.


As the Congressional Research Service notes, “For more than half a century, federal energy tax policy focused almost exclusively on increasing domestic oil and gas reserves and production.” In fact, according to a study of historical incentives by venture capital firm DBL Investors, the oil and gas industries received five times more federal support than renewables during the first 15 years of each set of incentives. In total, there has been nearly $600 billion in government support to bolster the production of fossil energy sources.

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While Mr. Rich’s column ignored the benefits of adding wind power to the utility grid, the facts are clear - wind power is working. By integrating wind energy, the U.S. is lowering consumer costs, creating opportunity for private investment, and revitalizing our domestic manufacturing.


That’s because while wind power may not be “free,” once a wind farm is built its “fuel” is. Studies and real-world data have also consistently shown that adding wind power to the utility grid helps lower consumer costs. That’s because added wind power displaces output from the most expensive power plants on the grid, which are almost always the least efficient fossil-fired power plants. In fact, a report last year from Synapse Energy Economics found that adding more wind power could save Midwestern consumers up to $200 a year by 2020.

Moreover, developing wind power with aid of a federal tax credit has proven to be a cost-effective policy. Last year, the wind industry attracted $25 billion in private investment. That investment translates into the creation of well-paid manufacturing jobs and economic development opportunities in rural communities.

As a result, the U.S. wind industry supply chain now spreads across 44 states and 500 facilities. More than 67% of the content of the average wind turbine installed in the U.S. is domestically produced, compared to approximately 25% in 2005 and 75,000 Americans now rely on the wind industry for employment.

American wind power continues to be a growth industry in tough economic times, while making our country more energy secure and economically competitive in the global energy markets.
 

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