Fact check: NY Times’ Porter errs in attacks on wind energy

25 November 2013 by Michael Goggin Michael Goggin
Last week, Eduardo Porter wrote a piece in the New York Times pushing for nuclear power and attacking alternatives, including wind energy. While we share Mr. Porter’s concern for solving our climate and energy problems, attacking the lowest-cost and best option for greatly reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the near-term--wind energy--does not help this cause. The reality is that wind energy must be a major part of the portfolio if we are going to solve the climate problem and cost-effectively meet our country’s energy needs. Below, I dissect several of the most misleading attacks on wind energy in Mr. Porter’s piece.

Wind energy is the lowest-cost and most scalable zero-emission energy source

Mr. Porter incorrectly claims that “nuclear power remains the cheapest and most readily scalable of the alternative energy sources.” Over the last five years, wind energy has accounted for 36.5% of all generating capacity installed in the U.S. Last year, it was the largest single source of new electric generating capacity in the United States, accounting for over 42%. Combined, renewable energy contributed more than half of the total capacity additions in 2012, at 56%. Over the last few years, U.S. wind generation has grown from almost nothing to offsetting 100 million tons of carbon emissions per year. In contrast, Department of Energy (DOE) data show the trend for nuclear capacity and generation. In terms of scalability going forward, a wind plant can be built in a year or less, and the more than 13,000 MW of wind capacity installed in the U.S. in 2012 indicate that the domestic wind turbine manufacturing and construction sectors are more than ready for the challenge of scaling up.

Despite his claim that nuclear is cheaper than wind energy, Mr. Porter references DOE data that actually indicates the opposite. His article cites DOE projections that “power generated by a new-generation nuclear plant that entered service in 2018 would be $108.40 per megawatt-hour,” but later in his piece he admits that DOE also found “land-based wind farms could generate power at a relatively low cost of $86.60 per MWh, but acceptable locations are growing increasingly scarce.”

Mr. Porter’s attempt to dismiss wind’s lower cost by saying that “acceptable [wind] locations are growing increasingly scarce” is a rather unusual argument. A 2008 DOE analysis indicates that the U.S. has more than enough low-cost wind energy resources to conservatively meet U.S. electricity needs more than a dozen times over. It is difficult to argue that the U.S. is running out of acceptable wind energy locations when less than one half of one percent of the economically viable wind resource has been developed. Furthermore, since the 2008 DOE report, innovative low wind speed turbines have opened up vast areas for wind energy development that were not previously economically viable. Moreover, as transmission upgrades come online in Texas, the Midwest, and other regions over the next several years, dozens of Gigawatts of wind resources with capacity factors well above those of today are being opened up to development.

Returning to the DOE cost figures cited by Mr. Porter, third-party sources and real-world data indicate that wind’s actual costs today are even lower than DOE’s already low projections. For example, Wall Street investment advisory firm Lazard’s latest analysis shows that current wind energy costs without the production tax credit are in the $45-$95/MWh range, well below the cost projected by DOE. Separate DOE analysis (page 50) shows that the real-world prices for wind energy power purchase contracts signed in 2011 and 2012 averaged $40/MWh, which even after adding in the value of the wind production tax credit indicates current wind costs well below the DOE projection cited by Mr. Porter.

Mr. Porter continues his argument on cost by writing “[wind and solar] might be clean and plentiful sources, but they require expensive transmission lines from where the sun shines and the wind blows to where the power is needed.” In fact, the DOE cost projection that Mr. Porter cites already includes transmission costs, which are quite small, as shown at the link he includes in his article. Regardless, numerous studies show that transmission upgrades more than pay for themselves through the reliability and economic benefits they provide to consumers.

Finally, Mr. Porter falls back on old myths about wind energy’s reliability, writing “The wind doesn’t always blow. And we don’t yet know how to store electricity generated on hot summer days to use on cold winter nights.” As explained at length in our fact sheet on energy storage, large amounts of wind energy are already being reliably integrated without any need for storage. The predictable variability of wind energy is actually far smaller and less costly to accommodate than the constant changes in electricity demand and the frequent unpredictable failures of large conventional power plants.

Wind energy has drastically reduced carbon emissions in Europe

Mr. Porter misses the forest for the trees by focusing on a short-term one percent increase in Germany’s carbon emissions last year, caused by the shutdown of many nuclear plants, when the far more interesting and long-term development is that wind energy has drastically reduced pollution in Germany and other European countries over the last decade.

As documented by International Energy Agency data, as Germany ramped up its use of wind energy between 2004 and 2010, coal use by Germany’s electric sector fell by more than 12%, a reduction of 20 million tons per year. Wind energy was able to drive that reduction in coal use despite nuclear power output declining by 16% over that time period (falling from nearly 34% of the country’s electricity mix in 2004 to less than 25% in 2010).

Other European countries that have adopted even greater amounts of wind energy than Germany have seen even larger declines in pollution and fossil fuel use. Electric sector coal use in Europe’s top five wind-using countries fell by 21% between 2004 and 2010, savings that total more than 100 million tons of coal per year.

The easiest way to assess the impact wind energy has had on carbon pollution is to compare the emissions trend in the five countries that lead the world in wind energy use (Germany, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and Ireland) versus the trend for similar countries that have not deployed as much wind energy. Between 1999 and 2010, each of these five countries greatly increased its use of wind energy, as shown in the table below. For the comparison case, the aggregation of all European OECD countries increased their use of wind by a much lower amount.

Table 1: Wind Energy Growth in the Five Highest Wind Energy Use Countries

Country

Wind Energy’s Share of Electricity in 2010

Wind Energy’s Share of Electricity in 1999

Increase in wind’s electricity percentage share from 1999 to 2010

Denmark

22.6%

8.8%

13.8%

Portugal

20.2%

0.3%

19.9%

Spain

17.0%

1.6%

15.4%

Ireland

11.0%

0.9%

10.1%

Germany

6.9%

0.03%

6.9%

All OECD Europe

4.3%

0.5%

3.8%


Table 2 shows that the countries that added the most wind energy saw the greatest declines in electric sector carbon emissions intensity, while countries that added less wind energy (like Germany and the aggregation of all OECD Europe) saw smaller declines in their emissions intensity. By drastically increasing their use of wind energy, Spain and Portugal have cut in half the carbon emissions intensity of their electric sectors.

Table 2: Percent Change in Electric Sector CO2 Emissions/kWh from 1999-2010

Country

% Change in CO2 emissions/kWh from 1999-2010

Increase in wind’s electricity percentage share from 1999 to 2010

Portugal

-53.07%

19.9%

Spain

-46.45%

15.4%

Denmark

-24.96%

13.8%

Ireland

-34.24%

10.1%

Germany

-12.58%

6.9%

All OECD Europe

-12.60%

3.8%


To sum up, it is important to keep in mind that the temporary and small uptick in coal use in Germany is purely the result of the country shutting down many of its nuclear power plants following the events at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in early 2011. As Germany continues to ramp up its use of wind and solar energy, the sustained decline in fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions will resume.

Conclusion

While we share Mr. Porter’s concern for solving our climate and energy problems, attacking the lowest-cost and best option for greatly reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the near term--wind energy--does not help this cause. The reality is that wind energy is the lowest-cost and most scalable zero-emission energy source, and it has a proven track record of drastically reducing carbon emissions. Wind energy must be a major part of the climate solution portfolio.

Photo credit: David K. Clarke