KATU-TV swallows fossil-fuel line on wind

KATU-TV swallows fossil-fuel line on wind

Last Thursday, Portland TV station KATU failed the most elementary principles of journalism by biting hook, line, and sinker and taking a fossil-fuel industry front group’s false and misleading statements about wind energy at face value.

The news story begins by claiming that concerns about wind energy “have been raised by some.” Unfortunately, this “some” appears to only be staffer Todd Wynn at the Cascade Policy Institute.

Before refuting Mr. Wynn’s false claims point-by-point, it is instructive to trace the funding behind his employer. The Cascade Policy Institute is funded by the Cato Institute, the DC-based group founded by oil magnate Charles Koch whose current donors include ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute.

On to the point-by-point refutation of Mr. Wynn’s claims:

– “So when the wind blows, the dams stop generating electricity, and when the wind stops, the dams continue to generate electricity,” said Wynn. “So, in fact, wind power is just offsetting another renewable energy source. It’s not necessarily offsetting any fossil fuel generation.”

It shouldn’t take Einstein to tell you that matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed. When wind power allows a hydroelectric dam to reduce its output, the water that the dam would have used to produce electricity is stored behind the dam. That stored water is then used later to produce electricity during periods when electricity demand is higher or wind output is lower, offsetting electricity that would have been provided by a fossil fuel plant. In essence, the dam is acting as a giant battery, storing wind power when it isn’t needed and using it to offset fossil fuel generation when the power is needed.

– "… wind does not reduce carbon emissions, but instead, creates them. That’s because when wind blows, the dam – or fossil fuel – backs up. It doesn’t shut down, and it takes too long to start up. It’s like a car stopped at a red light: The engine is still running, and just like the car, this 'spinning reserve mode,' as it’s called, consumes energy."

One need only look at Mr. Wynn’s first quote above to see a major logical flaw in his arguments. As he explained above, hydroelectric dams are being used like giant batteries to accommodate changes in wind output. It would be difficult to identify the carbon emissions caused by using hydroelectric dams in this way, considering that hydroelectric dams don’t emit any carbon.

As for Mr. Wynn’s claim that if fossil fuel plants are used to accommodate wind’s added variability, they will somehow emit so much more carbon so as to completely erase the emissions savings of adding wind in the first place, we have a whole fact sheet on wind energy and backup power debunking the seriously flawed math one would have to use to make that claim.

The basic problem with Mr. Wynn’s claim is that the incremental grid variability introduced by wind plants is small and tends to occur over long periods of time, meaning it can be accommodated through the use of wind forecasts and slower response, “non-spinning” reserves. Non-spinning reserves come at a fraction of the cost and efficiency penalty of spinning reserves. As we explain in the fact sheet, even under very conservative assumptions and in a worst case scenario, the emissions associated with this efficiency penalty might equal at most 1 pound of CO2 for every 1,000 pounds of CO2 offset by the wind energy in the first place.

Moreover, in many situations the incremental variability of wind energy will force inflexible coal plants offline in favor of more flexible and lower-emitting natural gas plants, meaning that total emissions will be reduced by an even larger amount than was directly offset by the wind energy itself. In fact, in the article, Doug Johnson with the Bonneville Power Administration notes that “Natural gas is probably the next best backup to hydro because those facilities can ramp up and down very quickly and move with the wind just like the hydro system.”

The results of a recent multi-year study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory also found that wind energy produces major emissions savings by forcing coal generation offline. The study found that CO2 emissions decrease by more than 25% in scenarios in which 20% of electricity comes from wind energy and 37% in a 30% wind energy scenario, compared to a scenario in which our current generation mix was used to meet increasing electricity demand. This is because coal generation declined by around 23% from the business-as-usual case to the 20% wind cases, and by 35% in the 30% wind case.

Next time, KATU might want to do some more research before running with whatever a fossil-fuel funded front group tells them.


Michael Goggin is Vice President at Grid Strategies LLC, a DC-area consulting firm working on grid and markets issues for clean energy clients including AWEA. He was previously head of Research at AWEA.

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