Windmill-Gate Scandal Storms Into CA
By WAYNE LUSVARDI
Electricity: the peril the wind sings to in the wires on a gray day.
– novelist Janet Frame
Windmill-Gate is blowing across the trendy new resource of wind-generated electricity. New new studies look at “cycling”: the ramping up and down of gas power plants to adjust to the variability of wind energy coming into the electric grid. The studies show cycling causes conventional power plants to emit significantly more air pollution than if wind farms were not connected to the grid.
Even in Holland, home of windmills for centuries, the Dutch government is reported to have shifted to a new systemic model of energy sustainability. The new model considers how much pollution is generated when wind power interacts with conventional gas-power plants. They have discarded the “Old Model” of presuming that wind-power plants have no effects on the efficiency and emissions of conventional power plants.
Wind Power Lowers “Miles Per Gallon” of Gas-Power Plants
It is self-evident that wind turbines don’t directly emit any carbon dioxide or other pollution in to the air. But when wind, coal and natural gas power interact in the electricity grid, is wind still a clean source of energy? A Dutch study, an American study in the State of Colorado and a study of wind farm data in Ireland have all found this: Connecting wind power to the grid produces more carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions because backup conventional power plants have to ramp up and down — called cycling — to adjust to the high variability of wind power when the wind doesn’t blow, or blows at variable speeds.
This is analogous to the gas mileage you get on your car. When driving on the uncongested freeway, you can get, say, 30 miles per gallon of gasoline. But when driving in stop-and-go street traffic, your mileage may drop to 10 miles per gallon, depending on traffic conditions and if drivers race between traffic signals. This is because gasoline engines burn more fuel and emit more pollution when constantly accelerating and decelerating than when running at a constant speed.
When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, renewable energy requires the backup capacity of conventional power plants. Wind energy can never be relied upon for what is called “base load” power because it is too unreliable.
However, renewable power has “must take” status for 33 percent of power demands, under state legislation in California signed last April by Gov. Jerry Brown. When we are talking about “cycling” of power plants up and down, we mainly refer to gas-fired power plants. That’s because coal plants can’t be ramped up fast and nuclear power plants cannot be ramped up or down at all to accommodate the variation of wind.
In any event, nuclear power plants do not produce C02 and have inexhaustible fuel. California mainly shifted to natural gas-powered plants after the federal Environmental Protection Agency mandated the mothballing of old, polluting fossil-fuel power plants, which resulted in the California electricity crisis of 2000-01.
The 2009 Dutch pilot study is, “Electricity in the Netherlands: Wind Turbines Increase Fossil Fuel Consumption and C02 Emission,” updated in October 2011 by C. le Pair in collaboration with J. K. de Groot, formerly with the Dutch Technology Institute (STW) and Dutch Shell, respectively. It concluded: “The wind projects do not fulfill ‘sustainable’ objectives. They cost more fuel than they save and they cause no CO2 saving, in the contrary they increase our environmental ‘foot print’.”
De Groot and le Pair reported that a 300-megawatt wind farm near Schiphol, Netherlands would have emitted an extra 117.9 tons of C02 on one day alone, August 28, 2011.
The authors of the study also found that wind-power turbines have an estimated physical life of about 15 years, instead of the 30-year life claimed by wind energy advocates.
The Dutch study pointed out that fuel efficiency and C02 emissions from power plants vary when they interact with wind power, depending on the following factors:
As shown above, when wind energy comes into the grid, it must be backed up by less efficient gas power plants that can be started up fast due to the vacillations of wind power. The authors of the Dutch study cite the CEO of The Gas Union, the main gas supplier in the Netherlands, who explained why new gas pipelines had to be constructed and the price of electricity thus had to be increased; “It is because all that wind takes up so much gas.”
The results of the Dutch study are summarized in the excerpted table below:
Table 4: Fuel and C02 Emission Saving for a 500 Megawatt modern gas fired plant with design capacity of 500 MW together with a wind project — V — near Schiphol, Netherlands on a normal windy day.
Emitting More Fuel
The percentages in the green print area indicate energy and pollution savings from wind power interacting with gas power plants.
The percentages in the red print area indicate that gas power plants with a 15-year physical life are burning more fuel and thus emitting more pollutants when they have to “cycle” to accommodate the variability of wind power coming into the grid.
Consider the last line of the green print. When cycling is factored into the calculations and a 30-year life is presumed for wind turbines, according to wind energy proponents, the energy and pollution savings are slight (0.6 to 1.9 percent). At best, apparently, we’re spending billions of dollars on wind-farm subsidies for marginal improvements in fuel savings.
Next, consider the red print. At worst, when cycling is factored into the calculations and assuming only a 15-year life for wind turbines based on real-world data, the energy savings turn into negative percentages. In other words, wind power causes gas-fired power plants to burn more fuel and emit more pollution.
Most of the claims of the advantages of wind power come from computer models. An exception is the April 2011 study by Bentek Energy, a firm that does energy analysis, ironically headquartered in Evergreen, Colo. The Bentek study only became available due to the Freedom of Information Act.
The Bentek study, “How Less Became More: Wind, Power and Unintended Consequences in the Colorado Energy Market,” was prepared for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. It used actual emission data from power plants in Texas and Colorado. Bentek’s conclusion: “Wind has no visible influence on fuel consumption for electricity production and the emission of C02 in the atmosphere is not reduced.”
Bentek also found that four of five coal-fired power plants that are now forced to cycle their power output are located near Denver, adding to the urban air problem near major urban centers.
Bentek additionally concluded that adding more than 5 to 10 percent of wind energy to the electric grid “will significantly add to emissions unless more flexible natural gas generation is utilized” — which is less efficient and burns relatively more fuel and generates more emissions.
In April 2011, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law SBX1 2, by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, to increase the percentage of green power in the state from 20 to 33 percent.
Dr. Fred Udo posted an Internet article on his Web page that was termed by colleagues, “The Smoking Gun of the Windmill Fraud.” Udo showed that more wind power coming into the grid in Ireland resulted in increased C02 emissions, along with small energy savings. Reviewing Udo’s work, C. le Pair has commented that “there is evidence that the overall C02 emission in Ireland can be [approximately] 20 percent higher than the emission calculated in the EirGrid tables….”
Whatever the merits or pitfalls of Udo’s article may be, the science behind the assertion that variable wind power increases fuel consumption and thus pollution requires no more than high-school-level science and common sense. The wind energy industry’s counter-assertion, that “cycling” gas-fired plants are not wasteful and do not produce more pollution, defies common sense experience that everyone has with gas mileage for their own cars.
The wind industry’s assertion of a 30-year life for wind turbines isn’t borne out in the California experience, where many ugly wind farms have been abandoned in place after the 15-year tax depreciation schedule was exhausted.
Consulting energy engineer Willem Post has conducted a thorough online analysis of all the above studies and has concluded that it would be better to invest in energy-efficiency measures than in unproven and costly renewable energy.
The above described studies raise a question: Can environmental protection laws now be used to bring legal action to shut down California’s frenzy to comply with AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, by erecting massive wind farms in the desert, resulting in the destruction of the visual landscape as well as thousands of innocent birds?
Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed new legislation — SB 16, SB 267 and AB X1-13 — to streamline the permit process for large-scale renewable energy projects.
Why are we spending so much in welfare subsidies for unproven wind energy technologies? Dr. Robert B. Laughlin, Nobel Laureate in Physics at Stanford University states in his new book, “Powering the Future”:
“Unfortunately, all forms of solar energy, but especially the wind, are capricious. After all, they amount to harnessing the weather. This is not a small problem but an enormous one. Energy is most valuable when it is dear, and people simply won’t tolerate energy that blacks out at random moments. Exactly what fraction of the time — and for what reasons — the world’s wind farms stand idle is politically sensitive, but the amount of energy they actually produce averages about 25 percent of their full capacity very generally. Right now it’s possible to paper over this problem by having natural gas peaking plants standing by ready to power up whenever the wind stops blowing — as it does from time to time. However, this strategy won’t work when amounts of wind or solar power become large, because correspondingly large backup generating capacity then will become too expensive. The people capitalizing this capacity don’t like getting stuck with interest payments on machinery and gas tanks that generate no revenue on account of being idle most of the time, and they’ll eventually just stop investing.”
Californians may regret the day that Gov. Jerry Brown signed SBX1 2.
In what energy journalist Robert Bryce calls “America’s Worst Wind Energy Project,” the federal government is in the process of approving loan guarantees for General Electric’s $1.9 billion Shepherd’s Flat solar farm project in Oregon that will generate 845 megawatts of electricity for customers in California.
The Shepherd’s Flat Wind Project is to replace the planned removal of four hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River in Oregon that generate 155 megawatts of power. The problem is that hydroelectric power can be ramped up fast to back up wind power plants. A new gas power plant will now have to be built to back up the new wind farm, but it will have to be a less efficient peaker plant.
While the federal government and the State of California are busy removing hydroelectric dams, physicist Laughlin, in “Powering the Future,” informs us that the amount of hydro-pump energy storage required to store the world’s daily electrical surge is equal to only eight times the volume of water in Lake Mead on the Colorado River. And hydroelectric power is a clean source of energy.
The de facto energy policy of both the federal government and California appears to be to remove clean hydroelectric power plants and replace them with gas-fired peaker-power plants that will be less efficient and emit more pollution.
Will the issue of increased emissions and energy wasted by conventional gas power plants caused by wind farms become a scandal? No one knows.
But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in Windmill-Gate.”
June 20, 2013