Whenever anybody starts talking about how we can solve our energy problems and end oil imports, they always end up talking about windmills.
Wind is indeed the fastest growing form of energy generation in the U.S., expanding at a brisk 25 percent a year. Installed capacity now stands at 11,500 megawatts (MW) — the equivalent of ten or twelve standard nuclear or coal plants. Huge projects are popping up everywhere — driven by tax incentives and state demands for “renewable energy portfolio.”
What’s interesting is that these projects are now beginning to run into their own environmental opposition. It’s not hard to see why. The standard 1.5 MW structure is now 40 stories, taller than the statue of liberty. The 3 MW towers waiting in the wings are as tall as New York’s Citicorp Center, the third tallest building in Manhattan.
In the Midwest these giant structures are being located on farms, where landowners can collect a few thousand dollars rent a year. On the East and West Coasts, however, the best place is on mountaintops since — according to Bernoulli’s Principle — the wind always accelerates as it as it is funneled through a narrower space. That means mountaintops all along the Alleghenies, in upper New York State, and in Washington and Oregon are being decorated with little distant pinwheels that make the landscape look like a carnival.
All this has been parading under the banner of solar and renewable energy, of course, and that makes it good. But people are starting to notice. When the Marriott Corporation chain — a big windmill builder — arrives in your town hoping to gain tax credits by covering the tops of the local hills with windmills, people start to ask questions.
And so an anti-windmill culture has arisen, also parading under the banner of environmentalism. They have names like “Windstop,” “War Against Wind,” “Vermonters With Vision,” “Stop Ill Wind,” “Save Our Allegheny Ridges,” and “Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy.” Most of them have now aggregated in Internet communities such as Wind-watch.org, WindAction.org, and AWEO.org (American Wind Energy Opposition).
“I started out a strong environmentalist supportive of alternate energy and concerned about global warming,” says Jon Boone, a western Maryland resident who has become a prominent opponent of wind farms on the East Coast. “But the more I looked into it, the more I realized how insubstantial the claims of wind advocates have become.”
“I just do this because I have some experience in the electric industry and I know what isn’t being said,” adds Glenn R. Schleede, a semi-retired electrical engineer who has written several Internet papers on the subject. “The things that people are claiming about wind just aren’t true.”
Besides changing the scenery, windmills produce a low-level drone that drives some people crazy. Opposition groups are now passing around tape recorders and studies are being made on the psychological effects. The other problem that has plagued them since the beginning is that they are not kind to migrating birds. Altamont Pass, the first great wind farm east of San Francisco, was such a disaster that the Audubon Society became one of its biggest detractors. “We have a bias in favor of wind energy, but the key is siting,” says Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at National Audubon, “We want to keep windmills away from important areas.”
The problem is likely to grow worse now that wind enthusiasts are eyeing the Upper Midwest — the “Saudi Arabia of Wind” but also a prime route for migrating birds. In his Discovery Channel special, “Addicted to Oil,” Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist finally threw in the towel. “So what if we lose a few bird species,” he said. “The important thing is to end our oil dependence.” Not everyone is likely to agree.
But the real question about windmills is whether they are producing any useful electricity at all. A modern electrical grid is a very delicately balanced high-wire act. Supply and demand must be kept in balance at all times. The National Electrical Reliability Council estimates that voltage levels can vary about 5 percent before trouble begins. Computer geeks talk about the “high 9’s,” meaning current must remain consistent within a range of 99.9999 percent to avoid erasing data. In Digital Power, Peter Huber and Mark Mills report, “Some years ago, a Stanford computer center found its power fatally polluted by an arc furnace over one hundred miles away.” As the Industry Standard once put it: “Blips as brief as 1/60th of a second can zap computers and other electronic gear, and blackouts can be catastrophic.”
The problem with wind energy is that it is always fluctuating. The physics of windmills make it worse because output varies with the cube of the velocity. A 20 percent increase in wind speed will double output in a few minutes. Under these circumstances, large numbers of windmills are viewed by grid operators more as a liability than an asset.
Unfortunately, where the wind is predictable, it doesn’t co-ordinate very well demand. The wind blows strongest at night and in the spring and fall. Electrical demand peaks in the daytime and summer and winter.
This is why claims about wind’s installed capacity have to be met with a grain of salt. At best, windmills produce electricity less than one-third of the time. Over the last ten years, California’s 1500 MW have averaged only 25 percent of their “nameplate” capacity. During peak summer demand it was only 9 percent. Germany has found its windmills producing only 6 percent of their nameplate capacity during hot summer days.
This does not make windmills completely useless. Grids must always maintain a “spinning reserve” of 20 percent extra output in case of emergency interruptions. The sudden loss of a major generating station, for example, can send a power surge cascading through the whole system, causing a blackout. Windmills can provide some spinning reserve — when the wind is blowing.
Still, as long as those windmills are turning, they must be producing some electricity, right? Unfortunately, even this may not be true. Because wind power is so unpredictable, fossil fuel plants must be kept running all the time anyway for backup.
A study commissioned by Norway in 1998 found that wind power in Denmark had “serious environmental effects, insufficient production, and high production costs.” Reporting on the Danish experience to a British audience in 2005, Dr. V.C. Mason concluded:
Although one fifth of the electrical power produced annually in West Denmark is generated by its enormous capacity of wind turbines, only about 4% of the region’s total power consumption is provided from this source. Most of the output of wind power is surplus to demand at the moment of generation and has to be exported at reduced prices to preserve the integrity of the domestic grid. Savings in carbon emissions are minimal.
Perhaps the best that can be hoped for, then, is that wind can provide the spinning reserve required for all grids. It is not surprising to find countries like Denmark and Germany topping out at 20 percent. That is the point where spinning reserve ends and base-load responsibilities begin.
Beyond that 20 percent wind will not be able to penetrate. It would be impossible — i-m-p-o-s-s-i-b-l-e — to run a contemporary electric grid on wind power alone. Its role will remain marginal and supplementary. At bottom, wind is still a medieval technology.