Wind Power: Not Even Close to a Panacea for Energy Problems But It Sure Sucks Up A Lot Of Oxygen

What New England’s foolhardy, clean energy policy looks like
The Oakfield Wind Project is now complete. A total of 48 turbines have been erected and are now producing electricity for SunEdison Inc.
By Chris O’Neil, Special to the Bangor Daily News
Posted Sept. 14, 2015, at 1:32 p.m.

Last Tuesday, Sept. 8, the New England electricity grid system operator (ISO-NE) had a terrible day. What played out Tuesday (and dozens of other days, especially in summer and winter) is a glaring example of our feel-good energy policies leading to catastrophic results.

Temperatures were in the high 80s all over New England Tuesday. The ISO-NE projected a peak load (demand) of 24,000 megawatts per hour (MWH) for the day. We sprinted past that number at noon. While spot prices started the day under $30 per MWH they topped $1,000 before we finished lunch (that’s the difference between 3 cents per KWH and $1 per KWH)! Immediately ISO-NE went to Alert 2 status for the remainder of the day. This is when factories are asked by the grid to close up shop and send workers home. It is also when idle coal and oil plants fire up. The fiasco lasted until past 7 p.m.

New England has about 750 MW of wind capacity. We have about 850 MW of solar capacity, almost all of which is on rooftops where owners are able to sell their excess power to the grid. That combined 1,600 MW, an “investment” of at least $4 billion, wasn’t able to contribute even half of 1 percent of load Tuesday. It never exceeded 50 MWH all day, and at 5 p.m. when the sun was still intense and load was at daily peak, solar was contributing zero. (When the temperature gets hot, solar owners turn up their air conditioning so there is no power left for them to send to the grid.)

The billions New England wasted in the last decade on unsustainable feel-good generation assets were the same billions that should have been invested in critical, dependable, clean energy infrastructure. Specifically, our natural gas transmission constraints and our lack of access to large-scale Canadian hydronow stand as tragic examples of our grossly negligent misappropriation of resources.

The result of our negligence? While a few years ago we had almost entirely gotten off oil and coal, in the last three years we have quadrupled our burning of dirty oil for electricity generation. Why? Because when the power is needed on hot or cold days, all the region’s natural gas is being used by homes and businesses. Just 200 miles north of the world’s richest gas fields and lowest gas prices, we cannot get enough gas to run the dozens of new clean electric plants we bought to replace the coal and oil plants.

But shouldn’t Maine do its part to save the planet? Remember, only two states in the nation have electric sectors that emit less CO2 than Maine. Maine has the highest renewable portfolio standard in America, and in 2012 more than 99 percent of Maine generation was from clean sources other than oil and coal. But our unsustainable energy policy is now increasing rates, taxes and pollution. Amazingly, transportation accounts for almost five times more CO2 in Maine than electricity does. Yet, our Legislature raised the Interstate 95 speed limits while passing incentives for wind developers.

This is why Maine is increasingly getting dirty emissions from southern New England’s old plants. The absurdly high peak electric rates are unnecessarily bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars from Maine’s economy, and billions from New England’s economy. Scarce tax dollars funnel to wealthy wind developers, and vast expanses of Maine are slated to be industrialized with 50-story turbines.

But looking at those majestic white turbines on Maine mountains makes people in Massachusetts and Connecticut feel good.

Wind energy, as evident in Tuesday’s two-tenths of 1 percent contribution to load, cannot replace or even materially displace conventional grid generation.

Feel-good energy policy looks like this, and it is a major reason we are foolhardy to destroy our mountains with useless, unnecessary, unaffordable, unsustainable wind plants. If wind energy’s positive benefits could actually exceed its negative impacts, then maybe a few mountains could justifiably be destroyed. But we know otherwise.

The Friends of Maine’s Mountains mission is to educate the public about how destructive this feel-good policy is. Maine’s economy and environment are too important to squander.

Chris O’Neil is vice president of Public Affairs at Friends of Maine’s Mountains.
Wind power isn’t making the big impact its champions claim

Bangor Daily News
Turbines on Heifer Hill that are part of the Bull Hill Wind Project put up by First Wind in Township 16 in this Feb. 12, 2013, file photo.
By Paula Moore, Special to the BDN
Posted May 17, 2015, at 10:07 a.m.
The Maine Renewable Energy Association recently released information from a white paper to clarify the 2013 benefits of wind power in Maine and predict future benefits in 2020. Unfortunately, the association’s press release touted at least one simplistic conclusion: Wind power theoretically offset the CO2 emissions from 94,000 vehicles in 2013. If only wind power could offset vehicle emissions.

To state the obvious, wind power never will offset emissions from vehicles, though that would be helpful because much of the CO2 in Maine — and the U.S. — is produced by vehicles.

The point of wind power is to offset emissions from traditional power plants. How much CO2 did Maine wind power offset from power plants in 2013? Not much. ISO New England, the entity responsible for managing electricity across the six New England states, reported CO2 emissions from power generators in 2013 were 40,901,000 tons.

By comparison, as estimated in the Maine Renewable Energy Association white paper, Maine wind power generated 27.8 percent of its nameplate capacity to offset an estimated 490,000 tons of CO2. That’s about a 1 percent offset. No wonder the Maine Renewable Energy Association chose to use a theoretical analogy instead of the real but puny 1 percent figure.

But the Maine Renewable Energy Association white paper and a 2014 report by ISO New England outline other conclusions that do clarify several aspects of wind power generation:

— Maine and New England already have lower emissions from electricity generation compared with the nation.

— Because of the planned retirement of two large coal plants in New England, there will be fewer emissions for wind power to offset in 2020 than in 2013 because wind will be displacing power generation from a less polluting system.

— The Maine Renewable Energy Association paper estimates wind power will offset about 2 million tons of CO2 by 2020 because of an increased number of wind projects and more efficient turbines. But there will be lower system emissions overall because of cleaner and more efficient natural gas electricity generators replacing coal and oil. At best estimates, wind power in Maine may never offset more than 5 percent of annual emissions from other power generators.

— Increasing the number of wind projects could increase inefficient ramping and cycling of the standby generators compensate for wind’s often rapid and sizable swings in output, thus eroding some of the emissions-offset benefit of wind.

— Wind speeds often are at their lowest levels during summer and cold snaps, when electricity demand is highest. Other power generators always will be needed to ensure demand for cooling and heating is met and to avoid black- and brownouts when the grid is under stress from sudden changes in power supply.

— Electricity from Maine’s remote wind projects may be curtailed to prevent overloading the fragile transmission lines not designed for large amounts of power.

— Electricity from Maine’s wind power also may be curtailed when electricity demand is low — at night, for example — reducing the emissions-offset benefit further.

— As wind turbines degrade because of normal wear and tear, they become less productive, lowering the emissions-offset benefit. Life expectancy for a wind turbine is about 20 years.

Touting a theoretical analogy is a ploy by the Maine Renewable Energy Association to distract the public from the pertinent facts about wind power generation. It appears designed to make Maine wind projects appear as though they are making a big difference in reducing CO2 when they aren’t and may never. The amount of land needed for a multi-turbine wind project is more than that of a natural gas power plant that predictably, reliably and less expensively provides electricity near population centers, where and when it is needed.

Paula Moore is a retired assistant professor in the University of Maine School of Education.

“Renewable” Energy – Powerful Words Make Us Do Stupid Things
August 23, 2015Energy Policy, Opinion, Public Policy, Sustainability
By Mark W. Anderson

The term “renewable” is now magical when applied to energy policy. We understand intuitively that fossil fuels are fixed, not renewable. Even if they are abundant now, every bit of coal, oil, or natural gas we use means there is less available, and their use causes a host of environmental and national security problems. If an energy supply were renewable, it would be a desirable replacement for fossil fuels. This was the simple logic of the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, including a provision to establish a renewable fuel standard. Renewability equals goodness. A host of interest groups, including many environmentalists, have lined up to support almost any energy source that can carry the adjective renewable.

We can be smarter than this. It turns out that some of policies to encourage renewable energy look just plain stupid. We need better criteria for evaluating energy alternatives, because we must reduce fossil fuel. (Stay tuned, I’ll return to this in the future.)

I suggest three better ways to think about energy policy – energy return on energy invested, also called net energy; power density; and life cycle assessment. All three are more abstract and less intuitive than renewability. Yet all three would contribute to better energy policy.

Energy return on energy invested (EROI) mirrors the idea of returns on financial investments. This metric accounts for the fact that any energy source requires other energy sources to capture, move, and transform that energy source into heat, electricity, or work. So the wood for our winter heating requires gasoline and oil for the chain saw, diesel fuel for the machinery to get the logs out of the, more gas to cut and split the wood, diesel to get the couple of cords of wood to our house, and human work (food energy) to haul, stack, and haul it again to the stove. The EROI for wood is the measure of the amount of heat we get for our house from burning the wood divided by the sum of all the energy needed to harvest, process, and deliver the wood. If the result of that calculation is greater than 1.0 then the net energy or EROI is positive; we got more energy out of the system then we put into the system.

Energy systems should be thought of in the same way we think of saving money. We would not put $100 in the bank today with the promise of getting $95 back a year from now. So we should not promote energy systems that put in 100 units of energy to get 95 units back, even if the system is deemed “renewable.” We appear to have done this in the case of ethanol from corn, the primary fuel mandated from the EPA’s renewable fuel standard.

There is a vigorous debate in the academic literature about whether corn ethanol’s EROI is positive or negative. Scientists supported by the government argue that the EROI is positive, although the amount of net energy is not large. At best the energy out in the form of ethanol is only slightly more than the total energy it took to make this alcohol. Others scientists, notably David Pimentel of Cornell University, suggest that the net returns are negative. The sum of energy to plant, fertilize, irrigate, harvest the corn, to convert the corn to sugars, and to make ethanol from that sugar is greater than the energy in the ethanol. Virtually all of these energy inputs are fossil fuels. If Pimentel and others like him are correct, we are using more fossil fuel energy to make a gallon of ethanol from corn than that gallon of ethanol contains. But it is “renewable,” so it must be good. This strikes me as a stupid policy. It would use less fossil fuels to just use them directly.

A second metric for evaluating alternative energy systems is power density. This is a measure championed by the Canadian geographer and energy expert Vaclav Smil. Smil’s several books on energy are must reads for anyone who wishes to weigh in on energy issues; Energy in Nature and Society is the most comprehensive of them. Power density, which is more abstract than EROI, measures the flow of energy in spatial terms. Think of it as measuring how compact or dense an energy system is. The greater the power density of the system the less space it will consume on the planet per unit of usable energy produced, an important consideration when we are trying to find energy to support more than 7 billion humans. One of the reasons that fossil fuel systems have been so successful is that they exhibit a high power density, therefore take up less space compared to alternatives. This fact makes finding good alternatives to fossil fuels more challenging than just calling those alternatives “renewable.”

Looking at another popular renewable energy — wind power — we see the usefulness of power density as a metric. Since the wind blows often, if not regularly, it is assumed that its renewability makes it a desirable energy alternative. But it has a very low power density, meaning that it will take a lot more space for the wind infrastructure to deliver the same amount of usable energy we get from fossil fuels, as we can see below from estimates made by Smil.

This much lower power density explains why even modest wind power development in Maine is so visible, in some cases degrading vista’s important to Maine’s tourism economy. Wind power’s low power density, and therefore big footprint per unit of energy delivered, also accounts for its negative impacts on birds and bats.

A final approach to evaluating alternative energies is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Here analysts attempt to measure the full costs of energy systems “from cradle to grave,” including what economists call the external effects. These are the spillover costs when an activity imposes costs on other people that are not accounted for by typical markets where energy resources are traded. LCA would attempt to calculate the full costs of the system, from its initial development to its eventual deconstruction once obsolete.

Going back to ethanol from corn, LCA would measure the costs of increased soil erosion and nutrient loading in the Mississippi River and other water bodies adjacent to the dramatically expanded acreage dedicated to corn production because of the Renewable Fuels Standard. It would measure the increased hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico as these nutrients are flushed down the Mississippi. It would also measure the costs from a decline in Monarch butterfly populations, partly caused by the displacement of milk weed plants throughout the Mid-West by expanded corn acreage for biofuels.

Renewable is one of those words with many vague meanings. That is part of its power. It was embraced originally by environmentalists keen to find alternative energy systems to fossil fuels. The problem was that it was also embraced by special interests who saw a way to enhance their narrow interests (sell more industrial corn, develop wind farms) in the guise of improving the environment and national security by offering “renewable” energy alternatives. Lurking behind the rhetoric of renewability were serious environmental problems that we ignored at our own risk.

We can be smarter.

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