With the recent “stimulus” package, there is a lot of spending for “renewable energy sources” in there. Wind is but one of those sources. And oil tycoon, T. Boone Pickens, is now proposing the largest wind farm in the country by putting up $2 billion of his own money. Of course, he will also get a government (that is, tax payer) subsidy for every kilowatt hour of electricity produced. One of the purported advantages of wind power is that it is environmental friendly (incidentally, so is nuclear power). However, wind power accounts for 1% of all the electricity generated in a year worldwide although its use has increased 500% over the past ten years. In certain countries- Denmark, Spain, England, and Germany- there is increasing “reliance” on wind power.
The primary drawback to wind generated power is that there first needs to be wind. Because it is not always windy, when electricity is generated, it necessarily needs to be stored. In terms of the capacity ratio factor, wind turbines operate at 20-40% capacity annually with the 40% occurring in the most efficient plants and areas generally considered favorable for wind power generation. In comparison, nuclear plants operate at 90% efficiency annually. The generated electricity is stored then pumped into the electrical grid at peak demand times. Because of this, wind power is usually used as an adjunct to traditional power generation methods. Some proponents claim that the potential arbitrage from the storage of wind power could offset its cost. However, the actual picture indicates that the storage of wind energy actually increases the cost of wind energy by 25%.
Another problem is that those periods of highest electrical demand- hot, humid days when refrigeration and air conditioning units run the hardest- are the very days when there is the least wind. Therefore and again, wind power alone cannot meet the demand. One need only look at those areas where wind power is relied upon in the world. In 2006, officials in Scotland conclusively stated that wind power alone cannot meet yearly demands let alone seasonal demands. Denmark receives 19% of its domestic electrical needs from wind power. Yet they have concluded that the electrical grid in that country received absolutely no contribution from wind generated sources for 54 out of 365 days on average.
Despite the economic drawbacks to widespread reliance on wind power, the United States has actually led the world in wind power generation over the past year by increasing output by 45%. In 2008, wind power accounted for 1% of the total electrical output in the United States. To reach a level of 20%, for example, it would require a wind farm stretching from Texas to North Dakota. But even if this could be achieved, the areas for the greatest potential for wind farm construction also happen to be areas furthest from population centers most in need of electricity. So there is the added cost of constructing transmission lines to get the energy to where it is most needed. The estimated cost of Pickens’ fairytale Texas-to-the Dakotas wind farm would cost over $1 trillion to build and another $500 billion to construct transmission lines. And for that $1.5 trillion, we could lessen our reliance on fossil fuels- domestic and imported- by 20%, according to the Department of Energy. Industry officials point out that the biggest cost to developing wind farms (and the biggest impediment) involves the installation of the turbines and the new transmission lines. Meanwhile, proponents, like Pickens, argue that with large-scale development and mass production, costs can be driven down. Although we have increased wind energy production over the past five years by 45% in the United States (thus, inferring more wind farms, thus inferring greater mass production), what explains the fact that construction costs have actually increased 12% over that same five year period?
Besides the economical drawbacks, environmentalists, the people one would think would be most in favor of wind energy given their concern over global warming and belief in Al Bore scare tactics, also often object to wind farms. Their main concern seems to be migratory birds getting killed in the moving parts of wind farms. Great Britain has more operational wind turbines per square mile than the United States, thus greater congestion. A recent study in Britain indicates that one bird per year is killed by a wind turbine in Britain. In terms of comparison, over 10 million birds are killed by automobiles annually in Britain. When they cannot win the bird argument, they turn towards aesthetics. However, enhanced designs in recent years have largely destroyed those objections.
Nowhere is the hypocrisy of the environmental movement more noteworthy than the now well-publicized proposal for a wind farm project off Cape Cod. A strange consortium of environmentalists and local property owners (the most famous being Ted Kennedy, who fancies himself environmental-friendly) objected to the proposal because of migratory bird paths, alleged noise pollution, and obstruction of a shipping channel. However, study upon study has proven that (1) any migratory bird paths were well away from the proposed wind farm, (2) any noise created would be equivalent to 25% of the noise experienced from car traffic on the local highway, and (3) the shipping channel in question was not large enough to accomodate craft large enough to pose any threat to the wind turbines or stands. The bottom line is that the fine citizens of this area simply did not want to risk having their ocean views potentially obstructed. Like all other potential energy source proposals that make some sense, they are usually blocked by irrational environmentalist objections that only serve to delay the process and make it more costly through frivolous litigation. In the end, they are merely paying lip service to energy independence, and then it is acceptable only on their terms like solar energy and ethanol mandates. The wind energy sector is today experiencing what the nuclear energy industry has been facing since 1973. Even when the environmentalists are proven wrong, short-sighted local interests usually win out anyway.
The 2007 Energy Bill mandates that energy companies diversify their energy production portfolios. This is like mandating commonsense. Does private industry really need the government telling them that fossil fuels are not a “forever thing?” However, the government needs to facilitate private industry not through subsidies and give aways, but by streamlining the regulatory scheme and limiting time-consuming and costly litigation by special interest groups. So while the goals of T. Boone Pickens are certainly laudable, they are also laughable and unrealistic. Which makes one wonder whether this was just a publicity stunt or was there something else involved. My guess is that, being a fairly shrewd businessman, Pickens has or had something else up his sleeve.