Wind Headlines Need Scrutinity

I have to start this blog post by saying once again that I am a big supporter of wind energy. But the misinformation, half- truths and outright lies distributed by the wind energy industry and its supporters really annoy me. I also think that this lack of truth and transparency is undermining the credibility of the wind energy community.

Case #1: “Wind energy passes 30%”

In year-end reviews a number of blogs and news articles heralded the claims by Denmark that it generated 30% of its electrical demand from wind in 2012.  Only if you are willing to live in a reality distortion field is that statement factually correct.

Danish taxpayers and ratepayers have made very large investments in the development of wind energy for more than a decade. Wind capacity and wind generation have both increased dramatically as a result. So what is my complaint?

The following two graphs illustrate the point quite well (data source the CIA World Factbook).


As wind power generation has ramped up so have both the exports and imports into the Danish grid.

Why is that?  The short answer is that much of the electricity generated by Denmark's 5,000 wind turbines is essentially useless.

At night Denmark's wind turbines continue to generate electricity when there is very little demand.  In order to balance the transmission grid this electricity is essentially given away at extremely low prices to Norway and Sweden.  Not that Norway and Sweden need this electricity.  They both have surplus hydro capacity that was built by and large for export to countries like Denmark and Germany.  But they both have the ability to either refill their hydro reservoirs or release water over their spillways without generating electricity at night.  So, being good neighbours, they take the useless electricity off of Denmark's hands.

But this arrangement isn't as altruistic as it sounds.  During the day Denmark's unreliable wind farms are often unable to generate electricity when people actually need it.  As a result Denmark is forced to buy power back from Norway and Sweden.  But the price paid is not that mid-night deep discount price that was paid for Denmark's excess wind energy.  It is peak demand market price.

A comprehensive study by the CEPOS independent research institute provides a more detailed analysis of the situation but the bottom line is this.  Wind energy is supplying something closer to 10% of actual electrical demand in Denmark.  Even more worrisome is the fact that quite often wind energy provides almost no electrical generation.  That means that Denmark has to maintain all of its thermal assets as spinning reserves.  Less coal and natural gas is being burned but no thermal plants can be shut down.  They have to be kept running, intermittently and inefficiently, to be ready to step up production when wind farm generation drops.

Case #2: “Wind Blowing Away Coal in Ontario”

In January, 2013 numerous articles and blogs implied that increases in Wind energy production had allowed the government of Ontario to decommission its remaining coal-fired generation plants.

To suggest that the two are related in the case of Ontario is simply factually incorrect. Wind is a minor contributor to the generation mix in Ontario as shown by the graph below (data taken directly from the IESO site):

It is clear that the reason that the coal-fired plants can be closed is because total demand has softened and natural gas-fired plants and nuclear capacity have both increased. These shifts are not the result of wind being hugely successful but are directly related to refurbishment of several nuclear plants as well as a sustained period of low prices for natural gas that make those plants more attractive to operate.

Wind is actually causing problems in Ontario. The following passage comes from the 2009 Ontario Reliability Report;

"A weak economy combined with conservation efforts and mild weather have resulted in unusually low overnight and weekend demand, creating ongoing SBG (Surplus Baseload Generation) conditions. For the most part, excess generation is handled through exports. This spring, however, Ontario started to experience SBG on a weekly basis, resulting in nuclear unit reductions on 54 days, nuclear shutdowns on five days and water spillage at hydro facilities on 33 days. These actions impose additional costs on generators, increase wear and tear on equipment and result in an inefficient approach to managing the power system."

Case #3: North America’s Largest Wind Energy Storage Facility Fires Up In Texas

I agree that this January 24, 2013 headline is correct.  However, I take exception to the following statement within this blog:

“The new storage facility blows a Texas-sized raspberry in the direction of renewable energy nay-sayers, whose complaints about the “unreliable” nature of wind power are now, well, blowing in the wind.”

The clear implication is that energy storage is no longer a problem.  Set up some batteries and you are good to go.  What the author fails to state was the length of time that this $44 million facility can generate 36 MW.  The answer to that question is … wait for it … 15 minutes.  After that it is lights out.

Wind is a great energy source and I am all for developing more of it.  But without utility-scale energy storage the problems associated with integrating wind will prevent us from actually depending on it as a major source of electrical generation.  And in the meantime we are rapidly destroying the economics of running thermal generation plants (more on that in a future blog). 

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