Wind Energy Will NOT Reduce US Oil Dependence – December 2006 Update
One of the false claims made by “wind energy” advocates is that greater use of wind energy would
reduce US dependence on oil, including oil imports.
In fact, adding more wind turbines will have no significant impact on US oil consumption.
Unfortunately, many well-meaning people (including reporters) and some regulators and political
leaders have accepted – and repeated -- the wind advocates’ false claims about reductions in oil
use. This brief paper explains why the reduced oil use claim is false.
Facts about oil use in electric generation in the US
1. The only potential use of wind turbines is to produce electricity.
2. Very little oil is used in the US to produce electricity. In 2005, only 3.0% of the electricity generated in the US was produced by using oil.2 Oil use was up slightly in 2004 and 2005 from 2003 because of high natural gas prices which made it more economical for some generating companies to use oil. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects that the share of electricity generated by oil will drop to 1.85% by 2030.3
3. Most of the use of oil in the US for electricity generation occurs in a few states. As shown in the attached table, in 2005, 3 states (Florida, New York and Hawaii) accounted for more than 57% of all the electricity in the US generated by using oil.
4. Oil accounted for more than 5% of electric generation in only 11 states and the District of Columbia. Those states are Hawaii, Florida, New York, Massachusetts, Delaware, Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Virginia.
5. Oil accounted for less than 1% of electric generation in 29 states. Twenty-four of those were less than ½ of 1%.
Reasons why wind energy will have no significant impact on oil use for electric generation
6. Even in those few states where oil accounts for more than 1% of electricity generation, adding wind turbines would have very little, if any, impact on oil consumption. The facts supporting this conclusion are complex and many of those who have believed the false claims might be forgiven for their errors. However, the complexity does not excuse officials from DOE, NREL or the wind industry who should know better. But, in any case, here is why wind energy is highly unlikely to reduce to reduce oil use in electric generation:
a. About 9.7% of the oil used in electric generation in 2005 was “distillate” oil4 used in combustion turbine and internal combustion electric generating units.5 The cost of this oil is high and such units are used almost exclusively in times when electricity demand is at its highest level (e.g., during hot weekday afternoons in July and August). Little if any wind generated electricity is available during those times.
b. Most of the remaining 90% of the oil used in electric generation was “residual oil” (#4 & #5) that is used in older, oil-fired steam-electric generating units (oil is burned to heat water and create steam to drive a turbine).
c. These older oil-fired steam-electric units are quite unlikely to be the units that are backed down or ramped up to adjust for the intermittent, highly volatile (output often varies widely minute to minute) and largely unpredictable output from wind turbines – which produce electricity only when the wind is blowing in the right speed range.6
d. Instead, the generating units that are likely to be used to “back up” the intermittent wind turbines will be units that are either:
1) Designed and designated to serve in an Automatic Generation Control (AGC) mode to keep an electric grid in balance (i.e., frequency and voltage),
2) Producing at less than full capacity and capable of ramping up or down on short notice, or
3) Operating in a “spinning reserve” mode.7
Electricity supply and demand must be kept in balance. Electricity production is constantly adjusted to meet electricity demand. The generating units that serve best in backing up intermittent, volatile wind turbines are hydropower units because the output from these units can be increased or decreased almost instantaneously. The next best alternatives are gas-fired turbine-based generating units (e.g., combined-cycle or larger simple cycle). Oil-fired units are less likely to be used in the required balancing role for wind turbines because (a) the oil-fired combustion turbine and internal combustion units are unlikely to be running except in times of peak demand, and (b) the oil-fired steam-electric units are likely to have slower response times than is necessary to back up wind turbines.
e. The generating units used to “back up” intermittent and volatile wind generation will depend on the generating mix and other conditions in the grid control area that is receiving the electricity from wind turbines. In the Pacific-Northwest, for example, hydro power would likely serve in the balancing role – with no savings in oil. In New England, with its heavy dependence on natural gas and a significant amount of newer gas-fired generating capacity, a gas-fired unit would likely serve in the balancing role, again with little or no savings in oil use.
7. In summary, there is very little likelihood that any oil use in electric generation would be reduced by adding wind turbines. This would certainly be true in the states with only small shares of their electric generation from oil.
The electric industry officials who will have the exact data on the generating units that are run to balance the intermittent and volatile output from wind turbines are those who handle the day to day management and control of electric grids and transmission systems; i.e., depending on the region of the US, electric utility, the power pool, the independent system operator (ISO), or the regional transmission organization (RTO).
Where is most oil used in the US?
During 2005, US oil use averaged 20,802,000 barrels per day.9 The shares of US oil consumption
by sector were as follows:10
• Transportation. -67.5%
• Industrial -23.8%
• Residential -3.7%
• Electric Generation -3.0%
• Commercial -1.9%
As the above table suggests, those seeking a reduction in US oil consumption will need to focus primarily on oil use in transportation.