A year ago the US Department of Energy released "20% wind power by 2030
", a study that envisioned the US satisfying 20% of its electricity needs through wind power. This February, the Joint Coordinated System Plan 2008
(JCSP'08) proffered a conceptual regional transmission and generation system plan to meet 20% of the Eastern
region of the United States' energy needs with wind.
DOE's report called for the deployment of 305,000 MW of wind by the year 2030. The JCSP assumed 229,000 MW of new wind capacity built by 2024. In either scenario, the proposals included the need to build thousands of miles of new transmission lines towering 200-feet tall to deliver the energy from the Midwestern region of the country to points East (and West).
Windaction.org has had several opportunities to publicly debate these scenarios with ranking US energy officials (not politicians) and what we learned, frankly, surprised us:
It is clear that most had not read the DOE report. Many dismissed it as "academic" and unrealistic. Others openly call the JCSP study nothing more than a wind advocacy plan. Both the ISO New England and New York ISO withdrew from the publication of the JCSP report and Ian Bowles, secretary of energy and environmental affairs for Massachusetts, published an editorial in the New York Times where he discouraged a "national grid system" for renewable energy, arguing for a better, lower cost option.
Achieving widespread adoption of renewable (wind) energy is not as easy as the popular catch phrases "25 x 2025" and "20% by 2030" would have us believe. Nor will it be cheap. It is worth revisiting some of the assumptions in the DOE report:
1. Wind energy does not provide capacity; it requires separate redundant and reliable backup generation
Electricity production in the US is predicated on reliability, affordability, and security. The ability to produce capacity -- electricity on demand -- is fundamental, since electricity cannot be stored at bulk levels. Yet, the DOE report states "Wind is an energy resource, not a capacity resource." In other words, while utilities are obligated to provide electricity, instantaneously, when customers demand it, wind does not, nor can it ever, do that.
According to the DOE, as installed wind capacity increases as a percentage of energy on the grid, wind power cannot replace the need for many ‘capacity resources' and that any capacity value for wind is "a bonus, but not a necessity." Put another way, building 305,000 MW of wind to satisfy the 20% wind energy goal will be independent of our need to build additional electric generating plants needed to meet demand.
2. Unrealistic projected rate of growth
The DOE report forecasts 305,000 MW of wind development by 2030 including 54,000 MW of off-shore wind. Assuming a starting point of 28,000 MW of wind now installed in the US (with none offshore), over 13,000 MW of new wind would need to be installed year after year through to 2030 - an amount equivalent to nearly double the capacity installed in 2008, a banner year.
Even if the industry were able to overcome all manufacturing and construction barriers to meet this goal, other barriers still remain including a) the public's resistance to wind turbines sited on publicly-owned lands, national forests and wilderness areas; b) sustained and substantial taxpayer-funded subsidies to ensure project viability; and c) the requirement for expansive and expensive power lines to access remote areas of the country.
3. The numbers don't add up: Optimistic capacity factors will not meet the 20% goal
According to DOE, U.S. demand for electricity will reach 5.8 billion megawatt-hours (MWh) by 2030, with 20% or 1.16-billion MWh satisfied by wind.
Assuming DOE's figure of 305,000 MW of installed wind capacity, the entire fleet of wind turbines would need to operate at an annual average capacity factor of 43.4%. Yet, few existing wind plants in the U.S. today, and none east of the Mississippi, come close to meeting this level of annual average capacity. The fact remains that many U.S. wind projects located in areas touted as having outstanding wind resources now report average capacity factors under 25%.
The true impact of a national renewable vision based on wind, whether DOE's or the JCSP, is in the public cost, both in dollars and in the impacts wrought by transforming our open spaces into massive industrial power plants with associated transmission and other infrastructure.
Too many people are acting as though the discussion is over and all we need to do is build. In fact, it has barely just begun. While we may need to diversity our nation's energy portfolio with viable alternatives to fossil fuel, we hope it's not too late to step back and establish realistic goals based on validated costs and benefits.