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Wind Energy: An Ineffectual Solution for Reducing Emissions

I respect Mr. Watts’ desire to address emissions. Unfortunately, at least with respect to electricity generation, there is no 'silver bullet'. The only practical solutions, in addition to conservation, are 'safe nuclear' and 'clean coal'. Wind energy has become a 'symbol' in efforts to address emissions from electricity generation. The 'inconvenient truth' is that wind energy is ineffectual.

Editor's Note: Submitted to the Burlington Free Press in response to Richard Watts' Op-ed published 7/21/06 which is also below.

While Mr. Watts ( ‘Decision-Making is Limited on Energy’, BFP 7/21/06) is correct in claiming that wind turbines 'don't contribute to global warming, smog or acid rain', his presumption that wind energy is a meaningful solution for reducing emissions is misplaced. Because wind turbines don’t contribute to grid capacity, its impact on reducing emissions is marginal at best.

Those of us who oppose industrial wind energy in Vermont are well aware of wind energy's limitations having climbed a rather steep learning curve over the past three years. Unfortunately, most Vermonters are not well-informed. Were Vermonters more fully informed about the cost/benefit equation of wind energy, my guess is that they would agree it doesn't make sense as an energy source – either environmentally or economically. Wind energy’s 'inconvenient truths' are:

(1) wind energy is an ineffectual energy source - it supplies energy but not capacity.
Since wind supplies only intermittent power, purchasers are unable to credit a wind project's rated capacity towards their minimum reserve capacity requirements needed to assure a reliable power supply. Consequently, wind purchases neither avoid or delay the buyers need to build or purchase new reliable power capacity to meet growing load requirements. The bottom-line - we need to maintain and build base-load capacity to meet growing demand regardless... [truncated due to possible copyright]  

While Mr. Watts ( ‘Decision-Making is Limited on Energy’, BFP 7/21/06) is correct in claiming that wind turbines 'don't contribute to global warming, smog or acid rain', his presumption that wind energy is a meaningful solution for reducing emissions is misplaced. Because wind turbines don’t contribute to grid capacity, its impact on reducing emissions is marginal at best.

Those of us who oppose industrial wind energy in Vermont are well aware of wind energy's limitations having climbed a rather steep learning curve over the past three years. Unfortunately, most Vermonters are not well-informed. Were Vermonters more fully informed about the cost/benefit equation of wind energy, my guess is that they would agree it doesn't make sense as an energy source – either environmentally or economically. Wind energy’s 'inconvenient truths' are:

(1) wind energy is an ineffectual energy source - it supplies energy but not capacity.
Since wind supplies only intermittent power, purchasers are unable to credit a wind project's rated capacity towards their minimum reserve capacity requirements needed to assure a reliable power supply. Consequently, wind purchases neither avoid or delay the buyers need to build or purchase new reliable power capacity to meet growing load requirements. The bottom-line - we need to maintain and build base-load capacity to meet growing demand regardless of the amount of wind energy constructed. The sources of base-load capacity are well known: coal, nuclear power and natural gas. In some areas, at least seasonally, conventional hydropower can be added to this 'mix'.

(2) wind energy's impact on emissions is, at best, marginal.
Precisely because wind energy does not provide capacity, it does not replace production on a 1:1 basis. Because wind energy does not provide capacity, a dispatchable source of electricity has to run (though not necessarily on a 1:1 basis) to be ready to meet demand when the wind is not blowing within requisite parameters. How much production from dispatchable sources of electricity is actually replaced by wind energy is a function of the level of wind energy’s penetration of the grid, the dispatchable sources of energy available to the grid and the availability of wind energy relative to the demand for electricity. As such, in practice, calculating the actual 'net' savings is very complex and highly dependent on the characteristics of specific grids.

That said, even on a 'gross' basis, given wind energy's intermittency and limitations as an energy source, its impact on emissions is negligible. According to the American Wind Energy Association, there was 9,149MW of installed wind energy at the end of 2005. Assuming a 27% capacity factor and the displacement of natural gas, the annual gross CO2 savings approximates 0.5% of CO2 emissions from electricity generation in the US. This is equivalent to approximately one-third of the projected increase in 2006 CO2 emissions in the U.S. As noted above, the actual savings is considerably less as dispatchable generating capacity must be kept on stand-by to meet demand when wind isn't blowing within requisite parameters. Importantly, recent evidence suggests that the savings diminish exponentially as the penetration of wind energy in the grid increases due to the need to maintain on stand-by an approximately commensurate amount of dispatchable sources. Wind developers' claims of emissions savings are generally highly exaggerated as they assume inflated capacity factors, a 1:1 displacement of 'dirty coal' and the actual use of all the wind energy that is available. In sum modest wind energy penetration of the grid doesn't make much of a difference and greater penetration may, in fact, have no impact on emissions.

As most Vermonters know, industrial wind energy projects in Vermont have met, for the most part, with strong local opposition. While it is true that this opposition is based, in part, on wind energy's perceived impact on aesthetics, on sensitive natural resources when located between 2,500-3,300', on wildlife, on tourist/second home based economies and on individuals directly affected by noise and/or shadow flicker, it is also true that this opposition is based on the aforementioned 'limitations' of wind energy as a reliable source of energy and as a means of effectively reducing emissions. Opponents of industrial wind energy in Vermont are an informed citizenry that has done its homework. For us the cost/benefit equation for Vermont is clear - the costs of wind energy to Vermont's treasured scenic landscapes, wildlife, economic resources and quality-of-life of affected communities far exceed its purported benefits.

I respect Mr. Watts’ desire to address emissions. Unfortunately, at least with respect to electricity generation, there is no 'silver bullet'. The only practical solutions, in addition to conservation, are 'safe nuclear' and 'clean coal'. Wind energy has become a 'symbol' in efforts to address emissions from electricity generation. The 'inconvenient truth' is that wind energy is ineffectual.

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MY TURN: DECISION-MAKING IS LIMITED ON ENERGY

By Richard Watts

July 21, 2006
The Public Service Board's decision to deny a permit to build four wind turbines on an abandoned military site in the Northeast Kingdom highlights the problems with energy decision-making in Vermont. Despite broad popular support for wind power in Vermont, energy costs at record highs, and major long-term contracts for electricity about to end, the decision process focused only on the narrow technical issues raised in the contested legal process.

Yet the case is completely typical of how we make energy decisions in Vermont. Reviewing how we make these decisions is critical, particularly as the state wrestles with the upcoming decisions over replacing two-thirds of our electric supply.

Public values are not considered in the adversarial, expert dominated legal process that builds the case record on which Public Service Board members base their decisions. The public is invited to comment at public hearings but their comments are not admissible as evidence. Public Service Board decisions, such as this one, are based only on sworn testimony submitted by experts funded by parties with the resources to participate. Interest groups, public agencies and towns can participate but cost and time commitments are extreme. This case was further complicated when the two state agencies representing the public interest presented competing points of view.

Broader environmental and economic issues related to exporting our energy dollars, or the punishing impact of energy generation and consumption on global warming, smog and acid rain were not fully explored in the case. Nor was there a broader discussion of where Vermont should get its energy from as major contracts end. As a recent conference of Vermont policy makers stated: "This (PSB permitting) process can only answer a yes-or-no question about a particular project of a particular utility, and has no mechanism for answering what might be the best choice, given Vermont's balancing of the trade-offs" (Grafton Conference, July 2005).

A decision process that incorporated public values and looked at the overall picture of Vermont's energy future might have come to a very different outcome. Wind turbines don't contribute to global warming, smog or acid rain. And the vast majority of Vermonters support wind power. A survey of 400 Vermonters conducted in January by ORC Marcro for Renewable Energy Vermont put support for wind power at 83 percent, the highest number registered in five years of annual polling. In fact, 81 percent of those surveyed said they would consider wind turbines on Vermont mountain ridges beautiful or acceptable.

Vermont citizens must be engaged earlier in the decision-making process in an open, broad and spirited public conversation. The conversation should not just be about individual projects, but about the public values that will guide the future choice of projects by both the public and private sectors. Hearing and heeding the choices of Vermonters allows public policy decisions to reflect public values.

It is not that the PSB is not doing their job, it is rather that the job they can do is limited and prescribed by law, and may not be the best way to serve the interests of Vermont. If people are to have faith in the process they must have evidence that public values can be expressed and then used as a basis for informing a more integrated and coordinated decsion-making process.

Richard Watts teaches environmental policy at the University of Vermont's Rubenstein School of Natural Resources.



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JUL 21 2006
http://www.windaction.org/posts/3602-wind-energy-an-ineffectual-solution-for-reducing-emissions
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