Wind performing badly

This week, the US Department of Energy announced it was revisiting the conclusions of its 2008 report, 20% Wind Energy by 2030 .

The study, produced in cooperation with the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and other stakeholders, explored a modeled energy scenario in which wind could supply 20% of the nation's electricity by 2030. DOE made clear in the report that the 20% scenario was neither a prediction nor a goal, but for wind proponents, the study served as the foundation for ongoing advocacy.

20% wind power by 2030 became a call to action and more. Absent a national renewables standard, AWEA heralded the 20% as a de facto mandate for wind.

The industry insists it's on track to reach 20% wind (up from 4% today), but such claims are neither realistic nor wise. Despite explosive growth in new wind installations in the last five years alone[1], challenges to further development have become more evident and will ultimately limit wind's expansion.

An Unpopular Wind

Since 2008, thousands of turbines have been sited in communities across the U.S. As more towers were erected, public acceptance of the massive facilities started to drop.

Earlier this year, both New Hampshire and Vermont sought statewide moratoria on wind farm development until the impacts could be better understood. Law suits are now pending against proposed and operating wind facilities in at least six state courts as well as at the federal level[2]. Ohio , North Carolina and others are revisiting their renewables mandates after wind has failed to deliver lower energy prices and jobs.

And this week, the reality of big wind splashed across media screens worldwide when AP reported that in Wyoming "a soaring golden eagle slams into a wind farm's spinning turbine [about once a month] and falls, mangled and lifeless, to the ground."

The public is increasingly wary of the wind industry's tactics and so is Congress. The 1-year, $12 billion extension of the wind production tax credit (PTC) secretly added to the Fiscal Cliff bill passed in January underscores how unpopular wind energy is on Capitol Hill. The PTC would likely not survive a standalone floor vote.

Wind's Lack of Capacity

According to DOE's 2008 report, U.S. demand for electricity would reach 5.8 billion megawatt-hours (MWh) by 2030[3]. In order for wind to satisfy 20% (or 1.16-billion MWh) of this demand, 305,000 MW of installed wind operating at an annual average capacity factor of 43.4% would be needed. Yet, few existing wind plants in the U.S. come close to producing at this level.

The 2011 Wind Technologies Market Report "found that average capacity factors have been largely stagnant among projects built from 2006 through 2010"[4] at around 30%. In 2011, wind speeds improved raising the average capacity factor to 33%.

We examined 2012 monthly wind production data for 450+ operating wind plants in 34 states representing more than 40,000 MWs of installed capacity. All projects we looked at were in service for the entire year of 2012. The below map offers key insight into the effectiveness of wind at meeting demand by state.

Only three states, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Oklahoma, achieved average capacity factors over 40%. Most states, including California produced at under 30%.

Regional variations in production were also pronounced with the lowest average capacity factors[4] found on both the east and west coasts and the highest capacity factors, by state, found in the mountain and plain regions, correlating closely with NREL wind maps.

The claim that wind projects in the U.S. are achieving 30% average capacity factors nationally may be accurate but not meaningful when considering that state RPS mandates are based on local resources. For states like New York and Pennsylvania, where average capacity factors are in the low- to mid- 20% range, many more wind turbines and related infrastructure (transmission) will be needed to meet RPS mandates than originally forecasted resulting in increased costs and impacts. Couple this with the fact that wind production in most states is seasonal with summer months producing at half that of winter months and also concentrated during periods of low demand (night time) -- much of the energy arrives in excess of demand making it less useful and subject to curtailment.

The Role of Government Subsidies

More than half of the installed wind in the U.S. when measured in megawatts was built under the Section 1603 grant program which imposed no performance criteria on projects. Instead, the program substituted government largess for private investment, but with no accountability. Developers were rewarded for building turbines even in areas with marginal winds. The race to place projects in service before the end of 2012 was more about collecting 1603 grant money than producing quality wind facilities. Wind performance data for 2013 and 2014, when available, will reveal how much this will be a factor in lowering capacity factors.


The DOE is now stating that its revised report on wind energy will study U.S. energy policy as opposed to promoting it. "We want to deal in the realities [of the technology] and we also want to be sensitive to the concerns of the DOE's sister agencies," said Jose Zayas, the DOE's director of the wind and water power technologies office. This would be a departure from DOE's aggressive promotion of wind energy. It's essential the Department of Energy provide independent and comprehensive analysis that acknowledges the limitations and risks of relying on largely unpredictable and non-dispatchable energy sources. The public deserves answers and not unrealistic advocacy.


[1] At the end of 2007, installed wind in the U.S was about 16,500 MW. At the end of 2012, wind installations were at 60,000 MW.

[2] New York , Nevada , Washington, Michigan , Maine, California .

[3] Given the precipitous decline in electricity demand since 2008, these figures will likely be throttled back in any revised study by DOE.

[4] Some of the reduced performance could be tied to transmission curtailment but this information is not publicly available.

MAY 15 2013
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