William Tucker
William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey
William Tucker is a veteran journalist who has written about energy and the environment for 25 years. His work has appeared in... For a detailed bio
Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey
Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey


“The Unbearable Lightness of Wind”
April 21st, 2009
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Ross McCracken has a wonderful article in the current issue of Insight, the energy journal published by Platts, called “The Unbearable Lightness of Wind.”McCracken tackles the question that nobody has posed yet - what is going to be the economic consequences of putting up all these windmills with government subsidies, mandates and “feed-in tariffs” that tell the utilities, “Buy it whatever it costs.”

“Wind power has its critics and they feel that their reservation have been overridden by policy makers whose imagination have been captured by a green agenda that downplays wind’s limitations,” says McCracken. “The conundrum that wind poses is not just technical, [however]. It lies in the fact that wind does not directly displace fossil fuel generating capacity, but will make this capacity less profitable to maintain.”

What’s likely to happen, McCracken argues, is that windmills - which generate electricity only 30 percent of the time - will replace some peaking power and some base-load power:

As wind provides neither baseload nor peaking plant it has no impact on reserve capacity. . . [I]t increases redundancy in peaking plant and reduces the profits of baseload generation; potentially good for consumers but bad for investment in non-intermittent sources of power, and presenting the risk of a decline in reserve capacity. . . . [P]eaking plants would be used much less and baseload plant would see sustained period of potential below cost prices - a particular nightmare for the nuclear industry.

So without contributing any reliable capacity, wind will nonetheless make coal and nuclear less profitable. Existing plants will be caught in a trap but new construction will be discouraged entirely. Already the British Nuclear Group is complaining that it can’t build any new reactors if they have to compete against subsidized wind farms. Environmentalists are turning handsprings, claiming joyously that wind is finally replacing nuclear. But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, nothing will be replacing coal and nuclear as demand increases. Nor will any carbon emissions be reduced, since coal plants will have to stay on line to provide backup.

The one type of generating capacity that will be expanding is natural gas. GE, Siemens and Toshiba are already marketing their gas turbines as the “natural companion to wind,” because they can stop and start instantaneously to match the wind’s vagaries. Rather than heading into an era of renewable energy, we are probably headed into an era of natural gas, the most expensive way to produce electricity. California, which has been at this for almost 30 years, gets 40 percent of its electricity from natural gas - twice the national average - and pays 50 percent more for electricity than surrounding states.

Our growing investment in wind, therefore, promises two things - more expensive electricity and declining reserve capacity, especially if electrical demand continues to grow. By coincidence, that’s exactly the path trodden by California on the way to the Great Electrical Shortage of 2000. Or maybe it isn’t a coincidence at all. Maybe we’re just traveling down the same road, this time on a national scale.

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14 Responses to ““The Unbearable Lightness of Wind””

  1. Ara Barsamian Says:

    Sadly, I have to agree. The level of dishonesty of our politicians is only matched by our populations ignorance of basic science and economics, to wit, our high schoolers ranking 25th out of 30.

    A bankrupt state like California is pushing ahead with low carbon fuels which is going to raise fuel prices affecting the majority of its poorest citizens; same with EPA merrily going its way with GHG regulations, totally oblivious to our disastrous economy and millions of unemployed that will be the first affected by the higher prices. Yes, we will all be healthier but starving to death!

    The only thing that could remedy this “vodoo” science and economics are more robust “tea parties” to eventually throw out the current cliques of corrupt polticians that are ruining our country.

  2. Ken Maize Says:

    The observations are spot on. Wind, as the Danes and Germans have established, is a prescription for more gas for black start capability. Wind introduces instabilities into the grid, at very high costs in terms of backup requirements, with little or no impact on carbon emissions (as if those were somehow important). Solar suffers from some of the same problems, although at bit less, because sunshine is a somewhat more predictable than wind.

    Virtually any energy or environmental policy advocated by California is, by definition, nuts. To borrow from the economists, they don’t work in theory and they won’t work in practice.

    As for Tea Parties, they don’t work either. I don’t think the politicians are essentially corrupt (although some clearly are) but are craven and of limited vision (what works for my district, my special interests, and my party?). My response would be more and better push-back against the “green, clean energy machine” hype, linking it to cold fusion and perpetual motion. One of the first rules of environmentalism, propounded by Denis Hayes on the first Earth Day, was “There is no free lunch.”

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