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Is Wind Energy Dangerous?

October 16, 2012

By now, the fact that wind energy is unreliable is well known by most people. The fact that it must be backed up by spinning reserves of gas turbines ready to come on line at a moment’s notice while spewing exhaust into the atmosphere is also well known.

What hasn’t received much attention is that wind may be dangerous to our ability to keep the lights on. The huge investment in wind turbines may be wasted when we really need wind to produce electricity.

Last summer the Northeast, Southeast and Texas experienced higher than usual temperatures, which caused peaks in demand for electricity that grid operators could just barely manage.

Grid operators couldn’t rely on wind because wind doesn’t generate electricity on hot summer afternoons.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas says that less than 10% of total wind capacity is “available” during peak summer days.

In the UK a similar event nearly caused the lights to go out – in the winter. The UK has some of the windiest areas in Europe, which has prompted large investments in wind turbines.

When temperatures fell far below freezing last January, demand for electricity soared, but the ability of wind to produce electricity plunged because the wind was either blowing too fast and the turbines had to be shut down, or the wind wasn’t blowing at all.

Power from wind in the UK fell from 8.6% of the electricity mix to 1.8%.

Here is how the New York Times reported on this issue:

“Peak supply is also becoming a vexing problem because so much of the generating capacity added around the country [US] lately is wind power, which is almost useless on the hot, still days when air-conditioning drives up demand.”

It appears as though we need to build new gas turbine power generating capacity every time we build wind turbines. As one group said, we may need to build 100 MW of gas turbine capacity for every 400 MW of wind turbines that are installed. (Wind turbines have a capacity factor of around 30% so 400 MW of installed nameplate capacity is only equivalent to 120 MW of real capacity.)

The cost of building and operating these gas turbines isn’t counted when calculating the cost of wind generated electricity.

Utilities generally like to keep a reserve of 10% power generation capacity standing by to cover peak loads. Perhaps they shouldn’t count wind turbines when determining the size of existing reserves?

Existing perverse energy policies are forcing the construction of unreliable, expensive wind turbines. Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), for example, require utilities to include a certain percentage of renewables in the electricity sold to their customers. In northern states, where solar is virtually an impossible investment, wind may be the only renewable source available to meet the RPS requirements.

We have reached the point where wind power may actually result in blackouts, and where at a minimum, it is requiring increased costly investments in gas turbines.

Perhaps General Electric should sell wind turbines and gas turbines as a package?

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