For the first hundred years or so of commercial electric power, there have been six over-riding concerns about commercial electricity generators:
- Could they provide large amounts of electricity?
- Could they provide reliable and predictable electricity?
- Could they provide dispatchable1 electricity?
- Could they service one or more of the grid demand elements2?
- Could their facility be compact3?
- Could they provide economical electricity?
1. Dispatchable means a source can generate higher or lower amounts of power on-demand, i.e. on a human-defined schedule.
2. Grid Demand Elements = Base Load (the minimum amount of steady rate electric power required 24/7) + Load Following (regulation of power output in response to moment-to-moment changes in system demand, so as to maintain the system within predetermined limits) + Peak Load (the maximum load during a specified period of time).
3. Compact is the ability to site an electrical facility on a relatively small and well-defined footprint, preferably near high demand, e.g. cities. This would save on transmission lines which are extremely expensive, unsightly, and produce power loss.
The primary goal of all of these efforts was to achieve capacity. To ensure reliability at the lowest cost, grid operators consider capacity in several ways as they evaluate electricity sources, but the most important is Capacity Value. The layperson’s definition of this is: ”the percentage of a machine’s rated capacity that grid operators can be confident will be in available during upcoming times of greatest demand.” Knowing this accurately is the key to reliable system grid performance.
Many options were proposed to satisfy these six criteria. To maximize public benefit (i.e. to ascertain whether the suggested source would comply with all of the needed condition, each was individually and scientifically vetted (before being allowed on the grid).
Over time, what resulted from these assessments was that we selected the following sources to provide commercial electricity: hydroelectric, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and oil. (Oil is by far the smallest source.)
Note that each of these current sources meet ALL of the above six essential criteria — and if they don’t (like oil recently becoming more expensive), then they get replaced, by other conventional sources that do.
As a result, today, and a hundred years from now, these sources can provide ALL of the electrical needs of our society — and continue to meet all six criteria.
So what’s the problem?
A new criteria has been recently added to the list of criteria: environmental impact — and the current number one environmental impact consideration is greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. CO2).
So why has this joined the Big Six? It is a direct result of the current debate on global warming. In response to intense political pressure, governments have acquiesced to these forces to make emissions an additional criterion.
Having government step in and mandate that utility companies change the principles that have been the foundation of our electrical supply system for a hundred years is disconcerting, transforming such a successful system based on a position that is not yet scientifically resolved.
Furthermore, this new criteria for electrical supply sources now has taken priority over all the other six. It has, as of late, become the ONLY benchmark of importance — the other six have essentially been put aside, and are now given only lip service.
In this unraveling of sensibility there is one final incredible insult to science: alternative sources of commercial electricity that claim to meet this new super-criteria (to make a consequential impact on CO2 reduction) don’t even have to prove that they actually do it!
Let’s look at the environmental poster child: wind power, and examine each of the six time-tested criteria, then the new one…
- Does industrial wind power provide large amounts of electricity?
Yes, it could. However, its effectiveness from most perspectives is inferior. For instance (because of the wide and unpredictable fluctuations of wind), it only produces, on average, about 30 percent of its nameplate power. Another example of its dilutedness is that it takes over one thousand times the amount of land for wind power to produce a roughly equivalent amount of energy as does a nuclear facility.
- Does industrial wind power provide reliable and predictable electricity?
NO. Despite the wind industry’s absolute best efforts it is not reliable or predictable compared to the standards set by our other conventional electrical sources. What’s worse is that when power is really needed (e.g. hot summer afternoons) wind is usually on vacation.
- Does industrial wind power provide dispatchable electricity?
NO. Again, due to its unpredictability, wind can not be counted on to provide power on demand, i.e. on a human-defined schedule.
- Does industrial wind power provide one or more of the grid demand elements?
NO. It certainly can not provide Base Load power, which is what is needed to supply an underlying 24/7 demand. It can not provide Load Following, which is in response to moment-to-moment changes in system demand. It can not reliably provide Peak Load, which is needed maximums during specified periods of time (like hot summer afternoons when lots of air conditioners are on, and the wind is usually still).
- Is industrial wind power compact?
NO. As mentioned above, to even approximate the nameplate power of a conventional facility, like nuclear, takes something like a thousand times the amount of area. Wind promoters are desperately trying to convince gullible politicians that it can have some real capacity value. Their tinkertoy ‘solution’ is to try to connect multiple wind farms spread over vast areas. In addition to being speculative, all of this, of course, completely undermines the objective to be a concentrated power source.And another ‘feature’ of wind power is that most of the windiest sites (and available land) are a LONG way from where the electricity is needed. This will result in thousands of miles of huge unsightly transmission towers and cables, at an enormous expense to ratepayers — most of it completely unnecessary. Kite flying will be a thing of the past.
- Does industrial wind power provide economical electricity?
NO. It is artificially subsidized far more than any conventional power source. A 2008 U.S. Energy Information Administration report concluded that just some of the federal subsidies for wind energy amount to $23+ per megawatt-hour. By contrast, normal coal receives 44¢ per megawatt-hour, natural gas 25¢, hydroelectric 67¢, and nuclear power $1.59. In addition to these, there are significant state subsidies and mandates. Several months ago, there are some 200 bills pending before Congress to add more incentives.And now let’s add the latest rule du jour:
- Does industrial wind power make a consequential reduction of CO2?
NO! No independent scientific study has ever shown that wind power saves a meaningful amount of CO2. In fact, the most independent scientific study done (by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) says the opposite. Its 2007 report concludes that (assuming the most optimistic conditions) the U.S. CO2 savings by 2020 will amount to only 1.8 percent. An earlier EIA report said 1.3 percent. These are trivial quantities!
What about the critical factor of Capacity Value? The result of the above deficiencies is that wind power has a Capacity Value of about 10 percent. Compare this to the conventional sources, where essentially all of them have a Capacity Value over 90 percent: a stunning disparity.
How can this possibly be? How could the world be rushing to widely deploy an electrical source that fails five out of six of our historically important criteria, AND has no scientific proof that it even meets this new emissions criterion?
It’s all about the money. Lobbyists for businesses, and parties who want a piece of this massive market are leaving no stone unturned. Environmentalists who have taken their eye off the ball are promoting this palliative non-solution. Politicians eager to be seen as ‘green’ are saying yes to everything the color of money.
Wind power proponents typically try to rationalize away its shortcomings saying that things will ‘get worked out’. What essentially is happening though, is that politicians are trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. Some of these significant problems may never be resolved.
Another consideration is that understanding wind power’s inherent electrical generation shortcomings might put some other issues into perspective. For instance, it is entirely legitimate to be concerned about bird and bat mortality, noise intrusions, flicker effect, property devaluation, etc. But what if they were ‘fixed’ — would wind power then be okay?
Let’s say that (to help with some of these issues) a conscientious town’s ordinance required a one mile separation of wind turbines from all houses. Is wind power then an acceptable source for providing commercial power? The fact is that this excellent regulation would in no way address the fundamental electrical grid limitations of wind power identified above. Wind power will not be acceptable until all seven criteria are met.
Does wind’s abysmal failure mean that all renewables are a similar scam? No. Each proposed new power source needs to be objectively evaluated, independently. For example, based on MIT’s 2007 report, industrial geothermal holds significant promise.
In any case, this profound turn of events in how we select our sources of electrical power (by abandoning our successful and time-tested criteria) is having, and will continue to have, incalculable negative impacts on every person on the planet.
There is a solution — and it will cost a lot less that a trillion dollars. 90 percent of what we do spend should be on improving the conventional sources that already work. The remaining amount could go towards exploring new options that by definition would have to meet or exceed conventional sources (i.e. the six criteria). Then add conservation.
John Droz is a physicist with energy expertise whose position is that environmental and energy issues should be solved based on science, not the influence of lobbyists. For supporting data, a presentation of Droz’s is available at EnergyPresentation.Info . His views are not necessarily those of the Cleantech Group.
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