Wind Energy is Too Inefficient to Catch On

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I'm just back from Western Michigan after giving a series of talks on our energy future. In the 19th century, Dutch immigrants settled much of this area, bringing with them an affinity for windmills. There is an authentic windmill named De Zwaan, meaning graceful bird, in the town of Holland. When the local utility proposed building a new coal-fired power plant, some residents asked, "why not wind?"

Wind energy is promoted as a clean, low cost, carbon free source of electricity. It is the fastest growing of all our energy sources. By 2030 total wind generation is predicted to provide 2.5 percent of U.S. consumption, up from 0.8 percent in 2007. Despite this, wind will likely be confined to a niche role. Here's why.

The U.S. consumes about 100 quadrillion BTUs of thermal energy per year. Electricity generation accounts for about 40 percent of this. Currently we meet this demand with coal (49 percent), natural gas (21 percent), and uranium (20 percent). Hydro provides 5 percent, and all renewables together only 2.5 percent.

Electricity has met almost all of the growth in U.S. energy demand since the 1980s. This is not surprising since about 60 percent of our GDP comes from industries and services that rely primary on electricity to produce or power their products. (In 1950, the figure was only 20 percent.) Demand for electricity is projected to continue to grow and will do so especially rapidly if plug-in hybrid cars come online in significant numbers.

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In all modern economies, electricity does the vast majority of the heavy lifting. And because of their low cost and ability to reliably generate power, fossil and nuclear fuels dominate generation. Displacing them requires that any alternative produce energy that is storable and reliable. Fuels with high energy densities are favored.

Energy generation must be able to meet both base-load and peak demands while providing reserve power. The output of wind turbines varies with the cube of wind speed. This means the average wind farm generates electricity at only 30 percent capacity, compared to 85-95+ percent for coal and nuclear power plants. Since grid operators must ensure against blackouts, wind power must be backed up, mostly with natural gas turbine "peaking" units‹basically jet engines bolted to the ground. These are very expensive to operate. This makes wind power about 50 percent more expensive than power generated by a traditional coal plant.

A 1,000 MW coal or nuclear plant occupies about one square mile of land. Since wind energy is somewhere from 5 to 50 times more dilute than energy from fossil and nuclear fuels, gathering an equivalent amount of energy requires huge amounts of land‹about 125 square miles for a 1,000 MW wind farm. (Even this is a low-ball estimate since the wind's capacity is so low.)

Given the above, might the Holland utility consider nuclear? William Tucker explains the environmental logic in his book Terrestrial Energy. "The tremendous energy density in uranium produces a very small environmental footprint. This explains why uranium can be mined at a few sites, while coal must be extracted by...ripping off mountain tops in West Virginia and why a 1,000 MW coal plant must be fed by a 110-car coal train arriving every day, while a nuclear reactor is refueled by a single tractor-trailer delivering a batch of new fuel rods every eighteen months. It explains why France can take all the waste from 25 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity with nuclear reactors and store it beneath the floor of one room at La Hague."

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The trade-off for Green opposition to nuclear power in the 1970s was for the U.S. to consume about 400 million tons of coal per year. Today's Greens claim (falsely) that wind is replacing nuclear. It¹s not. Electricity is an environmentally responsible substitute for liquid transportation fuels only if it is generated from nuclear power. And nuclear is the only source that can meet our growing base-load demand. As physicist Richard Feynman said, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."