The wind energy industry is one of the largest new sources of power generation in the country. That growth couldn’t come at a better time as the world is starting to see the effects of global warming. Wind power development could be one of the biggest contributors to eliminating the greenhouse gases from coal-fired and natural gas electricity generating plants. Here are some FAQ’s that will help you to better understand wind power.
- WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE WIND DOESN’T BLOW?
The biggest problem with wind, that can be solved, is that the wind doesn’t always blow. Wind power at this time isn’t dispatchable like the electricity from coal plants that run about 80% of the time when electricity is needed. The solution to that problem is called “firming” the wind. There are things that can be done to provide electricity on demand from the wind farms, which is what is called “firming.” Here are some good ways to firm the wind: a) use new, high-efficiency, utility-size biodiesel generators; b) store wind energy blowing at night in new, utility size Vanadium batteries, which can be scaled up to 100 megawatts(MW); c) make hydrogen at night with wind power and waste water, store the hydrogen(H2) in depleted natural gas wells, then run the stored H2 through large fuel cells to make electricity when the wind isn’t blowing; d) use Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES), where forced air made by the turbines at night is stored under pressure and then used to run generators during the day to make electricity as needed.
The goal with these methods to firm the wind is to use clean power as much as possible so that the full environmental benefit from wind power is realized. The good thing about most of these methods to firm the wind is that the end cost of the firmed electricity is still below the cost of electricity from coal power or natural gas once the costs of the environmental damage, subsidies, and increased health care costs are added to those fossil fuel sources. The Stern Report (Google it) goes even farther to explain why we can’t afford coal power or natural gas anymore. Wind power, when considering the staggering information about how much fossil fuels will cost us in the near future, is easily the best option for providing our future electricity.
- HOW MUCH DOES WIND-POWERED ELECTRICITY COST?
The cost of electricity from wind is very hard to determine because there are so many variables. There are small wind turbines designed for homes that are great machines, but can’t begin to compete with the cost of power from a 2 MW turbine. The biggest variable is the quality of the wind resource. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has produced wind resource maps for a large part of the United States and the world too. The map of the USA shows where the better wind resources are located. If you put the same 2 MW turbine in a Class 4 wind area and a Class 6 wind area, the electricity from the Class 6 area wind would be lower-cost than the electricity from the Class 4 area. It’s likely that the electricity from the Class 4 site would still be less expensive than the electricity from your local coal plants or natural gas plants!
You get my point. Now, the Department of Energy uses an average cost of electricity from wind of $0.05 per kilowatt hour (kWh) which reflects the costs from many different wind class sites around the country, averaged together. Based on the cost of electricity coming from the FPL site in Oklahoma, which would be closer to the cost of wind power from western Kansas, our electricity would cost closer to $0.04 per kWh, probably a little below that. The electricity cost figure used by the companies that own old coal plants, with little or no pollution capture equipment installed, is about $0.02 per kWh. That sounds like a good price until you add in the cost to remove the highly toxic mercury emitted by those plants from our fresh water in Kansas: the cost to remove that mercury is about $1 billion which we should include with our bills. Then add in the healthcare costs created by coal plants for respiratory and cardio-vascular problems, and many other crippling diseases, plus the costs associated with global warming, and coal power is many times more expensive than wind power.
The more important cost figure is the cost of electricity from coal plants(new or remodeled) that have added pollution reduction/capture equipment for mercury reduction, carbon dioxide(CO2), carbon sequestration, SO2, NOX, and other pollution equipment, which they should all be required to have or be forced to shut down. Once coal plants are forced to remove the toxins that threaten everyone, their cost of electricity grows to $0.08 per kWh and higher. Wind power is far lower than that even in lower wind Class sites.
- WHAT GOOD IS WIND POWER IF THERE ARE NO HIGH-VOLTAGE POWER LINES TO TRANSMIT THE ELECTRICITY FROM THE WIND FARM TO OUR HOMES?
This is another major problem, at least in Kansas. As luck would have it, the good wind sites in western Kansas don’t have access to the high-power electric transmission lines needed to connect with the rest of the grid lines in our state and neighboring states. The only solution is to build them.
So who pays for building them? The Kansas legislature established the Kansas Electric Transmission Authority (KETA) to figure out who will build them, where they are needed most, and how they will be paid for. It won’t be cheap. Efficient new high voltage lines cost around $750,000-$1,000,000 per mile. We need several hundred miles of lines. There are investment groups who have pooled billions of dollars for just such work. They will want their profit. It may be necessary to set a tariff, like a turnpike fee on the highway, to pay them off.
- ISN’T WIND POWER HIGHLY SUBSIDIZED?
The only subsidy available to wind developers is the Production Tax Credit (PTC) from the Federal government. The PTC amounts to $.019 per kWh. The PTC has come and gone since about 1994 making it difficult to sustain any development. The current Congress looks like it wants to set the PTC in place through 2012 which should be all the time needed to give wind power a chance to develop against the highly subsidized fossil fuel companies.
It is difficult to understand how the rumor got started that wind power is subsidized so much, or even wouldn’t exist without subsidies. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Compared to the gigantic subsidies available to the fossil fuel companies (tens of BILLIONS of dollars each year) wind developers in 2005 received less than 1% of the total subsidies received by their fossil fuel competitors.
- DON’T WIND TURBINES KILL BIRDS, RUIN LANDSCAPES, AND HARM OTHER WILDLIFE?
Wind farms today won’t get built unless they have proved that they won’t cause undue harm to birds and other wildlife. Most states have adopted rigorous siting standards that wind developers must follow before receiving permission to build wind farms.
There is still a certain number of people who will never want wind turbines anywhere near them. Some think the turbines are horribly ugly and are an offense to nature. Others believe that all nature should be undisturbed and that any turbine will be one turbine too many for the habitat near them. The best that can be done to appease people with these preferences and attitudes is to hope for a compromise of some sort.
The one argument against wind farms/turbines that doesn’t make much sense anymore, given that siting standards are followed as most states prescribe now, is the concern for birds. Wind farms built in good wind areas in Kansas will cause bare minimum harm to birds. The ButlerCounty wind farm in Kansas was opposed strongly by bird lovers. That wind farm was monitored weekly for a year to check for bird kills, and they didn’t find any. The new wind turbine blades spin so slowly, are made of smoother composite materials, and are designed without sharp edges so that harm to birds is carefully minimized. The grounded Prairie Chicken population hasn’t been measurably harmed either. It is quite likely that the Prairie Chickens have adapted to their new, environmentally friendly neighbor.
This brings up a point that the bird-loving opponents of wind power must consider. There are a very few alleged bird lovers in Kansas who would prefer that wind farms be mostly prohibited from being built in our state because they believe that the turbines harm birds, even though they don’t have the evidence to support that claim. That is a position that is causing great harm to birds globally. Only a very few areas in the world have the quality of wind resource, like the one in Kansas, that has the potential to greatly reduce greenhouse gases. If the bird lovers truly want to protect birds they should support wind power, just as National Audubon club supports responsible wind development. Wetlands International is a group that monitors the habitats of birds around the world that depend on wetlands for their lives. Their report this year tells of how global warming in the equatorial regions of the planet is destroying and drying up the wetland areas for millions of birds. A dozen species of wetland birds are now threatened with their very existence because of what global warming is doing to them. Tens of thousands of birds are dying because of global warming. Does it make sense to oppose the wind power that could help to save these birds?
- SINCE WIND POWER IS SO GOOD, WHY DON’T WE ALL JUST PUT UP TURBINES?
Random installation of wind turbines would create more problems than benefits. Wind farms, just like manufacturers of widgets, benefit from economies of scale: the larger the wind farm in a single, good wind resource area, the lower the cost of electricity from that site. The more widgets that can be manufactured in one place, the lower the price for the widget. Efficiencies follow cost effective production.
That brings up another important point: WE DON’T HAVE A NATIONAL ENERGY POLICY! Wind power, even more than other sources of electricity would benefit from a coherent policy that established the most efficient strategy to build our renewable energy plants and high voltage transmission lines.
A national energy policy DOES NOT mean wind and solar plants built with tax dollars! It means that development would occur within a plan to maximize assets and minimize waste. That would result in the lowest cost for consumers and the quickest way to stop harmful emissions. We don’t just build a highway anytime and anywhere we want. Why should we allow for inefficient construction of energy sources? We need a national energy policy. Please, please write your U.S. Senators and Representatives and tell them we must do this.
By Joe Spease,