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Debunking the most popular myths about wind energy

June 2, 2012

With the 2012 US Presidential election coming this fall, we can be sure that one of the topics being debated will be what to do about energy. The debate will include issues related to coal and “clean coal”, natural gas and fracking, risks of nuclear accidents, domestic oil drilling and its impact on the environment, and of course, renewables.  All of the above.

Renewable energy sometimes seems to be the most controversial, with some believing that wind and solar can do a lot to alleviate our dependence on fossil fuels, and others believing that intermittent production and government subsidies make these technologies “non starters.”

I want to focus mainly on wind energy, and debunk some of the most common myths that are being sold today.  Hopefully, this will give you what you need to formulate an informed opinion as you listen to the upcoming debates.

This is a photo I took while standing on top of a 3 MW wind turbine in Denmark. The coast line for the North Sea is in the background. Click to enlarge.

Myth No. 1:  Wind energy is not commercially viable without help from the tax payers.

This is perhaps the most common myth about wind energy.  This claim rests on the idea that the federal government must provide money to the wind producers in order to make the business profitable.  Many argue that we can no longer subsidize wind energy while our nation is so far in debt.

It is true that up until the financial collapse in October of 2008, wind enery was more expensive than fossil fuel energy.  But this has changed.  The price per kilowatt-hour of wind energy has fallen year after year for many years.  This is due to many factors, but the market has driven down the price.  The American Wind Energy Association, which monitors all aspects of wind generation, claims today that the average price of wind energy is about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is nearly the same price for energy that comes from a combined cycle natural gas plant. The group says wind energy is actually about 2 cents cheaper than coal-fired electricity.

Source: Clean Technica (http://s.tt/12tsQ)

The question then arises, if the cost of wind energy is on par with other resources, then why must we continue to provide government support?  The answer is simple.  While the price of energy is on par, the profit margins are not.  Not yet, anyway.  Natural gas and coal producers enjoy the benefit from having very mature and cost-efficient supply chains that allow for healthy investment returns.  Wind energy producers are still working hard to build the necessary supply chains and put the statutory regulations in place that will make wind energy as profitable as other resources.  Until this is completed, tax incentives will be necessary to increase the profit margins enough to attract investors.

But this is an important point.  The Production Tax Credit is not a subsidy, and should not be viewed as one.  A subsidy would be money that the government gives to wind producers — money that comes from pockets of the tax payers.  The PTC is a tax credit, meaning that the wind producer has to produce the money himself and is able to pay a slightly lower tax rate, which increases his profit margin.  The PTC currently allows a wind producer to keep 2.2 additional cents of the revenue he generates from each kilowatt-hour for the first 10 years of production.  After ten years, the tax rate returns to normal.  So money never flows from the taxpayer’s pocket to the wind producer, rather the wind producer pays taxes to the government at a slightly more attractive rate on the income he generates himself.  Clearly not a subsidy.

I have argued many times that the PTC, in fact, is a tax revenue generator.  History has shown that in each year when the PTC has been allowed to expire, there have been no new wind farms installed because the business model isn’t yet profitable enough for investors to take an interest without the profit margin that’s created by the PTC.  This means that the tax revenue that the new wind farm could have produced, at only 2.2 cents below the standard tax rate, dropped all the way to zero because the wind farm didn’t get built.  I would say that some tax revenue is better than no tax revenue at all.

I worry about the looming expiration of the PTC this year, particularly.  In the past, wind turbines were imported from Europe.  So when the PTC expired, we stopped buying turbines from overseas.  Today, however, wind turbines are manufactured in the US.  So this time if the PTC expires, American factories will close, creating an even greater manufacturing gap between the US and other countries.  Extending the PTC is an obvious no-brainer.

Myth No. 2: Wind energy is intermittent — it doesn’t work when the wind doesn’t blow.

This is obviously a true statement, but also misleading in the way it’s commonly applied.  Of course, if the wind doesn’t blow then there is no energy produced.  Critics claim that this intermittency means we can never rely on wind energy for a substantial portion of the base load.

Yet Germany, Denmark, Scotland and the UK, and other European countries are expanding their own wind energy generation to provide 50% or more of their base load.  Why do the Europeans not have the same challenges that prevent the US from adopting more wind energy into the base load?  Do they have steadier wind?

No, they have no better wind resources than the US does.  But the Europeans have figured out that when the wind stops blowing in one location, it doesn’t necessarily stop blowing in all locations — the wind is always blowing somewhere.  The same is true in the US.  But in the US, the tendency is to put large numbers of wind turbines all in one place.  So, if you install 200 megawatts of wind turbines in one location, then you lose all 200 megawatts of the base load when the wind stops blowing.  This creates havoc with the grid operators, and this is why critics cry about intermittency.

In Europe, however, wind turbines are distributed.  Driving around Germany, for example, it is common to see five or six turbines in one location, seven or eight turbines several miles down the road, four or five further on, and so on.  As you drive around, you are always passing small numbers of turbines, some turning and some not, depending on where the wind is blowing.  When the wind stops at one area, wind turbines in other areas are still producing power.  This means that some portion of the base load is always being produced by wind.  Over the years, as confidence has grown in this distributed model, more and more of the European base load has been transitioned to wind energy with more of the base load being planned for the future.  Much more.

An added advantage of distributing wind turbines is that grid connection is cheaper and easier.  Large wind farms require very robust connections to the grid, and these connections become limiting factors to the amount of energy that can be produced.  By distributing turbines around the region, smaller grid connections can be made that do not require large expensive substations and grid redesign efforts.

So, while this myth carries some element of truth, there are very practical ways to overcome the problem of intermittency.

Myth No. 3:  The noise!!!

I have heard many claims about wind turbine noise.  Some people complain about never-ending headaches, inability to sleep, and inability to concentrate.  Some have even complained about the noise from turbines disturbing their livestock, keeping cows from producing milk and chickens from producing eggs.

If a wind turbine is making any noise at all, there is something wrong with it.  I have heard wind turbines make noise when the main bearing is going bad, but I have also stood at the base of large turbines many times and had conversations with people without having to raise my voice at all.  A properly operating turbine produces less noise than a person talking.  Here is a link to a YouTube video that compares wind turbine noise to other common noises.  Form your own opinion.  From first hand experience, I can assure you that this video is very accurate.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JD0v9_zV2uk

Myth No. 4:  The rare earth elements needed to produce magnets for wind turbine generators require the same mining operations that coal does, which has an equally bad impact on the environment.  Also, these elements are rare, so there is not enough of them to produce all the turbines we would need.

Actually, these are both completely false claims.  But, frankly, I hope this issue becomes a larger part of the debate.  We have known for years that there is going to be a problem — not because neodymium and dysprosium are rare, but because China has been nearly the only producer of these elements, so they can manipulate the price.  By the way, these elements were named “rare earth elements” before they were later found in abundance but the name stuck. They are not rare at all and are found today nearly everywhere.  The US has plenty of neodymium and dysprosium reserves, so we can produce these materials ourselves if we choose to.

Now, to keep this in perspective, consider that it takes roughly 1,300 lbs of neodymium and dysprosium to manufacture the magnets for a permenant magnet generator for a wind turbine.  That 1,300 lbs of material will keep producing enough electricity to power all of the lights, appliances, electronics, heat and air conditioning for approximately 1,000 homes for 20 years.  That 1,300 lbs of material is never “consumed” but is put to use continually and can be recycled again at the end of the turbine’s 20-year life and put to use again.

Contrast that with coal. It takes more than 714 lbs of coal to power just one 100 watt light bulb for one year. The coal used to power that one light bulb is consumed and must be replaced with another 714 lbs of coal for the second year.  And so on.  That adds up to 14,280 lbs of coal to power just one light bulb for 20 years.

So while production of permanent magnets does require mining, it is a much more sustainable form of mining because the material removed from the earth is never consumed.  I believe I will go with wind energy.

Myth No. 5: Wind turbines kill large numbers of birds.

Earlier models of wind turbines were relatively small with blades that turned at a much faster rotational rate than today’s larger multi-megawatt machines.  Those smaller fast-moving blades were a challenge for birds and collisions did occur.  The frequency of bird deaths at wind farms used to be around 10,000-40,000 bird deaths per year.  Those were a lot of bird deaths, to be sure, but many fewer than the estimated 40 million bird deaths per year caused by impacts with fast-moving cars on interstate highways.  Today, however, the larger wind turbine blades move much slower and have become a much smaller risk for birds resulting in rare occurrences of deaths.

— I hope this information was helpful.  The debate over energy is one of the most important debates of all.  Please take just five minutes to let your elected representatives know how you feel about wind energy.  Just drop them an email demanding that the PTC be extended for five years.  I’ve been told that it only takes about a dozen concerned citizens to get a representative’s attention.  So your email or phone call really can make a difference.  Please feel free to copy and paste any of this material if you can use it.

And, of course, your comments or emails to me are always welcome.  You can reach me directly at wally.lafferty@yahoo.com.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2012 3:11 am

    Wally : As a supporter of renewable energy I think this is a great summary of wind power issues and the answers which need to be more widely known. Yes, here in Scotland we are building wind generation plants in large numbers as part of our Scottish Governments policy to make best use of renewable resources. We are also making great strides in the generation of tidal and wave powered generation plants.

    The question I have is regarding the distribution of generated electricity over large distances. We build turbines in remote locations across The Highlands and the main grid loading is in the Central Belt with large (by our standards) cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh.

    Some critics say that we loose up to 85% of the power generated because the power lines that carry the load are unable to be any more efficient. The distribution technology does not yet exist to improve the efficiency.

    Is this the case? It seems a little odd that this critism applies to wind power and not other forms of energy generation. How efficient are wind farms compared to traditional fosssil fuel plants? What are the distribution issues and what are the answers now and in the future.

    • June 5, 2012 1:26 pm

      Hi Stephen

      I doubt the loss is close to 85%, but probably closer to 50%. Still way too much, but this is common with AC power lines. High voltage DC is more efficient, but still has significant inefficiencies.

      The technology to improve the efficiency of distribution does indeed exist. High Temperature Superconducting cables might sound like science fiction, but this is actually 30 year old technology. The cost of cryogenics has dropped to the point where this technology is quite feasible. Using liquid hydrogen, which is not much more expensive than water these days, the temperature of the cable can be controlled at 70 degrees Kelvin, and eliminate virtually all of the loss in the cable. The cables can now be produced in lengths greater than 1 km, but can be spliced together with minimal loss. Burying these cables underground or beneath the seabed would protect the cable, help insulate it, and would eliminate all of the NIMBY lobby that’s tying up projects in court.

      Wally

  2. June 5, 2012 4:08 pm

    Wally, Thanks, I take it that at preset while high temperature superconducting cables are technologically feaseable the cost is still prohibitive? If this is the case, at what point would you see them being economically viable? Could cable runs of 400Km plus be both technically and economically a practical proposition? We have had a great deal of fuss over long distance power line up-grading here in the Scottish Highlands and it would be useful to know if, as and when high temperature superconducting cables might be available and even more interesting to know what the Scottish Government intends to do with them.

    • June 8, 2012 2:03 am

      Hi Stephen

      I have seen business cases that suggest HTS cables are economically feasible today. Using HTS cables within the wind farm (from the generator/converter to the common connector) can be done with short cables, and a common cryogenics system at the connector could cool all the cables from one point. This would be a great first step into HTS technology.

      For offshore wind farms, a traditional HVDC line could be used for the long haul to shore. For onshore wind farms, there is no reason not to use HTS on the long haul as well.

      • June 9, 2012 6:48 am

        Hi Wally,

        Thanks again, I would be interested in seeing them as we have many critics of wind farms in Scotland, mostly it has to be said in aesthetic grounds which is rich bearing in mind that the Scottish landscape is almost all man made …. we cut all the trees down five hundred years or so ago…. anyway, the main argument which does hold water is the inefficiency of the transmission system. If you could let me have sight of the business cases I would be grateful – send to stephen_doughty@hotmail.co.uk if you are able, thanks.

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