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The trouble with wind power

Too much wind?

I’m a supporter of wind power. I’m not worried that wind turbines kill too many birds (that risk is overstated) or that they are eyesores or that they are too costly. But there is a problem with the way we’re building wind turbines, and that’s the topic of a brief essay that I wrote in the September issue of Wired magazine. Here’s how the story begins:

You’re probably a fan of wind power. It provides a limitless supply of clean energy. The turbines are manufactured primarily in the rust belt, creating much-ballyhooed green jobs for unemployed factory workers. Wind farms generate profits for local utilities, alternative energy companies, farmers, and ranchers, not to mention manufacturers like General Electric. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s this: The US is building generating capacity in places that don’t need the electricity.

To be more specific, we’re building wind turbines in rural areas, like west Texas and Iowa, far from where electricity is needed.

One result is a bizarre phenomenon (See Electricity that’s cheaper than free) which I’ve written about before called “negative electricity prices,” which means what it sounds like. Because of the way the federal production tax credit for wind turbines works, some owners of wind farms will actually pay operators of the electricity grid to take their power because they will collect more from the government than they pay to the grid. It sounds nuts and, in fact, it is.

As I write in Wired, there are two obvious solutions to the fact that we are now building wind in the wrong places. One is to make it much easier for utilities to construct transmission lines to get wind-generated electricity from places like West Texas and the Dakotas to cities where the demand is great. The other is to build more wind farms closer to cities, perhaps offshore, although the costs of offshore farms, which, of course, require new transmission lines of their own, are significantly higher than those built on land. That’s one reason why we are still waiting for the first offshore wind farm to be built in the U.S.

In a response to the story, Michael Goggin of the American Wind Energy Association says that building new transmission is a better approach than putting wind farms in sub-optimal areas. Transmission is boring, but incredibly important, and there’s no doubt that we need more of it.

Marc Gunther's picture

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 6, 2010 9:54 pm GMT

I used to think vertical axis wind generators on a barn roof were optimal. The roof structure acts as an airfoil increasing coupling efficiency of wind to mechanical turbine power while greatly expanding airflow. Plus the generator is inside the barn where it can be easily maintained. Further, the barn structure substitutes for the free standing pole structure.

I spent many hours in libraries reading WWII propeller designs. It is hard to listen to modern windmill advocates describe themselves as experts without feeling they are insulting my intelligence. Those WWII designers were serious about their technology.

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Sep 6, 2010 10:10 pm GMT

It seems to me that transmission is just one of the concerns. It’s a big one, eg, transmission lines will have to cross the Rockies for wind to be 20% of 2030 US electricity, and who will pay?

Then there’s the problem of GHG reductions from intermittents in actual use.

And the biggie, whether future analysis will say windmills cause climate change: Wind turbines could cause temperatures to rise and fall 

Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on Sep 7, 2010 2:24 pm GMT

Mark, wind is part of a package of delusions, which the critics of nuclear power are trying to sell.  

Critics of nuclear power tell us, “Nuclear power is too expensive.”   But they don’t tell us more expensive than what.  It turns out that nuclear is not more expensive than reliable wind.  Critics say that the cost of nuclear power is going up, but the cost of reliable wind – wind generated electricity that can be delivered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without carbon emissions – is going up fast too.

Any way you try to design a reliable wind system, including a wind-solar combination, turns out to be more expensive than nuclear.  Energy writers like you need to acknowledge this.  You need to tell people that no matter how expensive the cost of nuclear power will be, the cost of wind will be higher.   You need to tell people the truth about post carbon energy and its cost. 

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Sep 7, 2010 7:02 pm GMT

Charles, If you look at Sen. Alexander’s proposal for nuclear, which Nuclear Energy Institute says is too ambitious, it doesn’t get us to 50% low-GHG electricity by 2030, not even close. So we need other low-GHG electricity. While wind with fossil fuel backup with carbon capture and storage is more expensive than nuclear, it doesn’t require NRC detailed oversight and so wind plus carbon capture and storage for backup can be added fairly rapidly, though perhaps not as rapidly as some wind advocates hope for. We need a number of ways to make low-GHG electricity in the short term because by 2030, we want electricity around the world to be totally decarbonized. In the longer term, 2030 successes will influence the direction of electricity creation for 2050. And whatever the subsidies for wind, it’s not the same order of magnitude as solar subsidies, and wind is not, we hope, as bad for the environment as tidal and wave electricity are expected to be.

Yes wind is more expensive than nuclear, but as much nuclear as possible as fast as possible plus as much wind as possible as fast as possible still won’t get us to where we want to be in 2030. Even if Congress were adding a steep price to GHG, and setting rational policy, the US, let alone the world, cannot respond fast enough. Let the market place take care of what happens after 2030, and support what look to be the better solutions for electricity today. Note: I do not advocate subsidies for renewables in lieu of good policy. I’ve heard a couple of policy wonks talk about the need for a $100/tonne cost for GHG. If we need to pay for GHG mitigation, we need to pay.

Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on Sep 7, 2010 8:27 pm GMT

Karen, I have been saying for the last three years that we need a new nuclear deployment model.  While people can recognize the flaws of the old model, they don’t seem to realize that a better alternative model is possible, and indeed would allow the construction of far more reactors at a far lower price than the current model would allow.  You hold out as the only alternative, the expensive and unreliable renewable generating systems, but surely we can do better than to invest money into low quality generating systems.  For a smaller investment, we can build reactor factories that will produce reactors the same way Henry Ford Produced cars.  I say put our investment in the technology mort likely to suceeed, not into technology we know will fail.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 7, 2010 9:57 pm GMT

Too many experts.

Just had a visit from a kid Deputy campaigning for the current Sheriff of this county with more deer than people. Even rednecks want renewable energy, along with old “back to the land” hippies. I have a real old friend who is a fan of Rush Limbaugh who likes renewable energy.

It all comes down to what works. Wind, solar, biofuels, and other fancy solutions exist. And people of all ages and politics want to better our world.

Showing some respect for people will advance the science. People are smart and posess good will. Windmill advocates must stop pushing gigantic million dollar junk on the public. There is some good opportunity in wind for good solutions.

We can move forward as partners, but we can’t be pushed.

John Englert's picture
John Englert on Sep 8, 2010 3:24 am GMT

The wind model right now is wind moves blades, blades spin generator making electricity, electricity moved on long transmission line to central point where it’s combined with other windmills, electricity sent to city.  Perhaps there’s a new model that we haven’t explored because we’ve never had a diffuse source of energy like this before.  Is there some form of work that can be done closer to the windmills that isn’t too sensitive to the variability of the wind? 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 8, 2010 1:31 pm GMT

Thanks, Ed. Perhaps it is not really a new model.

Billions of people have pitched roofs (wind collectors). And most people really want DC power. The electrical power system devised in the 1920s-30s US is due for serious rethinking. Expanding electric use to more people is at the core of the climate change debate. Perhaps it is a contradiction to expect we could expand the existing delivery model to global proportions.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Sep 9, 2010 2:59 am GMT

Rick, the grid was built the way it was for sound engineering reasons.   Good engineering economy drives us to more and broader grid connections, not the house-by-house electrical isolation you seem to be hoping for.  Rooftop power genergation (even before adding backup) is simply not competitive with large scale energy generation (whether for wind, solar, or thermal generation).  And no, people don’t want DC, they want versatile power; and AC is by far the best way to deliver it at city scale.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Sep 9, 2010 3:48 am GMT

Marc, building more transmission will allow the US annual wind generation to continue increasing for a while, but eventually, a more expensive problem will dominate.  If wind grows to around 30% of demand, it will get prohibitively expensive to add additional wind.  We’ll still be getting most of our electricity from fossil fuel, and there will be no more baseload demand that can be met by new baseload thermal plants (the cheapest kind) – we’ll need load following, so we’ll be locked into natural gas for all new power plants.  No baseload demand means no geothermal, no baseload solar thermal, no biomass, and no nuclear.

I used to be a fan of wind, until I realized that not only are we not building the energy storage that is clearly necessary to allow the use of wind in a very-low carbon electrical system, we don’t know how to build such a system economically, and don’t even have any promising research in the works.  The usual storage suggestions (Li-ion or NaS batteries), pumped hydro, and thermal storage are struggling to be cost effective at 12 hours.  Only CAES and salt-cavern hydrogen are viable for the multi-day periods needed for wind smoothing, and they both have dismally bad round trip efficiency (around 40%). 

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on Sep 9, 2010 5:07 am GMT

Nathan Wilson – “Rick, the grid was built the way it was for sound engineering reasons”

Yes it was however with the important caveat that it was built with the available technology.  Recent advances in high power semiconductors like IGBTs and Silicon Nitride transistors that make DC to AC and back again easy and efficient and much cheaper than before.

Rooftop PV has has two huge advantages.  One is that there is no distribution losses for household loads.  Second is the the PV panels are best in hot sunny days exactly when the peak demand is highest.  In this situation the wholesale cost of electricity is very high so the more expensive solar panels are far more competitive in cost than at other times.

” And no, people don’t want DC, they want versatile power; and AC is by far the best way to deliver it at city scale.”

This is not always true.  High Voltage DC has distinct advantages for long distance power distribution.  It loses far less in transit and has a huge advantage that not many people realise.  The end points of the DC link are versatile inverters that can assist with grid stabilisation as they can vary their frequency and phase under exact computer control.


Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 9, 2010 12:15 pm GMT

Nathan, I never implied nor hope for “house-by-house electrical isolation.” But a simpler, controlled, distributed generation system cuts costs and raises efficiency; vital engineering concepts.

All those transformers with their hysteresis, poles and lines worked well in an era of incandescent bulbs, simple motors, and vacuum tubes. Today, LEDs, perhaps stepper motors, and a million varieties of semiconductors are on the engineers design table. Producing AC from DC is easy.

The point you sidestepped is the vast cross sectional area offered by rooftop wind collection. Wind fluidics tends to flow around poorly coupled propellers. I suggested a very different approach to wind capture; again cost and effieciency.

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