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Wind Power’s CO2-Cutting Impact Disputed

Nino Marchetti's picture

I am a green technology journalist with a passion for the environment. I've been published in many places as well as appearing on television and radio. I've been interested in green...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Jun 4, 2012

Inconsistency of supply is one of the biggest drawbacks of renewables such as wind and solar. Put simply: the wind doesn’t blow all day, and the sun doesn’t shine at night. Now scientists are saying that the sporadic supply of renewables coupled with an inefficient power grid means that carbon emissions, in real terms, are not completely eliminated by wind power.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory used computer models to try to determine how adding wind turbines to the grid system might impact overall emissions in Illinois. According to their report, adjusting for wind power adds inefficiencies that cancel out some of the CO2 reduction – a conclusion that the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) disputed.


image via Gemma Renewables

The problem, according to he Argonne research, is not the clean energy itself but inefficiencies endemic to fossil fuel-burning power plants and how these inefficiencies are impacted by sporadic supply. Because the wind doesn’t blow all the time, operators have to turn on these older plants to keep up with demand. Lauren Valentino, who authored the report, said in a statement: “Turning these large plants on and off is inefficient. A certain percentage of the energy goes into just heating up the boilers again.”

According to Valentino the fossil fuel-burning power plants are also less efficient when not operating at full capacity.

Illinois in particular gets high winds at night, the report’s co-author Audun Botterud said, when demand is low. To accommodate these sudden bursts of wind, large, inflexible power plants had to be turned off and then on again, wasting power in the process. The solution Botterud proposes to the problem of sporadic supply is one that readers of this site will be familiar with. Botterud said a way to store large-scale amounts of energy created from wind needs to be found. This problem is being tackled elsewhere in the Argonne lab, Botterud said, but in the meantime smart grids can help by leveling out demand.

However, the AWEA, the U.S. wind industry’s big trade group, said the Argonne study was “a theoretical exercise” that “had “little to no bearing on how the actual utility system works.”

Among other flaws it alleged, the AWEA said the Argonne modeling treated Illinois as a grid unto itself, but Illinois power plants actually feed into two massive interstate electric utility systems covering parts of 23 states and Manitoba. This, the AWEA said, led the study to assume “that at high levels of wind energy output in Illinois, grid operators would be forced to reduce the output of the state’s very large nuclear fleet, thereby resulting in no emissions savings.”  In reality, however, the nukes “would likely never see their power output reduced, because that wind and nuclear power would be shipped out of state on the large power lines,” the organization said.

The study was a collaboration between researchers at Argonne and summer interns Valentino and Viviana Valenzuela, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Georgia Institute of Technology respectively. It  was published in Environmental Science & TechnologyOther Argonne co-authors are Zhi Zhou and Guenter Conzelmann.

illinois wind power

image via Shutterstock

Of course all this being said, the biggest block on reducing carbon emissions in Illinois, like elsewhere, is a lack of investment in renewables. Like many states, Illinois has pledged to get 25 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2025. Yet it currently lags a long way behind its potential. According to 2010 figures, the state got 2.2 percent of its energy from wind.

 A report issued by a trio of wind energy associations suggests that if the state of Illinois were to develop all 3,200 megawatts of currently permitted wind projects, it could potentially generate as many as 20,000 jobs and close to $1 billion in wages. The report from the Illinois Wind Energy Association (IWEA) said the state currently has about 2000 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity, but is in a position to generate much more.

Michael Goggin's picture
Michael Goggin on Jun 7, 2012

Here is AWEA’s full analysis of how the results of this study are being misreported:

Michael Goggin

American Wind Energy Association

Mike Barnard's picture
Mike Barnard on Jun 8, 2012

The original article is fairly balanced, but while paying lip service to AWEA’s very accurate points about the Argonne study misses a key element:  wind energy is not that intermittent, and its intermittency is predictable.  

Wind is running at 35-47% capacity factor in different wind categories in all sites due to advances in turbine design, specialization of turbines for differing wind conditions and many other innovations.  This is well above Argonne’s assumptions.’t-blow-all-the-time-Doesn’t-this-make-wind-power-ineffective/answer/Mike-Barnard

Regarding the Argonne study, AWEA’s primary criticism is bang on.  Wind energy, and all other forms of energy, do not respect state or even national borders. Artificial restrictions create artificial results.



As for Mr. Post, he continues to provide lengthy posts supported by references to:

– thoroughly debunked articles by himself – please follow his links to see the debunkings in comments

– Bentek reports – Heavily biased and inaccurate reports from a natural gas analysis company run by a President who runs two fossil lobbying organizations

– wind-attacking, unpeer-reviewed web pages by a retired Dutch gentleman named Dr. C. (Kees) le Pair, all of which have been thoroughly debunked in many places

Mr. Post is against wind energy and will seize on any material which supports his bias; effectively. Refer to his conclusions at your own risk.

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