Bluff and bluster: The campaign against wind power critics

Eric Rosenbloom, March 3, 2005

[Also see "Eric Rosenbloom Distortions - LI Offshore Wind Initiative"]

Mark Diesendorf wrote an article for Australia's "On Line Opinion" attacking critics of industrial wind power [click here]. It sparked a lively discussion [click here], to which he himself reiterated his views as follows.
I spoke up about wind power because I see so much dishonest and misleading propaganda being disseminated by anti–wind power campaigners. Here I summarise their tactics, all demonstrated in the above comments on my article:

1. They claim that they are not opposed to wind power in general, but only wind farms at particular sites. But, in practice, they oppose all proposals for grid-connected wind farms.

2. Many of them present themselves as environmentalists or conservationists, while ignoring or denying the world's principal environmental threat, namely the human-induced greenhouse effect, and in particular that coal-fired electricity is the biggest contributor to greenhouse pollution.

3. They complain about the subsidies to wind power, while ignoring the much bigger subsidies to the production and use of fossil fuels.

4. They complain of the profits of the wind industry, while ignoring those of the coal industry which are millions of times larger. Unless anti–wind power campaigners are willing to state publicly that they are opposed to the whole capitalist system, they stand open to the charge of hypocrisy in criticising the wind industry for trying to make a profit.

5. They claim incorrectly that, as an 'intermittent' energy source, wind power cannot substitute for coal power and therefore can neither reduce carbon dioxide emissions nor contribute to meeting peak load. Refuted [below].

6. They create the false impression that wind power has huge adverse environmental impacts, by picking out rare cases and presenting them as if they were typical. Thus they mislead without actually lying. Bird and bat casualties and noise are generally treated in this way.

7. They falsely label those who speak up against their misleading arguments as industry office-bearers, employees or spruikers. I have already refuted the statement that I was formerly President of the Australian Wind Energy Association, in a previous posting.

8. They denigrate the qualifications and expertise of those who disagree with them.

So, I have to ask, if anti-wind campaigners really have a strong case, why do they use such dubious tactics?

The myth that wind needs back-up from coal

Consider the mantra parroted by anti-wind farm campaigners, that coal-fired power stations have to be kept running all the time to back-up wind. The research by the former CSIRO-ANU wind energy research group (e.g. Brian Martin & Mark Diesendorf, Electrical Power & Energy Systems, vol. 4, pp.155-161) and the work of the British researcher, Dr Michael Grubb (e.g. Energy Policy, vol. 16, pp.594-607) among others showed that wind power substitutes for base-load power stations. In most of Australia, these are coal-fired.

About 2000 MW of wind power can substitute for 660 MW of coal power. This means that an existing coal unit can be retired or a proposed new coal unit can be deferred or cancelled. Thus wind power has economic value in saving capital as well as fuel.

To maintain the reliability of the generating system in meeting peak demand, some additional peak-load plant (e.g. gas turbines) is required. Typically it would require one-quarter to one-third of the wind power capacity, depending on the geographic dispersion of wind farms.

For wind energy penetrations of less than about 20% of total generation on the grid, this additional peak-load plant does not run frequently and its capital cost is low. Therefore, it is like reliability insurance with a low premium. It reduces only slightly the large greenhouse benefits that wind power achieves by substituting for coal.

I'm aware that the international anti-wind campaign likes to cite a few recent studies that fail to obtain the correct results. In general these studies have made elementary mistakes resulting from their failure to read or understand the earlier published literature.

Even without knowledge of the mathematical and computer models used to obtain the correct results, a little reflection allows anyone to understand the absurdity of the mantra that coal-fired power stations have to back up wind. The power output of many coal-fired stations CANNOT be ramped up and down to follow the variations in wind power. However, peak-load plant can respond quickly enough to do that job.

The forum limits size and frequency of posts, so here is my complete response:

Yes, indeed, thank you, Mark, for refocusing the discussion. The numbers below correspond to those in your recent post.

1. I agree that many such statements are disingenuous. In fact, however, it is true, especially in areas of special beauty. In turn, developers are typically more disingenuous, claiming their sensitive concern for proper siting.

2. While some people deny human contribution to global warming, the strongest argument against large-scale wind power is their minuscule potential contribution to mitigation. That coal-fired electricity is the biggest contributor to greenhouse pollution is a misstatement -- coal is the biggest source in electricity generation, but electricity generation is the source of only a fraction of our greenhouse gas emissions.

3. Subsidies need not be an issue, if wind power actually delivered substantial electricity in return. And the wrongness of subsidies for fossil fuels doesn't make subsidies to wind right; it just underscores the possibility that these subsidies are misdirected as well.

4. The issue of profits is raised because of the small benefit and the sacrifice of rural and undeveloped land. Profits, along with tax sheltering, are criticized because they appear to be based primarily on exploitation and piracy.

5. Refuted after these numbered points.

6. As wind facilities are proposed in the mountains of the eastern U.S., for example, where birds and bats are indeed killed, the latter in shockingly large numbers, by existing turbines, it is right to consider that similarly sited turbines will show similar results. Most developers, as Diesendorf does, instead simply deny it's a problem. Because noise affects people to various degrees, the industry ignores the growing testimony of another very real problem in the confidence that "most" people get used to it. And there are other environmental problems, as with any industrial complex.

7. The fact is that most pro-wind arguments are right out of the industry's sales brochures and, as here, never backed by data from actual experience. (His protestation about a connection with the Australian Wind Energy Association is amusing; it states at that he was co-founder and president of the Australasian Wind Energy Association.)

8. Nobody needs to give the pro-wind camp lessons on denigrating those who disagree with them.

Now to the problem of a highly variable energy source -- that responds to the wind rather than consumer demand -- on the grid. Diesendorf's picture is obviously simplistic, because although 2000 MW of wind capacity may produce an average 660 MW of power over a year, its output at any moment may be anywhere from 0 to 1600 or so MW. The output would equal 660 MW or more only about a third of the time, and those times will not always (perhaps rarely) correspond to a need on the grid. (The west Danish grid operator, Eltra, had to export 84% of its wind-produced electricity in 2003.)

"Wind Report 2004" from the German grid manager Eon Netz describes the limitations and problems of large amounts of wind power on the grid (6250 MW in their case). They point out that back-up capacity must be maintained for the maximum infeed from the wind plant, which they found to be 80% of its nominal capacity. In addition, because of the unpredictability of wind, new reserve capacity must be built equal to 50-60% of the wind plant capacity.

Wind may indeed allow the ramping down of coal-burning plants when the wind is up. On the other hand, they have to be ramped back up when the wind slows (or is too high). This is not the most efficient way to run a coal plant, and many analysts think that it would actually increase emissions. In any case, it adds to the cost of maintaining the plant, as The Irish National Grid has recognized ("Impact of Wind Power Generation In Ireland on the Operation of Conventional Plant and the Economic Implications", February 2004). The Irish study, with generous assumptions about the contribution of wind power and ignoring short-term intermittency, also projects a diminishing benefit with more "penetration", leveling off a little above 10% penetration at less than 5% reduction in nonwind plant. Even at 10% penetration, the bulk (around 75%) of the wind plant is excess capacity. Additional wind plant is simply more excess on the system.

The Irish study projects from their actual experience, and the German report describes their actual experience. Errors in modeling can't be argued here, because they deal with facts.

Diesendorf creates a paper tiger out of some aspects of opposition and even then has trouble tearing it to shreds. Where is all the bright and shining evidence of the wonders of wind power? If pro-wind campaigners had such evidence, they would not have to resort to these kinds of attacks. They would simply show how large-scale wind development has done so much in countries like Denmark, Germany, and Spain, and we would be laughed out of the room. But they don't, apparently because they can't.

That is why environmentalists who are truly interested in reducing fossil fuel use, not to mention preserving landscapes and wild habitats, should cast a cold eye on the claims of industrial wind power.

Eric Rosenbloom is a science editor and writer living in Vermont.

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