Originally posted on MasterResource by Jon Boone, September 13, 2010


Leon Brunschvicg

Have truth and consequences arrived for the biggest energy sham of all?

Energy journalist Robert Bryce recently broke the news to mainstream American media. In a hard-hitting article published in the Wall Street Journal, he reported the findings of a Colorado energy research study, which earlier this year concluded that the industrial wind technology it sampled in the regions of Colorado and Texas neither reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the production of electricity nor rolled back consumption of fossil fuels.

The raison d’être of the wind industry is to abate significant levels of the greenhouse gas emissions many feel are causing precipitous and adverse warming trends in the earth’s climate. Wind technology is also sold as an alternative source of power to coal-fired plants. Therefore, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the trade organization for a constellation of limited liability wind companies, did not exactly welcome Bryce’s report with arms open.

Instead, AWEA spokesman Michael Goggin penned a stern riposte, which alleged that Bryce and others skeptical about the efficacy of wind technology were “lobbyists” for the fossil fuel industry, spreading lies “to avoid losing market share to wind energy,” and compared Bryce and a range of people and organizations to the groups and pundits from the tobacco industry who once told Congress there was no causal link between cigarettes and cancer.

Goggin also produced evidence and testimonials in ABC fashion that he claimed validated “one of the universally recognized and uncontestable (italics added) benefits of wind energy: that (it) reduces the use of fossil fuels as well as the emissions and other environmental damage associated with producing and using these fuels.” He further boasted that there were “reams of government data and peer-reviewed studies” supporting the effectiveness of his employer’s technology.

Before addressing AWEA’s evidentiary offerings on behalf of wind’s carbon saving/ fossil-fuel slaying potential–a bit of clarifying context.

First, Bryce is an energy realist who writes to effect more informed energy discourse in the hope of achieving better energy policy. In a recent televised forum at the Manhattan Institute in which he introduced his recent book, Power Hungry, Bryce maintained he is not a political or economic ideologue, is bored with political labeling, and that his ideas result from the way he was “mugged” by the laws of physics.

He believes the most effective way to transition from high usage of coal, which now provides nearly half of the nation’s electricity and emits about a third of its CO2 emissions, requires a rapid increased deployment of natural gas generators as a bridge to a pervasive use of nuclear technology. And he recommends that environmentally questionable coal extraction techniques, such as mountaintop removal, be made illegal—the sooner, the better. Hardly the words of a fossil fuel lobbyist.

Second, contrary to the carefully cultivated perception that wind is David to coal’s Goliath, the record shows that people and corporations heavily involved with coal, natural gas, and oil are also involved with wind. In the 1990s, Enron’s Ken Lay, helped by then–Texas governor George W. Bush (today a leading wind booster), resurrected wind technology from the tomb to which steam power had consigned it. Giant energy corporations swaddled in coal and oil production, such as Florida Power & Light, General Electric, BP, AES, and Siemens, are all intensely invested in wind. They claim to be “diversifying their energy portfolios.” But do they also expect wind to reduce their fossil fuel market share?

Third, the National Academy of Science, in a report published in early 2007, concluded that, in the words of one of the researchers, “Wind power will thus not reduce carbon emissions; it will only slow the increase by a small amount.”[1] Engineers and environmentalists in Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, and Australia followed suit, publishing papers that are not only skeptical of wind’s CO2 offsetting abilities but also offer methodological accounting systems for scientifically calculating wind’s carbon impact on the electricity grid. None are beholden to the fossil fuel industry and none are paid lobbyists like Goggin. All, including the NAS, have been rebuffed in their efforts to examine data on wind integration behavior at meaningful time intervals and amounts; instead, they’ve been told that such data is “proprietarily confidential,” and can’t be released without the consent of the affected wind companies. So much for the transparency and accountability that were once the pillars of public policy, not to mention the scientific precept of refutability.

A few sources do publish wind performance information, notably the Ontario IESO and, most thoroughly, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in the Pacific Northwest. One can also get, with some digging, historic wind data on a plant-by-plant basis in New York and Pennsylvania. This information has clarified the peculiar nature of wind performance per se. But it is insufficient, for reasons explained later, to account for the way that “peculiar nature” affects the thermal performance of conventional generators throughout the grid system. And it is this phenomenon that intrigued the researchers from Colorado.

Fourth, it is true that the Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States (IPAMS, which is now the Western Energy Alliance) commissioned the Colorado report produced by Bentek Energy, an energy analytics firm based in Colorado. It is also true that Bentek was the first to get real time performance data at sufficiently fine-grained time intervals, using an ingenious methodological approach that examined the heat rate penalties of (particularly) coal plants intimately involved with wind integration. (More on this later.)

What is astonishing, given the nearly universal aversion to sharing wind related performance data, is that Bentek got permission to do this at all. Bentek demonstrated that, in the regions it studied, the peculiar nature of wind performance caused coal plants to perform more inefficiently, “often resulting in greater SO2, NOx, and CO2 emissions than would have occurred if less wind energy were generated and coal generation was not cycled.” The report concluded by recommending that Colorado and Texas begin replacing their older coal units with flexible fossil-fired natural gas units that produce half the emissions.

Ironically, this is precisely the recommendation that the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) made in the EWITS study Goggin cited. It is also the basis of AWEA’s own prescription for making wind variability work. On the one hand, Goggin rejects the Bentek study as a creature of the evil fossil fuel empire. But, without a hitch in his giddy-up, he then embraces language in that study that places fossil fuels in service to the white knights of wind. Whether this flop was noticed is unclear.


What’s clear is that wind performance is very peculiar in terms of providing highly reliable and secure electricity at affordable cost. The following profile generally fits all industrial wind facilities, with their skyscraper-sized turbines placed five to a mile atop ridgelines for many miles along terrain or seabed. Because any wind “power” is a function of the cube of the wind speed along a narrow wind speed range (typically 9 to 33 mph), small changes in wind speed translate into large changes in the amount of wind energy convertible to electricity.

Consequently, wind generation is relentlessly fluctuating, according to the whimsy of its power source, between zero production, which occurs 10-15 % of the time, and its maximum possible performance, its rated capacity, which is achieved very rarely. Over the course of a year, a wind project, if sited in good wind territory, produces an average yield of about 25-30% of its rated capacity. About 60% of the time, it produces less.

Whatever it does produce is constantly changing, moment-to-moment; no one can predict what it will produce at any future time. Wind’s performance history also shows that wind plants generally produce most at the times of least demand—and least at the times of peak demand.[2]

Here’s an example of routine wind flux, culled at random from a BPA posting for a brief period on January 1, 2009. BPA had 1,600 MW of installed wind. At this time, the actual wind generation was 443 MW in the first minute. Five minutes later it was 454; then it was 476; then 489; then 505, etc. Three hours later it had fallen below 200 MW–and continued downward.[3]

Occasionally, wind production involves very wide swings across nearly the whole range of its rated capacity, dropping or rising precipitously in less than an hour.[4] Consider the impact of this flux if the installed wind capacity were 5,000 MW.

Wind volatility is somewhat like the fluctuations of demand as people and industries turn their appliances off and on at random—but is much more intense and difficult to manage. In fact, grid engineers often refer to wind as negative demand. Because of its uncontrollable, largely unpredictable fidgety nature, it destabilizes the grid even more than demand fluctuations do. Moreover, as AWEA’s spokeswoman, Christine Real de Azua, stated a few years ago: You really don’t count on wind energy as capacity. It is different from other technologies because it can’t be dispatched.” The National Renewable Energy Lab last year said much the same: “Wind power cannot replace the need for many ‘capacity resources’” and that any capacity value for wind is “a bonus, but not a necessity.” [5] This has serious implications for efficient grid performance.

We expect electricity to be reliable, affordable, and secure, which is made difficult and more costly because supply and demand must match continuously. Unlike the water supply, large amounts of electricity can’t be stored, despite century old quests, led by Edison, to invent such battery storage systems. AWEA’s oft-trumpeted storage fix is pumped hydro, which generally can’t respond fast enough to accommodate rapid changes in wind output. (Other kinds of storage are frequently cited but they are not practical, generally available, or economically feasible.)

Until recently, demand fluctuations were the primary reason for grid instability because they are constantly breaking off their connection with supply, putting the two out of balance. However, demand flux is acceptable, even desirable (unless one is a grid manager), because having electricity whenever desired is so important to both economic productivity and quality of life. To preserve this freedom, electricity supply was made as stable, controllable, reliable as possible, so that precise amounts of supply could be dispatched—or retracted—to balance demand flux immediately.

For example, if demand slackens by 5 MW, then exactly 5 MW of production is withdrawn from the grid, typically under automatic generation controls. Conversely, if there is 10 MW of increased demand, then exactly 10 MW of supply is ratcheted up. This kind of manageability is known as capacity value.

Conventional generators—coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydro, which together account for 95% of the nation’s electricity power—must pass stringent tests of reliability and precision performance before they are deployed. All of their electricity generation is capable of being dispatched on command, since they have firm capacity—typically producing their rated capacities when asked to do so, maintaining a steady energy level throughout their operating time except when they are called upon to ramp up or back in response to demand changes.

These generators are then placed in an ensemble, each having a role to play, some providing for base load, others for peak and load balancing purposes. There is much behind-the-scenes tumult involved as many types of conventional generations converge at just the right time so that people and industries can be served without fuss or bother at the flip of a switch.

Unreliable wind volatility is the antithesis of supply stability; it has no capacity value. (Hence the title of Kent Hawkins’ recent series, Wind Has No Value.) What most experts don’t properly account for, even those who understand the data, is the difference in the production delivery between conventional power units and wind, which is typically masked by snapshot reports of wind performance data that don’t reveal wind’s continuous skitter. The former provides their whole power (their rated capacity) at a controlled rate, unless asked to change by grid operators.

Wind provides energy in fits and starts, always staggering its way around the grid, never controllable and rarely predictable except when shut down—in the process always entangled with supportive prosthetics—conventional generation—to make its production appear whole, steady, and precise. Beyond this, wind production is often inimical to demand requirements. For example, California’s independent system operator rarely sees more than 5% of wind’s installed capacity during the summer peak periods. It is this trait that is so “peculiar,” given the requirement for reliability and grid security.

Figure 1 illustrates the supportive prosthetics concept with the wind mirroring production required, typically by fossil fuel plants, to make wind output useful—i.e., steady and reliable, as described above. As is evident, wind output is a much smaller part of a larger fuel mix but enmeshed in a yin yang mode where polar or seemingly contrary forces are existentially interconnected and interdependent. As in the old song lyric, “you can’t have one without the other.”

Figure 1 – Illustration of the Wind Mirroring Concept

Indeed, since wind’s average annual production rarely exceeds 30% of its installed capacity, electricity production from more than 70% of any wind project’s installed capacity must routinely come from conventional generation that performs inefficiently as it quickly ramps up and back to balance wind’s tempestuous ebb and flow. This is not “supporting” or back-up generation but rather proactive, reliable power that must be actively entangled with wind to make it work. Moreover, from the perspective of system reliability planning, wind requires conventional generators to cover nearly 100% of its installed capacity. (Even so, wind’s capacity value is zero in real time.) And all this is in addition to the requirement to balance demand fluctuations.

What must infill the breach when wind production falls by 10 MW? What must be running when 1000MW of installed wind is producing nothing? In terms of energy–or even power—density, one cannot equate the production from any wind installation with that of the output of a conventional generator.

One should only compare apples that produce capacity value–the ability to deliver precise increments of power—and have them withdrawn—on demand. Ms. Real de Azua was even more discerning than she realized. Since, by AWEA’s own admission, wind provides no capacity and cannot be dispatched, it can only be a supernumerary supplement—but one that requires much supplementation.

Wind is hardly new technology. It has been, along with water and horses, a mainstay “fuel” for a variety of machines hitched to the power needs of the human enterprise for thousands of years, always a tail-wagging-the-dog technology doing work on its own schedule. Wind provides sporadic energy to any grid, not modern power capacity. Its fuel is so energy diffuse that it cannot be converted to a continuous stream of steady power that people can control at their beck and call.

This is why the Dutch stopped using windmills to grind grain and pump water hundreds of years ago, when steam engines were introduced. It’s why the vaunted Clipper ships of yore reside in museums. And why gliders don’t provide commercial transportation. Unlike modern machines, they may not work when or how we wish. As Williams S. Jevons wrote 150 years ago:

The first great requisite of motive power is that it shall be wholly at our command, to be exerted when, and where, and in what degree we desire. The wind, for instance, as a direct motive power, is wholly inapplicable to a system of machine labour.[6]

The real issue for modern societies is power production, not energy of itself—and this is particularly true for electricity. Not just power production but rather, as energy expert Tom Tanton has said, the quality of the power production, taking into account the frequency, voltage, and harmonics that must be precisely congruent to achieve the reciprocal convergence essential for proactive modern power performance.[7]

Can wind technology be harnessed, as AWEA maintains, to replace or supplement modern machines that fill their tanks with sufficiently energy dense fuels—coal, natural gas, nuclear, impounded water—to meet modern power quality expectations? If so, what are the consequences—for consumer costs and for any thermal activity involved with wind integration?

In truth, energy produced from wind is so erratic that it can’t be converted to modern power requirements–unless that energy is “fortified” with external energy to make it dense enough for modern power needs, as we will see. This “external energy” must also be accounted for.


The following provides links to the other posts in this series as they are published:

Part I (This Post)

Part II – The Facts on Emissions

Part III – Further Analyses

Part IV – Where’s the Empirical Proof?


[1] A highlight of the report from its press release, as shared by Rick Webb, a member of the committee who prepared the report and a senior scientist with the

Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, in an email, May 10, 2007.

[2] This is evident throughout the world. See the links to wind performance at the Ontario IESO and BPA. See also the 2004 and 2005 Wind Reports for Germany done by E.ON Netz. See also an independent chart of wind performance in Ontario: http://h1ripoff.blogspot.com/2010/09/wind-production-in-ontario.html

and an example of capacity factor performance: http://windconcernsontario.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/capacity-factor-of-ontario-wind-energy-generating-facilities-4/ . In the BPA in 2008, wind’s capacity factor was 14%. Jim Oswald’s PowerPoint presentation, UK Windfarm Performance 2005, Based on Ofgem: ROC Data, is a good summary of wind performance in Britain.

Note the following graphs, the first provided by Eric Rosenbloom showing the performance of New York’s largest wind plant, Maple Ridge, located in Tug Hill, with an installed capacity of 231MW. The second, from the BPA, shows the percentage (frequency) of wind’s rated capacity distributed throughout a season.

Maple Ridge Wind Plant – July to September 2006

[3] See the BPA graph, Total Load & Wind Generation in the BPA Control Area. Beginning 1/09, at 5 min increments, update monthly.

[4] As wind surged in the BPA, with an installed capacity of 1600MW, from 150MW at 9:50 reaching1350MW 90 minutes later on December 29, 2008. See also, http://www.thenewstribune.com/2010/07/18/1268388/can-wind-power-be-too-much-of.html

[5] In Platts Power Markets Week Delivered by Yakout Mansour. President & CEO of CAIESO, August 21, 2006. Whieldon, Esther, CAL-ISO Offers Sobering Wind Assessment: It’s Growing but can’t be Relied On as Capacity. See: http://construction.ecnext.com/coms2/summary_0249-190132_ITM_platts. See also:

DOE’s 20% wind power by 2030: http://www.20percentwind.org/20percent_Summary_Presentation.pdf

[6] William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question (1865), p. 122.

[7] Tom Tanton, personal email dated September 1, 2010.

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