The Insanity of Base Load Wind Power

I have talked a lot about how wind power has almost no effect on fossil fuel use because the unpredictability of wind requires a lot of fossil-fueled plants to keep burning fuel on hot standby in case the wind dies.  Matt Ridley comes at wind from a different angle, discussing what it would take for wind to actually have any meaningful impact on world electricity production.

Even put together, wind and photovoltaic solar are supplying less than 1 per cent of global energy demand. From the International Energy Agency’s 2016 Key Renewables Trends, we can see that wind provided 0.46 per cent of global energy consumption in 2014, and solar and tide combined provided 0.35 per cent. Remember this is total energy, not just electricity, which is less than a fifth of all final energy, the rest being the solid, gaseous, and liquid fuels that do the heavy lifting for heat, transport and industry....

Meanwhile, world energy demand has been growing at about 2 per cent a year for nearly 40 years. Between 2013 and 2014, again using International Energy Agency data, it grew by just under 2,000 terawatt-hours.

If wind turbines were to supply all of that growth but no more, how many would need to be built each year? The answer is nearly 350,000, since a two-megawatt turbine can produce about 0.005 terawatt-hours per annum. That’s one-and-a-half times as many as have been built in the world since governments started pouring consumer funds into this so-called industry in the early 2000s.

At a density of, very roughly, 50 acres per megawatt, typical for wind farms, that many turbines would require a land area greater than the British Isles, including Ireland. Every year. If we kept this up for 50 years, we would have covered every square mile of a land area the size of Russia with wind farms. Remember, this would be just to fulfil the new demand for energy, not to displace the vast existing supply of energy from fossil fuels, which currently supply 80 per cent of global energy needs.

How do renewables advocates trumpet the high renewables numbers they often report?  By lumping in other things and hoping the reader is tricked into thinking the total is wind and solar.

Their trick is to hide behind the statement that close to 14 per cent of the world’s energy is renewable, with the implication that this is wind and solar. In fact the vast majority — three quarters — is biomass (mainly wood), and a very large part of that is ‘traditional biomass’; sticks and logs and dung burned by the poor in their homes to cook with. Those people need that energy, but they pay a big price in health problems caused by smoke inhalation.

People who talk about sustainability often miss the single best metric we have of the net scarcity of resources that goes into any product:  price.  I am always amazed when people point at a much much higher price version of some product and claim that it is more sustainable.  How can this possibly be?  Assuming the profit margins are relatively similar, the higher priced product has to be using more and scarcer resources.  How is that more sustainable  (I will perhaps grant the exception that certain emissions are not properly priced into some products).

To this end, wind power is much more expensive than, say, power from modern natural gas generation plants, even if one factors in a $30 a ton or so cost of CO2 emissions.  This has to make us suspicious that maybe it is not really more "sustainable".

Wind turbines, apart from the fibreglass blades, are made mostly of steel, with concrete bases. They need about 200 times as much material per unit of capacity as a modern combined cycle gas turbine. Steel is made with coal, not just to provide the heat for smelting ore, but to supply the carbon in the alloy. Cement is also often made using coal. The machinery of ‘clean’ renewables is the output of the fossil fuel economy, and largely the coal economy.

  • ben

    I worry scarcity is a feature not a bug for those whose intent in pushing renewable energy is anti-capitalism.

  • morganovich

    oh, it gets MUCH worse for wind. each turbine needs about 1000 pounds of rare earths like neodymium and dysprosium. not only is there unlikely to be enough, but each pound mined and refined creates a pound of radioactive waste. 175,000 tons of radioactive waste per year to build those turbines.

    anyone concerned about pollution who favors wind turbines has no idea how they are made.

  • AudreyA

    Your comment about "price" reflecting the scarcity of resources made me think of my frustration with the plastic bag vs. paper debate. Grocery stores use plastic because they are cheaper. Why are they cheaper? Because they USE FEWER RESOURCES, hello, is anyone out there thinking at all? But the greenies simply don't think like this. Oh and BTW, out her ein the Pacific Northwest, we just saw the end to a hot spell that lasted almost 2 solid months. During that time, and especially during the hottest periods, we had almost no wind at all, though the area is overloaded with wind towers.

  • Mike Powers

    "People who talk about sustainability often miss the single best metric
    we have of the net scarcity of resources that goes into any product:
    price."

    The assumption of the sustainability zealots is always, *always* that petroleum fuels are being subsidized somehow. Either the suppliers have conned some massive tax benefit out of the government (meaning that taxpayers are paying higher taxes to offset the tax breaks, but that comes as the income tax bill rather than buying at the pump so it *looks* cheap) or the tax scheme isn't properly penalizing the use of these "nonsustainable, high-pollution" fuels.

    And so they don't have to come up with an explanation for why wind power is expensive and petroleum fuels are not. Because they've created a mental framework where customers don't pay the TROO CAWST of petroleum fuels.

  • C078342

    No. it is sustainable power from the wind. It has zero adverse environmental impact. You're just a scare-mongerer. My town in Connecticut has just outlawed fracking waste, as if there is any fracking going on in Conn. Okay, but I challenge those supporters to pledge to reduce their hydrocarbon energy consumption to a level consistent with non-fracking production levels. Of course they will have no idea what I'm talking about.

  • terrence22
  • ErikTheRed

    I was chatting randomly several years ago with a petrochemical engineer that I met while on vacation who was (somehow) involved with Stuff That Is Used To Make Plastic Bags, and she was snarking that the big push towards paper bags at the time just so happened to coincide with a spike in the raw material price for plastic bags. Coincidence? Happenstance? Probably not...

  • ErikTheRed

    Nonsense! They're made of dolphin hugs and unicorn kisses. Al Gore said so.

  • tmitsss

    Slaves were the original renewable energy source for the elite. Coal replaced them.

  • wreckinball

    Its a bait and switch. The bait is CO2 reduction. The switch is the only "approved" zero CO2 emissions power sources are wind and solar.
    Ignoring that 66% of the CO2 free power generation in this country is nuclear and almost all of the remainder is hydro.
    Throw in a typical capacity factor of 30% maximum for wind and less than 50% for solar (obvious) and you end up with a lot of gas turbines to backup the renewables or as like to call them the intermittents.
    And we end up with cronyism.

  • cc

    It is even worse that you suppose because wind turbines have lifetimes less than 20 years. Some of the early turbine fields in California, for example, are all broken. So you can't build for 40 years and then have 40 years worth of turbines--every 20 years you have to do it again. At the end, there is a decommissioning cost or replacement. Even worse, distributed power like this requires miles and miles of additional power lines which have their own land footprint. It is simply crazy town.
    re: plastic bags: the same people who push plastic bag bans also don't want you cutting trees. They just want all of our activities to STOP!! It is like in Independence Day when they asked the alien what he wanted: "We want you to die"

  • cc

    Please note that these people hated fossil fuels before the climate change scare. Somehow having energy is evil--it is like original sin somehow.

  • SamWah

    As I understand it, plastic bags are made from waste gas that was vented to the atmosphere.

  • joe - the non climate scientis

    Fossil fuel subsidies - expanding on Mike P's comment

    The concept of the fossil fuel subsidies consists of 2 parts
    1) The tax deductions for the cost of doing business - as if operating cost should not receive a tax deduction
    2) the external costs such as pollution, climate change damage etc which the fossil fuel companies get a free ride.

    The advocates of renewables often claim renewables receive not subsidies yet they ignore
    1) the actual cash subsidies
    2) the government mandates for utilities to produce x% of electricity from renewables
    3) government mandates for utilities to purchase wind or solar electricity first or mandate to purchase all available renewable energy.

  • Ken in NH

    It's not wind farming, but tax farming. That is what companies selling wind power are really after, subsidies. Same with Elon Musk and just about every venture he's into.

    I had a door-to-door sales man come by last year and try to sell me his solar power system. I asked him to show me the return on investment and the first thing he said to me, before showing me any number, is that it would not cost as much as I might think because of tax breaks and they get a grant for each system installed. Tax farming and selling the withered government ordered ugly produce that no one buy own their own to the rubes.

  • Heresiarch

    You make many good points here. I would add, though, that as Warren Buffett has pointed out, once a wind turbine is built it requires very little in additional expenditure. I don't know how long that situation lasts, but in calculating the relative costs of wind power, how many years of low-additional-cost generation are we crediting against the construction costs?

  • Heresiarch

    That's a perfectly fair point, but it reminds me of Thomas Malthus or the "peak oil" people. That is, you're making a lot of assumptions that technology will find no new ways to deal with the situation. Are those elements truly necessary for the wind turbine, or merely convenient? And as I pointed out above, once the thing is built, not a lot more is needed. Likely enough any of those rare earths, if in a part that wears out, would be recycled.

  • Fred Smith

    As always ask, "who profits" Not in my 60+ years have I seen much done by politicians and the people that own them do anything to benefit me, in fact their acts generally either cost me money or freedom, or both.

  • AudreyA

    Hi Heresiarch, I don't know anything about routine windmill maintenance, but I do know that the farms here in the Pacific Northwest are the largest consumers of electricity on the local grid. During periods of extended high pressure that cause our long cold spells (where temps hover in the upper teens for weeks) the wind towers must be warmed to keep the lubricating oils flowing. Of course, during these high pressure cold snaps when heating demand strains the grid, there is no wind to speak of either. Most people out here know that it's a huge boondoggle because we see the huge towers filling the fields and not turning...just ...sitting...collecting tax credits. Fun fact: during tours of wind farms, if there is no wind, the managers use motors to rotate the turbines to give the public a good show. Fun fact: during times of high flow BPA has to run the generators at the dams or risk raising the nitrogen gas levels to a level harmful to fish, and at those times, they cannot accept wind power. (Doing so would cause power surges.) So any time this happens, BPA has to pay the wind power companies the amount they would have earned from the towers at their highest rated capacity, EVEN IF THE WIND ISN'T BLOWING. It is a sweet, sweet deal for the private power companies!

  • Heresiarch

    Solyndra all over again!

  • James White

    a)Buffet is an investor, not a world-class wind engineer.

    b) If a new car costs $100,000 but will only require $1,000 to operate for ten years are you better off with it than a car that costs $30,000 up front and costs $2,500 / year to operate? The problem with wind power is similar to rail. Yes, the technology has very low operating costs but ONLY if you have ginormous volume to offset the ginormous up front costs.

    The problem with evaluating the cost of wind is NOT employ Enron-esque accounting and take into account the total costs needed to generate and deliver that wind power. For example, Texas is a world leader in wind power. Some estimates say that $5billion to $10 billion just in Texas was spent just for new transmissions lines that were built only to ensure the delivery of new wind farms.

  • Heresiarch

    Actually, neodymium isn't that rare. Dysprosium is much rarer. According to this interview we produce about 21,000-25,000 tons of neodymium per year, but only about 1400 tons of dysprosium. But either way, even if the rare earth magnets were 100% neodymium, 350,000 turbines would require 175,000 tons of it per year, right? (I'm assuming they're regular tons, not troy or metric.) And at an estimated worldwide reserve of 8 million tons, we have enough for only 45 years' worth of turbines to address energy demand increases. If they really wanted to get serious about it, they'd have to come up with some alternative mechanism.

  • Heresiarch

    Well, the "ten years" part begs exactly the question that I was asking. How many years are we talking about? And regardless of their original purpose, how do we know that the transmission lines will have only the benefit of transmitting power from wind farms? Pretty often economic development follows existing links the way towns sprang up along the right-of-way of new railroad lines.

  • obloodyhell

    I long ago made a calculation that attempting to match total US production with "little blue cells" would require covering not less than 2/3rds the surface area of Delaware, and that was with some highly optimistic performance numbers from the cells and the sky. In reality, cover Delaware entirely.

  • obloodyhell

    Lol, when, in fact, it's pretty much the reverse... Peeps don't pay thevtrue cost of wind and solar, which are OPENLY subsidized.... :-/

  • obloodyhell

    Liberals would love to see a return to those days, with conservatives the morlocks, and liberals the eloi....

    They forget about the true relationship between the Morlocks & the Eloi...

  • obloodyhell

    Strangely, that's mostly how laws get made, too... 😀

  • obloodyhell

    The term is "Rent Seeking"... 😉