“Wind power is an environmental wrecking ball”

Mar 13, 2012

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“Oxymoronic Windpower”

—Jon Boone in MasterResource (1/18/11)

Howler“: A ridiculous idea or proposition, one that elicits howling laughter; also, a type of magic spell from the Harry Potter series.

Bellyfeel“: A blind, enthusiastic acceptance of an idea, taken from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where any good Oceanian internalizes Party doctrine such that it becomes gut instinct—a feeling in the belly.

Blackwhite“: In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a word that has two contradictory meanings, used to convey how people have been propagandized to believe that black is white while never realizing that the reverse might be true. It is the ultimate achievement of newspeak that requires a continuous alteration of the past made possible by a system of controlled thought.

Every major claim made by those who would profit, either financially or ideologically, from wind technology is replete with Owellian doublespeak. Despite the promise of many jobs in the USA, for example, wind provides almost no permanent employment, with most wind manufacturing migrating to China.

Despite the bellyfeel assertion that wind is an environmental savior, it is in fact an environmental wrecking ball. Contrary to the proposition wind can back down the coal industry, in most areas of the country it may actually increase coal consumption.

However, nothing about wind is more Orwellian than the very term windpower. Despite its pervasive use and casual acceptance, windpower as a contemporary expression of reality is quite at odds with itself, particularly in technologically advanced societies. It’s a howler.

Widespread misunderstanding about the difference between energy and power has given cover to the charlatan-like wind lobby which pretends their wares provide something they do not. We are all familiar with blackwhite PR jargon that characterizes wind projects as mills, farms, and parks, despite the looming industrial presence of 450-foot tall turbines propelling rotors at tip speeds of nearly 200-mph for many miles along terrain or seabed.

But for sheer oxymoronic audacity, nothing beats the trickeration of the term windpower, since the technology is the very antithesis of modern power performance. In fact, wind provides no modern power. Rather, it throws out spasmodic, highly skittering energy that cannot by itself be converted to modern power.

The basic nature of energy is still not well-understood. We know it exists in both potential and kinetic states. We also know that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, that it is omnipresent, and that it can be changed into many forms. Energy is also intimately related to heat, which in turn is best understood as energy in motion; its behavior is therefore described by the laws of thermo dynamics. Whatever energy turns out to be intrinsically, however, will not diminish our operational definition of it: energy is “fuel” enabling work to be accomplished.

The Power of Machines

All physical systems are essentially machines that convert the energy in fuels to power, the rate at which work gets done. Power is, like interest, work done at a pace in time. All organic systems, from aardvarks to zinnias, from eyeballs to heart valves, must do work—eat, move, hide—to survive and perpetuate. Machines are a means of processing energy to produce power, enabling work over time. Indeed, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett explained in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, all organisms, including ourselves, are at root machines that convert energy to power, starting from single cell creatures, with mitochondria making ATP from chemicals in their environment, to entities that have evolved, and continue to evolve, into ever more highly complex integrated and convergent machines.

Their basic function is to consume just enough energy (fuel) to maintain their power requirements. Nature is continuously at work keeping this process as efficient as possible. For much of the earth’s history, organisms drew down precisely the energy required for functional power—and no more.

Those organisms that could do more work faster, in the process increasing their power, typically gained a survival advantage. For humans, a man and woman paired together could do more work than could be accomplished by one man working alone. A man, a woman, and a club could do even more. A man, a woman, a club, and a spear could do even more. With the passage of a few million years, humans could reliably feed and shelter hundreds of thousands of their kind, and still find time to build the great pyramids. As Stanley Kubrick showed so masterfully in his film, 2001, our spears have morphed into rockets on the moon.

Our machines, filled with increasingly energy-dense fuels, have given us the ability to do more work faster and faster, begetting an appetitive feedback loop where more power unleashes more time to produce more power.

Why Is This Important?

Imagine how life was lived only nine generations ago, with the modern machines of 1811. For most people, the most effective machine for transportation was two legs walking, fueled by chemicals in the air and water, supplemented by more chemicals in meat and grain. They could, with a lot of exertion, cover 30 miles in a day.

A few could afford to maintain horses, which if placed in teams could carry a coach (which provided some cover from the elements) maybe 60 miles in a day, requiring a lot of oats. Some could get on a boat with sails and harness the hit or miss, tail-wagging-the-dog power of a machine fueled by wind energy, in the process moving across water with some protection from the elements, while saving a lot of energy and risk over and above what was required to swim.

Surely an improvement. But because of the limitations imposed by energy-diffuse fuels and comparatively cumbersome machines, people still typically lived close to where they worked. Those that ventured much beyond expended a great deal of their lives in such an effort, limiting the amount of time they had to do something else.

Contrast that situation with the modern world. An accountant may commute twice daily more than a hundred miles from her home in climate controlled comfort in a machine—built out of hundreds of other convergent machine systems (transmission, steering, braking, internal combustion, lighting, etc) and fueled by energy dense gasoline—and still have time for a game of racquetball, a late dinner, time on the computer, a shower and a chapter of reading before tucking in to sleep.

This is modern power: the ability to predictably and in a controlled fashion shorten the distance in time necessary to perform work. Such power allows people to move from pillar to post on their own schedules. They are no longer dependent upon lumbering, often unreliable machines using energy-thin fuels that typically make people wait upon them. This ability to command power, turning it on and off, up and back, is the hallmark of modern life, a precondition for coordinated economic and social convergence. Machines that are unreliable and uncontrollable, either because of their design or because of the nature of their fuel (energy supply), typically adorn our recreational pursuits, our museums, or, increasingly, our junk piles. They are considered archaic.

Modern power is a time machine, not for moving back and forward in time, but rather expanding the time in which we can do other things. As the scale of power production gets larger, costs become less expensive, making the power more generally available. Modern power has lifted billions of people out of the grind of poverty, improving both quantity and quality of life.

Nowhere is modern power performance more evident than in today’s home, where a battery of machines, each with complementary functions, make not only for convenience but also open up much more time to do other things. Refrigerators work as desired 24/7 for 30 years; ovens and ranges work when asked for 20 years. As do vacuum cleaners, water heaters, furnaces, air conditioners, and a variety of other machines, fueled mainly by electricity.

Modern Power at Its Best

Electricity is a form of power itself produced by an ensemble of complementary machines that dispatch or retract precise amounts of supply to match demand perfectly at all times, maintaining a steady, predictable level of production throughout their operating time except when they are called upon to ramp up or back in response to demand changes.

Like household appliances, each kind of generator has a role to play, some working around the clock, others only upon command. There is much behind-the-scenes tumult involved as many types of conventional generators—coal, nuclear, natural gas, hydro—converge at just the right time so that people and industries can be served without fuss or bother at the flip of a switch. By building systems of supply and transmission at large scale, contemporary society keeps costs affordable to all, allowing even the most economically impoverished to make use of their time-saving appliances.

Although all machines convert energy to power, they don’t do so equally. Not all machines convert energy to modern power, which is controllable, predictable, schedulable. Electricity production is modern power at its best—highly reliable, secure, affordable. 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.

Wind machines, even massively tall and wide contemporary turbines, are wholly inimical to modern power quality. They are rarely reliable, by nature randomly intermittent, and, since their power is a function of the cube of the wind speed along a very narrow speed range, they are always variable. No one can know what they will yield at any future interval. They almost never produce their full capacity. In fact, they average over the course of a year about 25% of their full capacity. More than 60% of the time, they produce less than that. About 10-15% of the time, they produce nothing, often at peak demand times. They typically generate most at times of least demand. Whatever they do produce is changing one minute to the next—in the process destabilizing the necessary match between supply and demand, for blackouts occur when there is too little supply while appliances and transmission systems can be damaged if the supply is excessive. Unlike machines that produce modern power, wind is neither dispatchable nor controllable, except when shut down completely.

To see the difference between archaic and modern power more clearly, imagine that gasoline pumps were wind “powered.” Your tank might eventually be filled, but when? How long would it take? How long would the line of cars waiting their turn at the pump be? Would time seem to drag for those drivers, reducing time to do other things? Now imagine government had mandated that gliders, powered only by fuel from the wind, handle, say, 20% of all air passenger transport. How long would a glider’s flight from New York to Los Angeles likely take? And at what cost, since any glider would first have to be towed with conventionally powered aircraft to get into the air, and then picked up where it eventually fluttered to the ground because of insufficient fuel, and then trucked to an air field where it could be towed back into the air, etc, etc–—until it reached its destination

THIS IS NO EXAGGERATION. The diffuse nature of wind’s fuel requires continuous supplementation by reliable machines fueled by more energy-dense fuels, as well as virtually dedicated new transmission lines and voltage regulation systems. It’s the kind and scope of activity that must happen to make wind create modern power.

Backup: A Fly in the Soup

The notion that wind volatility is something in need of “backup” is a minor wind howler. Backup literally means a reserve or substitute for the real thing, often in the form of an understudy or a computer file. Or it can mean support for a much larger object or activity. (Let’s avoid here the notion of backup as a clogged drain.) In the first case, the backup is sufficiently like the original (what is backed up) that performance should not be markedly corrupted. A second-string quarterback should in virtually all-important respects be able to do what the first-string quarterback does. Ditto for an understudy forced into mainline service because of illness to the diva.

In the second case, a backup buttress to an architectural feature plays a small role in the scheme of things, nice for security to be sure, but nonetheless, it is a minor part of the whole. Although it is a proactive measure in terms of ultimate security, it is mainly reactive in function.

The nature of wind variability, which routinely changes its output 5% or more at every five-minute interval and occasionally widely alters what it delivers in a very short time, means that wind is a wayward fish to conventional generation’s bicycle; it is a completely different creature both in degree and kind. Given that wind generates an average of only a fourth of its full capacity annually, nearly 75% of that capacity must therefore consist of conventional generation—in order to keep supply matched to demand. Given that 10-15% of the time it produces nothing, then 100% of its full capacity must be taken over by conventional machines. The truth is that wind can only be a minor ingredient in a much larger fuel mix—but much like a fly in soup, which provides, like wind, problematic nutritional value. You could eat it. But why would you want to?

Given the erratic, skittering nature of its delivery, wind cannot merely be “backed up” by a slightly corrupted version of itself. Quite the contrary. It is as if wind is the whacky substitute requiring the first team, the diva, to make it functional. In the best Orwellian newspeak fashion, it is the backup that does virtually all the important work—but in a much more inefficient fashion. How would the world’s best actor squelch, live onstage, a drunken understudy who continually spoke lines from another play?

Words are important if they are to impart accurate meaning. To say that wind requires backup is to pervert both language and meaning, despite its bellyfeel quality. Although language is slippery, it should not be that quicksilver. Wind machines must always be ENTANGLED with proactive but inefficiently operating conventional machines through the entire extent of any wind machine’s full capacity.

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Wind Howlers, Part II, will later examine how (and why), contrary to the widespread belief that wind is an alternative to fossil fuel, indeed all conventional generation, including hydro and nuclear, the technology is actually deeply embedded in the marketing plans of multinational corporations themselves heavily invested in conventional fuels, including coal.

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