“Dear NY Times, Please get your wind energy facts straight!”
Oct 6, 2010
To: NY Times Fact Checking Department
From: Eric Bibler, President, Save Our Seashore, Wellfleet, MA
Dear New York Times Fact Checking Department,
I object to your newspaper’s lazy, inaccurate and blanket characterization of wind turbines as “a clean alternative” — perpetuating the myth that wind turbines can substitute for conventional electricity and provide an environmentally benign alternative. You do a gross disservice to your readers by perpetually applying such words as “clean,” “renewable,” “environmentally sensitive,” “sustainable” and “alternative” to these technologies uncritically, without even the most cursory examination or explanation of the limits of such power –- or the degree to which such claims are routinely inflated and taken at face value.
You should know better. If you don’t know better, you should get busy and start researching the fundamental limitations of these technologies so that you can avoid repeating this same error –- over and over again –- and so that you can avoid giving the NY Times “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to a set of fallacies that is assiduously repeated and promoted by wind developers.
There is no reason to believe that the constant repetition of such fallacies is any more honorable when the NY Times engages in it than when the same practice is followed by such “media” organs as Fox News.
Here are some substantive facts of life that you rarely, if ever, report and that you never bother to reiterate in the context of stories like your recent story on Vinalhaven, Maine (a story with which I am very familiar):
1. Because the chaotic power generated by wind turbines is unpredictable, unreliable, cannot be stored for future use in commercial quantities and is not “dispatchable” –- i.e. not available upon demand –- wind factories must always be paired with conventional electric power plants of equal capacity that ARE dependable — to provide power to fill in the shortfalls when the wind doesn’t blow, or blows too fast, to enable operation of the wind turbine.
The bottom line is that both the dependability and the quality of electrical energy is not directly comparable to the quality and dependability of conventional power –- and never can be. Electricity from wind is so problematic and impractical that it should be regarded as expensive garbage compared to the gold standard of cheap and reliable electricity from conventional sources, including nuclear power. Comparing the sputtering electricity generated from wind power to the predictable flow of power from conventional sources is like comparing a car that may –- or may not –- start at any given moment with the one you rely on to get to work every day.
2. It is equally maddening that, in addition to ignoring the qualitative aspect of wind energy –- i.e. the extremely low quality of wind energy — the NY Times habitually blurs the distinction between the so-called “rated power” of open air wind factories and their conventional counterparts.
A so-called 100MW wind installation has a “rated capacity” or “nameplate” capacity of 100MW. What this means is that the maximum amount of power that it can deliver –- if the wind blows at a constant, optimum speed, without interruption, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year –- is 100MW. But, as noted, this power is NOT available upon demand, which is why it is said to have a “capacity value” of ZERO per cent. That is the engineering term for the amount of its “theoretical” or “installed capacity” that is “firm and reliable.” The figure is ZERO.
In practice, the amount of power available from a land-based wind turbine like those at Vinalhaven is in the vicinity of 25% of its “rated capacity.” This is called the “Capacity Factor.” But there is a catch: the wind turbine produces that power when it wants to –- but not necessarily when you need it. And since you don’t know that it is coming, you can’t organize any kind of grid plan around it. For all intents and purposes, it is garbage.
Bottom line: the 100MW wind factory (the number which the NY Times and others invariably lift from information supplied by the factory owners) produces, on average, about 25MW of power –- except you never know, in advance, when that may, or may not happen.
Because electricity must be reliable to be useful — consumers and businesses must know that they can have electricity when they need it –- the 100MW wind factory –- which only produces 25MW of electricity, on average –- must be mated with an honest-to-goodness 100MW conventional plant that is always running!
Not only does this plant produce the 75MW of electricity that is MISSING, it must actually overlap substantially, to offset the wind energy’s unpredictable, minute to minute surges and lapses AND it must also operate far less efficiently than it ordinarily would if it didn’t have to compensate for this “green” technology.
A number of credible studies have determined that the actual savings in fossil fuel consumption –- and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, in this instance –- after building a sprawling, redundant, “green” wind factory –- may be on the order of 10% to 15%. Other studies have actually suggested that we may consume MORE fossil fuel and emit MORE greenhouse gases after building redundant wind energy facilities –- and that is without counting all of the energy that goes into the roads, transmission lines, 400 foot machines, massive concrete and steel foundations, and so forth, all of which are incredibly energy intensive.
3. Finally, what about the “footprint” for this “clean” and “green” technology? Perhaps in its reporting –- for once –- the NY Times could perform a public service and attempt to put the AMOUNT of power generated (or not generated, or hiccupped and coughed out) by such facilities in perspective for its readers by comparing the size of the facility –- and its space requirements –- to more conventional alternatives.
How much space would be required to install a good sized natural gas power plant producing 1GW of power? I don’t know; you tell me. 10 acres? 20 acres? Give me a number and I’ll accept it at face value. Let’s call it 20 acres.
How much space would be required to install an open air, land-based wind factory that had a “rated capacity,” or theoretical maximum capacity (as the NY Times likes to say) of 1GW? We need to do some figuring.
The first thing we need to do is to admit that our “1GW wind factory” is only capable of producing, on average, a mere 250MW of power, because wind factories anywhere and everywhere only produce a fraction of their theoretical maximums (see above).
The second thing we need to do is set aside 20 acres for the 1GW natural gas plant we’re going to have to build anyway –- because we’re still going to need it, unless you are content to be without power for a significant amount of time.
Third, let’s perform a calculation. Wind turbines need to be spaced by a significant distance so that the turbulence from one gargantuan machine doesn’t rob the one behind it of its ability to derive power from the wind. We’re “harvesting the wind,” remember?
With perfect efficiency –- that is assuming that you don’t have ANY obstructions like roads, bridges, lakes, houses, hostile terrain, and so forth, it would be fair to assume that you will need a square mile of territory for every 6MW of rated power that you generate. With some of the newer, more powerful, truly monstrous wind turbines, you might only need a square mile per 7.8MW of rated power.
So that implies that you’re going to need somewhere between 167 square miles and 128 square miles of land for the installation of your wind factory –- plus the 20 acres for the natural gas plant which continues to run anyway and which still supplies the majority of your power.
Let’s suppose that the wind turbines are 2MW of rated power, each. You’re going to need 500 of them, each of them over 400 feet tall. Or, if you prefer, you can use the real monsters, the 3MW rated power machines. Then you “only” need 333 of them.
These calculations ignore the additional carnage that you must inevitably do to the landscape to build all of the new roads and transmission lines to service your sprawling 128 to 167 square mile “green” wind factory. Not only is that a lot of material –- a lot of steel and concrete –- but those roads cannot rise or fall in grade by more than six inches every 50 feet and they absolutely cannot have any significant turning arcs –- because you have to get the 150 foot wind turbine blades to the towers.
The American Wind Energy Association is on record as saying that it takes approximately 10 acres of additional land, per tower, to accommodate the roads and transmission lines to service them. My head is already spinning at this point, and I’m too tired to convert acres into additional square miles. You do the math.
And remember, the natural gas plant is STILL running and you didn’t really build a wind factory that produces 1GW. You built a 1GW “rated capacity” that, in a perfect world, may produce 25% of that.
Of course, you are free to build a 4GW wind factory that produces, on average, garbage electricity that is about 1GW –- but then you’ll need four times as much land, four times as many colossal towers and four times as many miles of roads and transmission lines.
And you’re also going to need a total of three more 1GW conventional natural gas power plants –- for a total of four — if you promise to actually deliver 4GW of power to your customers.
Have I ever seen this calculation in the NY Times regarding the “green” energy produced by wind energy? Has the NY Times ever told me that the conventional plants must continue to run?
Has the NY Times ever told me that “payoff” we get from building a 1GW “rated capacity” wind factory –- despoiling the landscape and subjecting countless homeowners, citizens and wildlife to misery –- is a scant 250MW of virtually unusable electricity at a price that is four to five times the cost of the conventional plant which STILL runs?
Does the NY Times suppose that we should devote something on the order of 150 square miles of land to a project that produces sputtering electricity that is “equivalent” (but not functionally equivalent by a long shot) to one-quarter of the output from a natural gas plant?
Granted, articles like this one are not editorials –- but the NY Times has written numerous sanctimonious, uninformed, naïve and irresponsible editorials favoring just such proposals –- without reference to such relevant facts.
Furthermore, articles like this make it abundantly clear that the NY Times editorial board certainly is not exercising itself unduly to avoid such reports which gloss over these facts –- facts that are, in fact, the CORE issues to be considered in determining the efficacy and the advisability –- and the true environmental benefits (if any) — of this technology.
I am a committed environmentalist and I am not a global warming “denialist.” We are all striving to solve the same problems and achieve the same goals. But how can we debate the issues if even the NY Times fails to report them, or frame them, properly and if newspapers as respected as yours don’t know the difference between the facts on the ground and the self-serving claims of this technology’s most ardent proponents?
This may be one of the single most important stories of the decade. Please work a little harder to get the facts straight.