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Monday, December 10, 2007

Idiot wind

A reader who has a fair amount of experience with wind energy writes in to tell us he's concerned about the City of Portland's pipe dream of building and operating a wind farm:

It's pretty obvious that wind power has become the darling of the political establishment, which seems to view it as the answer to all, or most, of our energy and climate change challenges. It's hardly that, in my opinion, and the following are a few of the principal reasons why I think that is so, and why the idea of the city of Portland actually financing the construction of a wind resource is so scary.

1) For example, a 50 megawatt (MW) wind resource is not really a 50 MW wind resource. In fact, in the Pacific Northwest, its a 15 average megawatt (aMW) resource. 50 MW is the capacity of the resource, i.e., the maximum amount of energy the individual turbines making up the project, in aggregate, could generate at their combined maximum output during any given instant. 15 aMW is an expression of how much actual energy is generated on an annual basis. Of course, the wind is not always blowing. In the Pacific Northwest, experience with wind turbines, beginning in about the late 1980s, shows that over the course of a year a wind power resource will produce an amount of actual energy that is equal to between 28 and 32 percent of it total rated capacity: so 50MW x 30% = 15 aMW. So when you read that Portland is going to build and use the output a 50 MW wind power resource to serve its electricity load, you need to understand its only 15 aMW -- a lot less than advertised. Do you think Sam Adams knows that?

2) Idle wind turbines can be a big problem. An intermittent resource such as wind needs to be "firmed up" to be useful. In other words, it needs to be backed up by additional energy resources that can be turned on and off (more or less instantaneously) to fill in the gaps when the wind turbines are not producing energy. This gets complicated, and has to do with the way electric energy is "scheduled" into the wholesale bulk transmission system, but long story short, in order to balance electric power loads with electric power resources, every energy resource is scheduled ahead of time (usually an hour ahead of actual delivery onto the transmission system). Obviously, that is much easier to do if you are running a coal resource than if you are running a wind power resource. So, if a wind resource schedules 25 MW onto the transmission grid next hour, but only generates 15 MW because the wind speed slowed, the other 10 MW has to come from somewhere else. The system must be kept in balance, every second of every day, both to make sure loads are served, and to keep the transmission system itself in balance. The PNW is blessed with a large hydroelectric system that, in general (depending on the time of year) can be ramped up and down quickly. This abundance of instantaneous generating capacity is useful to integrating intermittent energy resources such as wind. The problem is the hydro system, over the last 20 years or so, has lost much of its operating flexibility due to the competing demands for fish mitigation, leaving less operating flexibility left over to integrate or "firm up" wind resources. As more wind resources are built, while the hydro systems flexibility continues to wane, this creates a big problem. So what happens? Other resources, principally gas turbines, must be built to firm up wind. The Germans, who I believe have more wind generating capacity than just about any country in the word, have had to install massive amounts of natural gas fired generation to firm up their wind. So wind looks a bit less clean all of a sudden. I doubt Sam Adams has an inkling of this.

3) A strong case can be made that, in some circumstances, wind is dirtier than natural gas. This relates to point #2. Basically there are two kinds of natural gas fired energy resources: combined cycle and simple cycle. The latter is the type usually built as a firming resource to back up wind resources. Simple cycle is dirtier than a combined cycle resource. An argument can be made that a wind resource combined with a simple cycle gas turbine, designed, for example, to produce 100 aMW, will under some scenarios produce more greenhouse gas over the course of a year than producing the same 100 aMW with a combined cycle gas turbine. This an irony I doubt many politicians know about, including Sam Adams.

4) The wholesale power business in impossibly complex and highly risky. So this point is not so much about wind power as it is about whether it's such a good idea for the city to get into this game. Its not clear to me what the proposal is exactly, but it's apparently much more than simply signing a contract to buy output. I should wait to see what they actually propose to do, and assuming its covered in your blog, I can chime in with my two cents worth then. Suffice it to say for now that even in the best of circumstances, building a large resource is fraught with operating and market price risks. Based on what I have seen, I doubt the current members of the Portland City Council are equipped to readily grasp, let alone evaluate or understand how to mitigate, those risks.

My, my. How un-"progressive" of this reader.

Comments (20)

Another huge irony of wind power is the potential environmental impact of wind farms -- wind farms basically take the lethal turbine out of the fish-filled water and rotate it 180 degrees up into the bird-filled sky. The raptor kills at Altamont pass being a good example. I'm all for sustainable, clean energy, but I'm concerned about the current headlong, “I feel-good ‘cause I’m green” assumption that windmills will save us. Like any other, this is a technology with great potential, but it also has its own impacts, and so it needs to be implemented in a thoughtful, informed manner. I’m concerned that in our rush to find a clean replacement for dirty power, we create other problems that we’ll regret in the future.

"The wholesale power business in impossibly complex and highly risky."

Maybe Danny-boy shoudl give Grey Davis (cormer Cali gov) a call on that. That deal he struck as buyer, basically screwed Cali and, consequently, him.

I am just afraid, this being Portland, they will drape themselves in the "sustainability" flag and then they will get carte blanc.

Meanwhile, the potholes deepen.

I love when someone actually sounds like they know what they are talking about. It's all too damn rare. This (wind power) does sound difficult and complex with many variables to be weighed and balanced. And the City of Portland thinks it's in a position to take this on? Please! I hope this poster will write to the talking heads at City Hall (for what it's worth).

One of the more intelligent and helpfull posts in many months. Thanks to the informed reader. I hope Sam the sham reads it and starts seeking some scientific input on decisions instead of just trying to make political points.

It sounds like another "legacy project".

for a guy that seems to know a lot about energy production, he seems pretty good at making a lot of totally non relevant points. guess he's more of a trees guy instead of a forest guy.

points 1-3 are informative about wind power in general, but don't really contribute to the discussion. i think point #4 is the only thing that seems to relate to the issue at hand.

wind power generation in the gorge is a very hot business right now. lots of players in the private sector think its a great investment. that would seem to indicate that this is far from a pipe dream for the city, as they are just following in the footsteps of a business model that has been tested and seems to work well.

but coming back to point #4, is this something that they city can handle?

I think we should count our blessings. Sam's blowhard wind farm idea might kill a few birds, cost 4X the estimate, provide less power and pollute more than advertised, but at least he and the other members of the gang of five aren't proposing a nuclear reactor (yuk, yuk, yuk) to provide power for COP's needs.

"lots of players in the private sector think its a great investment."

Uh, let's try and be honest here. Wind power is a "great" investment, provided it has tremendous subsidies from the taxpayers. If it had to stand or fall solely on its economic value, these private sector investors would lose every penny they put in.

City Council apparently wants to do anything except the basics like fixing roads or operating in the black.

don't forget wind power also is a great investment because of massive private donations. lots of projects "pencil out" with the help of green tags.

also the concept of "economic value" changes depending upon what model you are using. how you calculate externalities etc. you could easily model it so that all public subsidies are totally net positive due to reduced dependance on foreign oil, reduced health costs, etc.

or you could model it the other way and show how a theoretical new "clean coal" plant would be better.

believe me, the work has been done already for both sides.

lots of players in the private sector think its a great investment. that would seem to indicate that this is far from a pipe dream for the city

no, that just means there's money to be made--an entirely different point from the point i think the writer tried to make--that is, whether or not wind power delivers on its promises of energy output and pollution reduction.

To reinforce John Fairplay's point, why would a municipal government want to "invest" in a wind farm when most of the return on investment is in the form of tax benefits that the municipal government can't use?

Prediction: Sounds like another public-private partnership in the works. That's OK - Portland's property tax rates are only 20-25% more than the surrounding communities already.

Since the power needs just to serve the NW is over 1600 times the kw that can be produced by wind farms now built and on the drawing boards, I'm concerned about the effects of many more NW windfarms that Sam and Ted advocate. Accumulatively they would have an effect on the national weather patterns. Think of the dissolution of wind energy that provides the rest of the nations' weather as most of our weather patterns travel east. There won't be any wind to get the moisture clouds over the Rockies to supply snow and rain.

There won't be any wind to get the moisture clouds over the Rockies to supply snow and rain.

Really? Are there any scientific studies that show that possibility? Could Al Gore make up the difference, perhaps?

george for a guy that seems to know a lot about energy production, he seems pretty good at making a lot of totally non relevant points. guess he's more of a trees guy instead of a forest guy.
JK: How much do you know about energy production? Everyone of his technical points ring true to me.

george points 1-3 are informative about wind power in general, but don't really contribute to the discussion. i think point #4 is the only thing that seems to relate to the issue at hand.
JK: Lets look at his points:
1. The wind is not constant.
2. Since it is not constant, something else must be ready to fill in the gaps.
3. The real world effects of 1 & 2 is that wind may not save any energy after all.

These points are very relevant as they a they say, in essence, that the wind power is a massive waste. That is very relevant.


When we hit peak wind just like when we hit peak oil things will get rough. Then Sam will really get to have an opportunity to solve a problem. He-he.

On a serious note there is a design of a wind turbine that does away with the blades and uses more of a funnel design to harness the wind power. So at least the harm to birds can be reduced.


Doesn't the Columbia Gorge have plenty of wind? Oops, look out for the NIMBYs and environmentalists complaining about sight pollution.

With bird loss, negative visual impact, loss of wind downstream, wind not always blowing, whole new transmission distribution systems to reach the wind farms, oil consumption to provide the wind farm extensive fiberglass components and all the tax subsidies, I feel that we should go back to an agrarian society with fish only on friday and one deer kill a year.

Yikes. I had no idea Iran was so close to having a wind farm.

We should all get propeller beanies and hook them to wires with a gizmo in our pockets and recharge batteries for the city's lap top computers.

Whaddya think Sam?


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