November 25, 2007
Obstacles And Opposition To Wind Power

A couple of New York Times pieces on wind power illustrate some of the obstacles in the way of growth in wind power.

In the United States, one of the areas most suited for wind turbines is the central part of the country, stretching from Texas through the northern Great Plains — far from the coastal population centers that need the most electricity.

In Denmark, which pioneered wind energy in Europe, construction of wind farms has stagnated in recent years. The Danes export much of their wind-generated electricity to Norway and Sweden because it comes in unpredictable surges that often outstrip demand.

In 2003, Ireland put a moratorium on connecting wind farms to its electricity grid because of the strains that power surges were putting on the network; it has since begun connecting them again.

Denmark was able to scale up wind power because it can buy electricity from neighbors when the wind doesn't blow. But if the neighbors do it as well then Denmark will eventually need to build more fossil fuel backup power plants to run when the wind doesn't blow.

The article says that Sweden is better suited for an increase in wind energy because they can use wind electric to pump water up into reservoirs to flow downhill later to generate electricity when the wind doesn't blow. But what's the cost of doing that?

Germany is also hitting limits on wind power.

In Germany, where 20,000 wind turbines generate 5 percent of the electricity, advocates say wind will be critical to meeting the government’s goal of generating at least 20 percent of all power from renewable methods by 2020. But the industry’s growth is slowing for a variety of reasons.

Germany is running out of places to put the turbines because of restrictions on the location and height of the devices. And rising raw material prices are making wind farms more expensive to build.

Germany is responsible for over half the world's photovoltaic demand even though it is so far north and therefore receives lower amounts of sunlight. The Germans are trying very hard to get green with energy. But their country is so densely populated and so far north that they are not well suited for wind and solar as compared to, say, the US great plains for wind or Arizona for sun. The Germans are better candidates for nuclear power than the United States but greenie opposition to nukes there currently has nuclear power on a path to a phase-out there. German Chancellor Angela Merkel might succeed in turning around that phase-out though.

Rising raw materials prices are also making coal plants, nuclear plants, and other electric power plants more expensive to build as well. So it is not clear that wind's relative competitive position is declining due to cost reasons. I suspect in wind's case part of the problem is that manufacturing capacity needs to catch up with the surge in demand.

What I'd like to know: Are more advanced wind turbine designs going to lower wind's cost more rapidly than that of other electric power sources?

The Europeans are putting in wind farms in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since we are running out of fossil fuels this is the wrong motivation. But fortunately these wind farms will provide needed energy when Russian oil deliveries start declining and later when natural gas deliveries start declining as well.

A proposal to put up 33 wind turbines to power 43,000 homes in upstate New York has heavily divided a community.

So on the road from Grand Gorge to Stamford you see the yard signs popping up in front of barns and houses — “Yes to Clean Energy” on some, “No Industrial Wind Turbines” or “Save Our Mountains” on others.

It’s a long way from the hellish fires in Southern California or the scary drought in the Southeast to the Catskills. But for those contemplating the issues of climate change and the roadway to greener energy, it’s not so far away at all. Whatever role climate change may be playing right now, it’s clear that even something so elemental as the wind is as subject to the vagaries of politics, self-interest and community dynamics as anything else.

“I will say this just once: not in my backyard,” Mr. Many said, when asked to characterize the discord. “People in Delaware County think it ought to be in the Adirondacks. People in the Adirondacks think it should be in the ocean off Massachusetts. Teddy Kennedy thinks it should be somewhere else. Everyone wants alternative energy, but no one wants it where they have to look at it.”

I love NIMBYism. In this era of so much faux concern for others it is refreshing to hear such clear selfish declarations. But can't we be more practical in our NIMBYism? Both nuclear and solar have much less esthetic impact. If I was going to get my view of mountains and valleys ruined by a wind farm that covers a wide area I'd argue for a nuclear plant that covers a much smaller area and produces far more power. I'd also argue for an acceleration of research on photovoltaic materials such as thin films and nanotubes.

Wind electric is growing most rapidly of all electric sources when looked at in terms of percentage increase.

Of the big four sources of net generation (coal, nuclear, natural gas, and conventional hydroelectric), only hydroelectric generation showed a decrease from August 2006 to August 2007, as it was down by 7.9 percent. According to NOAA, “severe to extreme drought” affected about 29 percent of the contiguous United States and approximately 44 percent of the contiguous United States fell in the “moderate to extreme drought” category. Coal generation in August 2007 was up 0.6 percent from August 2006 and net generation attributable to nuclear sources was up 1.0 percent over the same period. Natural gas-fired generation was up 13.6 percent from its August 2006 level as more peaking generation was needed in the warmer month. Petroleum liquid-fired generation was down 10.9 compared to a year ago, and its overall share of net generation was still quite small compared to coal, nuclear, and natural gas-fired sources. Wind-powered generation was 47.8 percent higher in August 2007 than it was in August 2006.

But a look at wind's contribution in absolute terms yields a different picture. The absolute increase in nuclear generation, at 6.2 million MWh more, was much greater than the absolute increase in wind generation, at 3.6 million MWh more. To put dollar signs on this keep in mind that average retail electricity sells for about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. So that represents an increase in nuclear power sales of about $620 million and for wind power about $360 million. Maybe cut those numbers in half to get an idea of how much money was paid to the actual generating companies. Anyone have a more accurate way to estimate that?

The biggest absolute increase came from natural gas and the second biggest came from coal. Even the increase from petroleum liquids was greater than that from wind.

Year-to-date, net generation was 1.6 percent higher (43.1 million MWh more) than the same period in 2006, as the economy continued to grow, according to the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. Net generation attributable to coal-fired plants was up by 1.4 percent (19.0 million MWh more) compared to the same period in 2006, and nuclear net generation was up by 1.2 percent (6.2 million MWh more). Generation from petroleum liquids was 19.8 percent higher (6.3 million MWh higher) while generation from natural gas was 6.9 percent higher (39.0 million MWh higher). Year-to-date, net generation attributable to conventional hydroelectric sources was 13.4 percent lower (down 28.5 million MWh) than it was in 2006 due to the aforementioned drought conditions. Wind-powered generation year-to-date was 21.0 percent higher than in 2006 and contributed over 3.6 million MWh, or 8.4 percent of the increase in net generation year to date. Even with these significant increases, the contribution of wind-powered net generation to the National total year-to-date was only 0.7 percent through August 2007.

At 0.7% wind power is still a very minor electric power contributor. Electricity, in turn, is only one of the ways we use energy. Given all the non-electric use of natural gas, oil, and other fossil fuels wind power's contribution to the total power usage is even smaller.

I find the increase electric generation from petroleum liquids puzzling. Oil is about 3 times more expensive than natural gas per million BTUs. So why the big increase in petroleum liquids for electricity? Anyone know?

We need to shift more uses of energy from oil to electricity. Oil production is near a peak and we are going to need to move away from it by using more electrically powered devices. Cheaper wind (though not in my backyard or on any mountain range I like to look at) is part of the solution. But we really need photovoltaics cost breakthroughs, more nuclear power, and more research into ways to make nuclear power cheaper. I think solar and nuclear power should be our biggest sources of energy in the future with wind in third place.

Update: Another New York Times article discusses the growing anti-wind movement in many countries due mostly to esthetic considerations.

Supporters see modern wind turbines not as Don Quixote’s ferocious giants but as elegant symbols of a clean-energy future. But as the industry expands amid global pressure to cut carbon emissions and fight climate change, an increasingly mobilized anti-wind farm lobby in Europe, North America and elsewhere is decrying the turbines as ugly, noisy and destructive, especially for picturesque locales that rely on tourism. “These are not just one or two turbines spinning majestically in the blue sky and billowing clouds,” said Lisa Linowes, executive director of Industrial Wind Action Group, an international advocacy group based in New Hampshire that opposes wind farms.

Greeks are fighting against wind because 16% of their economy is based on tourism. Englishmen don't want their views of castles and Hadrian's Wall ruined by 100 meter high wind towers with huge blades.

“The eyes are constantly drawn to them,” said John Ferguson, a member of S.O.U.L. (or Save Our Unspoilt Landscape), a group opposing the nine-turbine Barmoor Wind Farm in the lush northeastern English county of Northumberland. Several wind farm developers are considering Northumberland, whose castles and national parks are a big tourist draw.

There's a solution to this problem. It is called nuclear power. SOUL has used Photoshop or a similar program to show what huge wind towers will look like in different locations in English countryside. I've been unenthused about wind power for a long time on aesthetic grounds. I'm happy to hear opposition has become more organized. If you are wondering whether wind towers might get built near you check out maps of wind speed at 80 meters high above the ground.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 November 25 10:41 AM  Energy Wind

Michael G.R. said at November 25, 2007 10:56 AM:

We also need to start moving faster on wave-farms. That can help create a baseline for many countries with access to the ocean.

Jerry Martinson said at November 25, 2007 6:52 PM:

I've always thought that the best way to cut NIMBY-ism on the new nuclear plants we are likely to need to build is to located them in the exact same place they are right now. Of course this won't work so well in California since there's only one operating plant. But think of it, the politicians could sell the new plants as "safety" and "performance" upgrades. Most will see through this as BS but I think the sting of the opposition would cut greatly if it is sold as an improvement to a necessary bad thing that we already have. People living next door to existing plants will still howl but they will be tempered by the fact that there's little psychological difference between living next to an old nuclear power plant and a new one that's 3 times the size.

Randall Parker said at November 25, 2007 7:07 PM:


A large fraction (might even be more than half) of the new nuclear power plant designs are to be built alongside of existing ones.

Since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expecting about 30 new nuclear power plant license applications in 2008 I'm thinking a new nuclear era is dawning.

RP said at November 25, 2007 8:10 PM:

Political opposition to wind turbines and nuclear power plants will melt away once the brownouts begin.

aa2 said at November 26, 2007 1:50 AM:

Hi Randall have you seen the Dr. Robert Bussard google video on fusion? Watch it you won't regret it.

GP said at November 26, 2007 1:19 PM:

New fly-wheel technology could be a much better alternative instead of the wasteful process of "storing" energy by pumping water back up into resevoirs. Check out the fly-wheel frequency regulation products being developed by Beacon Energy This will be a strong solution for managing electricity spikes due to wind fluctuations. This technology will start to be rolled out in the US in 2008 in several of the ISO markets. It will reduce the need to turn-on coal fired powerplants to regulate electrical surges.

Fat Man said at November 27, 2007 12:01 AM:

I started collecting articles dealing with anti-wind power protests a few years ago, when I first read about Robert Kennedy Jr.'s opposition to Cape Wind. I have a strong dislike for the Kennedy family, and seeing one of them who has built his career on "environmentalism" campaign against "green energy" just made me laugh.

As I have studied the energy problem, I come to the realization that there are no magic bullet solutions. Wind is not one. Further, it is a poor economic solution. I have not seen any studies that cost wind together with the absolutely necessary energy storage technology. The wind blows fitfully and irregularly. Any system that depends on it to any large extent, must provide a lot of storage capacity, which will cost a lot of money.

But solar is not a trouble free alternative. It too is expensive, and must be built with lots of storage because we know it will not be available when and where we need it most. Nor is solar free of environmental problems. Chip manufacturing processes can be very dirty. But the real problem is that, given the low density of sun light in space at mid-latitudes, we will need to cover something on the order of 50,000 sq. mi. (1.3*10^5 km^2) with solar collectors, a nice size state, e.g. Iowa or Georgia.

Just wait until someone proposes covering a couple of thousand square miles of the Sonoran desert with solar machines. Please google "blind desert pupfish". I won't get into issues like cooling towers and water use.

All of this is just to say that every source of energy has costs as well as benefits. In our current political condition, no one, not liberal environmentalists like the Kennedys (remember "pay any cost, bear any burden"), nor anyone else wants to bear any cost, even one as minor as having some wind machines on the horizon. And very few people advocate even sensible incrementalist policies like a carbon tax, or an increased gas tax.

The political problem must be solved first, but it cannot be solved until it is recognized for what it is. People who carry on about technology as if any of it were a free ride are obfuscating, not contributing to a solution. People who claim that all costs are unbearable, and that we should not have an industrial civilization may be sincere, but they are a tiny minority -- they can advocate their views, but they will not persuade the great majority of Americans to give up our material comforts. There is a good reason that the Amish are a tiny sect.

A couple of comments on the previous comments:

Wave energy is of course available, but it is expensive and limited in scope. The idea of using large quantities of the nation's coast line for energy projects has no more appeal that covering it with wind machines.

Siting new nuclear plants at existing locations is of course a reasonable idea, but if we want to reach French levels of nuclear electricity generation (let alone displace non electric fossil fuel use) we will need to build several hundred new reactors. Many of them will have to be built in areas where there have not been reactors before. Like I said there are costs, they must be recognized and allocated fairly. New York, not only may you not shut down Indian Point, but you need to build about 10 more reactors.

Fly wheels: I recall that there was an article about using flywheels to power automobile in Sci Am back around the time of the early 70s oil crisis. Still no flywheels.

Paul Dietz said at November 27, 2007 6:54 AM:

not only may you not shut down Indian Point, but you need to build about 10 more reactors.

Note, however, that commercial nuclear reactors are getting larger. Some of the ones for which construction plans recently started in the US have power levels in excess of 2 GW(e).

Fat Man said at November 27, 2007 9:26 AM:

New York metro has about 7% of the total population of the US. The US uses 39.7 Quads (42 eJ) of electricity annually. Source. 7% of that is about 3 eJ or 3*10^18 J.

A 2 gW reactor produces (2*10^9 W * 3.2*10^7 sec @ 90+% uptime) about 6*10^16 J annually. So the area would need about 3*10^18/6*10^16 = 50 reactors to supply 100% of its electricity needs, 40 to reach the French level of 80%. Displacing any fossil fuel use would require more.

I apologize if the figure 10 that I used above was misleading, I was just trying to compare the political outcry against Indian Point with the kind of cost acceptance that would be needed.

Engineer-Poet said at November 27, 2007 1:18 PM:

The US does not use 39.7 quads of electricity.  The US uses 39.7 quads of raw energy to produce electricity; the US actually generates about 4053 billion kWh/year, or 14.6 EJ.  7% of that is 1.02 EJ, or 32 GW continuous.  That's 16 2 GW reactors.

The problem with reactors as big as 2 GW is the amount of reserve capacity required to handle outages; when your generation goes off-line in units as big as 2 GW, you have heavy demands on everything else.  Paradoxically, wind is likely to be easier to handle than this, because its production can be forecast and failures come in pieces roughly 0.2% as big as those huge nukes.

Dave Gore said at November 27, 2007 3:57 PM:

In areas without hills but with a low water table (e.g., 300 feet down), it seems windmill energy could be stored by pumping water up into a pond when the wind blows, then letting it run back down the well through a submersible generator when power is needed.

Randall Parker said at November 27, 2007 6:51 PM:


A 1 GW nuclear reactor operating continuously produces 24 * 365 * 1 GW/hr = 8760 GWH per year? Or is the GW rating total heat produced?

If it is electricity produced in continuous production (and assuming 100% utilization - which is probably 10% to 15% too high) then that would be 8760*10^6 kwh per year or 8.76*10^9 kwh per year. Is that correct?

The 4053 billion kWh per year is 4053*10^9 kwh per year or 4.053*10^12 kwh per year. Is that correct?

If so, I'd expect to need about 463 1 GW plants or 231 2 GW plants to produce what the US uses per year in electricity.

Am I making any mistakes in my calculations?

Engineer-Poet said at November 27, 2007 7:16 PM:

Clarification:  Fat Man was throwing the "2 GW" figure around without specifying whether he meant electric or thermal, and claimed 39.7 quads of electricity (which is definitely wrong).  Electric powerplants are usually rated by their electric output, and the EIA page he linked to most definitely specified inputs (thermal).

Your calculations look good to me.  There's the slight complication of a non-flat demand curve, though. ;-)

Fat Man said at November 27, 2007 9:39 PM:

EP: I apologize. You are my master. I did look at the wrong page. You linked the correct one.

The 2gW figure came from Mr. Deitz' comment above, and he was more specific, he said 2gW(e).

Randall: NEI says the US capacity factor was 89.6% in 2006.

NEI also says there were 104 operating reactors, and EIA says they produced about 20% of the country's electricity, then we would need about 400 total reactors to hit the French 80% level. Of course if the new reactors will be bigger fewer of them will be required.

But, and this is a big BUT, the point I was trying to make is that the detriments of using more nuclear energy, or more wind energy, or more horse manure, must be spread across the entire nation. This is a political, not technical issue.

Whether the New York City metro area must host 32, 16, 50 or 10 new nuclear plants is not the point. New Yorkers cannot ask for the benefits of an energy intensive civilization and think they have no obligation to bear the detriments. Neither can people in any other area. LA wipe that grin off your face, it applies to you as well.

aa2 said at November 28, 2007 12:01 AM:

Also places not willing to build new generation can't expect to enjoy the new products that arrive in the coming years. For example I read an estimate that the internet added 11% demand to the power grid. All facets of the internet, from the devices in homes, to the networks operated by the telecom companies, to the server farms ran by the internet site operators.

Imagine an area had 'froze' electrical production at 1990 levels. They would have had to tell their people I'm sorry we can't allow the internet in this area. It would be a fatal economic disadvantage imo.

Rob said at November 28, 2007 7:53 AM:

Here is cool wind turbine design that uses magnetic levitation to reduce friction losses and maintenance costs.

Dan Brown said at November 12, 2011 7:13 PM:

"not in my backyard" is the problem. Wind power will only become socially accepted and even popular when energy costs go way up or solar panels on roofs becomes commonplace. We have to get to a point where neighbors are asking neighbors why they don't have renewable energy production at their home, instead of making the people that want it jump through so many legal and permitting hoops to get it.

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