February 21, 2010
New Wind Power Maps For United States

Wired points to a new report on wind power availability in the United States.

The amount of wind power that theoretically could be generated in the United States tripled in the newest assessment of the nationís wind resources.

Current wind technology deployed in nonenvironmentally protected areas could generate 37,000,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year, according to the new analysis conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and consulting firm AWS Truewind. The last comprehensive estimate came out in 1993, when Pacific Northwest National Laboratory pegged the wind energy potential of the United States at 10,777,000 gigawatt-hours.

Huge potential for lots of energy. Ah, but at what cost?

Check out an accompanying PDF document, which makes the argument that wind could supply 20% of the electric power in the United States by 2030. This document (basically a PDF slide show you can go thru quickly - so don't be bashful about clicking on it) makes a number of interesting claims. Especially see page 20 for comparisons of costs of electricity from wind (at different quality levels depending on where sited), nuclear, natural gas, and coal with different levels of emissions control.

If these claims are correct then onshore wind at the highest quality locations is almost the same price as new coal plants using older style and dirtier combustion (at least without a carbon tax). Also, coal with integrated gasification and combined combustion (IGCC - the cleanest way to burn coal) is more expensive than wind or natural gas and without a carbon tax coal IGCC equals nuclear in cost. The fact that IGCC is so expensive explains why we do not see cleaner coal. Oh, and when we hear politicians tout "Clean Coal" without also stating that they want to require all new coal plants to use IGCC we can know those politicians aren't being sincere.

Since coal burned with IGCC without Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) already costs as much as nuclear power and IGCC emits CO2 whereas nuclear does not I do not see the point of "Clean Coal". Why not just use nuclear? Coal IGCC+CSS costs way more than nuclear. Again, see page 20. If CCS has a future it is probably with natural gas plants, chemical plants, and refineries.

Carbon taxes are still politically impossible in the United States. Given that fact and given that Obama believes CO2 emissions reduction is necessary in order to prevent global warming Obama's support for nuclear reactor loan guarantees in spite of anger from environmentalists is understandable. Even the the Waxman-Markey climate bill on Congress makes small steps with regard to coal CO2 emissions. Obama can't raise the cost of dirtier coal. So he's trying to lower the cost of cleaner nuclear. The US government has been doing the same for years with the Production Tax Credit for wind power. Wind and nuclear costs are being subsidized in order to lower their prices and make them competitive with dirty coal. This is politically easier to do than to tax pollution from coal electric plants.

You might think from looking at page 20 that wind is cheaper than nuclear and so why not just go with wind? Well, see page 50 for the problem with that line of thinking. In a nutshell: there's not enough of the cheaper higher quality wind from classes 4, 5, 6, and 7. We can't displace most of the fossil fuel electricity without getting into lower quality (more intermittent and slower) and therefore more expensive class 3 wind. But class 3 wind is very close to nuclear in price. Plus, nuclear has the advantage of working 24 hours per day and also nuclear works in areas where the winds are weak. The southeastern part of the United States has especially weak winds:

A wind resource map of the United States. Click on this map to go to more wind maps.

Note to Old South congressmen: Your future is nuclear if it is not coal.

There's strong wind offshore. But look again at page 50 and see the problem with offshore wind. Those blue bands on the right for offshore wind have really high prices. Offshore wind at 12 to 14 cents per kwh hour is even more expensive than coal IGCC+CSS. Nuclear is much cheaper than either of them.

Suppose the US government puts in place policies that lead to a huge ramp in wind production. What happens to US CO2 emissions? See page 60. Even if wind rises to 20% of total US electricity production in 2030 total CO2 emissions from the electric power sector will still rise. Without either stronger measures to curtail demand or a big build of nuclear or embrace of much more expensive coal IGCC+CSS plants CO2 production from burning coal will continue to increase. Again, in this light Obama's embrace of nuclear power in the face of howls from nuclear opponents is not surprising.

Currently coal provides 50% of US electric power. Coal IGCC+CSS to make coal into a carbon-free electric power source seems far too expensive. Why add 4 cents per kilowatt-hour to make coal clean when we can switch to nuclear and wind instead? Also, solar's cost continues to fall (unlike wind btw - see page 16) and solar will become competitive as an afternoon peaking power source in the US southwest probably by the middle this decade and in more areas each year beyond. Nuclear, wind, and eventually solar make sense as replacements for dirty coal. The much hyped "clean coal" might never make sense. What are the realistic prospects for lowering the costs of coal IGCC+CSS? I have greater hope for 4th gen nuclear reactors (or perhaps small modular reactors) to lower the costs for nuclear than for IGCC+CSS to mature into a competitive alternative.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 February 21 12:08 PM  Energy Wind


Comments
James Bowery said at February 21, 2010 3:47 PM:

I've got one word for you: "Waste"

Brian said at February 21, 2010 4:24 PM:

I wonder what impact breeder reactors would have on waste in the long term. Could our regulatory structure move fast enough to make that possible? The ted presentation on traveling wave breeder reactors was enlightening. That kind of technology could be on-line in time to make a difference, and it may well be economical.

John Moore said at February 21, 2010 5:00 PM:

It's amazing how much print is wasted on wind power in pursuit of lower CO2 emissions, when any quantitative analysis shows it will have an utterly negligible effect on mankind's contributions.

Oh, and does anyone know how to recycle those wind turbine blades?

Randall Parker said at February 21, 2010 6:06 PM:

John Moore,

Coal electric currently is the source of 33% of US CO2 emissions and 40% of global CO2 emissions. Getting 20% of our electric power from wind will reduce coal usage over what it would otherwise have been by a substantial amount. I do not see how you get to "negligible".

Granted, wind by itself doesn't stop all or even most CO2 emissions. But given that the higher quality wind sites produce electric power at costs lower than nuclear it makes sense to me to develop those sites as a prelude to a big nuclear build.

Er, why should anyone care about recycling wind turbine blades? They represent a very very small fraction of all materials fabricated by humans.

Brian,

I'm more optimistic about LFTR (Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors).

Nick G said at February 22, 2010 12:35 PM:

Randall,

The total capacity shown on page 50 is only 1TW. The report says that 10TW are available. So, the note on the chart that says "10% of existing transmission capacity available to wind" seems to say that the wind resource has been arbitrarily reduced by 90% for this scenario.

So, it looks to me like there's more than enough cheap wind to supply all of the wind power we could conceivably want - more than enough to replace all coal, for instance.

th said at February 22, 2010 4:04 PM:

I think Rahm Emmanuel called them f'ing retards?

Randall Parker said at February 22, 2010 5:36 PM:

th,

I am warning you: Your comment quality is so low that I'm going to start deleting some of them. I have no idea how that reference refers to something in this thread.

People like you are making me rethink my highly tolerant comment policy. People abuse it just to display ignorance and beat on their chests. I'm getting tired of it.

You have been warned.

KT said at February 22, 2010 6:48 PM:

If we make liquid fluoride thorium reactors, we're pretty much set for ever.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZR0UKxNPh8

Randall Parker said at February 22, 2010 7:01 PM:

Nick G,

I wonder if they were including Aleutian islands or other impractical places in the 10 TW. Or maybe a lot of offshore that is way too expensive. They must have had good reasons to leave out 90% of the available wind.

But as I point out about the 1 TW: It gets very pricey because they go offshore to get to 1 TW.

Here's a mental exercise I've started thinking about lately: What does it take to totally replace fossil fuels? That means replace oil and natural gas too. How much electric power from wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal would be needed to do that? We get into scaling costs or other limits on each of them. Nuclear can't sustain without getting into breeders or fusion. Wind becomes progressively more expensive due to declining quality of additional sources. Solar, well when does it become cheap enough?

Nick G said at February 23, 2010 7:33 AM:

Randall,

Other analyses of wind resources, such as those from Stanford (Jacobson, IIRC), are consistent with the 10TW. Heck, either the Dakotas or Texas alone could supply 100% of US current electrical generation. No, I think they're just being highly conservative because they can be - we're so far away from needing to use that much wind.

One scenario that's highly practical:

40% wind, 25% nuclear, 15% solar (CSP & PV - a bit more expensive, but worth it for mid-day peak demand), 7.5% misc (geothermal, wave, etc) 7.5% hydro (a bit more than now), 5% biomass.

Choey said at February 23, 2010 6:01 PM:

I doubt you will ever get 40% wind for one simple reason... The wind doesn't always blow and when it does it doesn't always blow at the speed needed to get 100% output from the turbines. I believe that they need approx 30 mph winds to get 100% output. If the wind is only blowing at 20 mph you only get a percentage of the rated output. You still need to have enough base load capacity to make up the difference. So why not just build the base load capacity and forget the rest and save the money?

Randall Parker said at February 23, 2010 9:31 PM:

Nick G,

Hydro's percentage will decline as total demand rises. Picture an economy where fossil fuels contribute very little to total energy demand. Electric power production will have to grow enormously so that more things can run on electricity. Cars, trains, steel plants, chemical plants, and lots of other current consumers of fossil fuels will great large demands for electricity. If electric power demand doubles then hydro's contribution shrinks proportionately.

Take away coal and at the same time double total electric power demand. We'd need about 250 additional nuclear power plants to displace the existing coal plants. We'd probably need a terawatt of wind nameplate capacity to deal with demand growth.

My guess is the 300 GW of wind cited in this study is nameplate with an average output a third or less than the nameplate. But it isn't clear.

Nick G said at February 23, 2010 10:25 PM:

Hydro's percentage will decline as total demand rises.

Well, that's a matter of policy. Alan Drake (Alanfrombigeasy on TOD) claims that there's quite a bit of underutilized hyrdro in N America. On the whole..I suppose you're right, though things can change when they need to - i.e., if there was a serious shortage of electricity.

Yes, we'd need to expand the grid 20% for personal transportation, perhaps 5% for freight, and I don't know how much for space heating and I/C demand (process heat, etc).

I wouldn't be surprised if we needed to double our grid output - maybe 900GW. Yes, 40% wind would probably require 1.2TW nameplate.

Nick G said at February 23, 2010 10:43 PM:

I'd make my first priority replacing coal production, and powering EVs. Wind could do that - actually taking the coal plants out of service could wait.

Mike Keller said at February 26, 2010 7:15 PM:

In order to use large amounts of wind, the transmission grid must be significantly expanded -we are talking billions and billions of dollars. Highly unlikely to happen due to cost and political opposition (as in NIMBY). See "Eastern Wind Integration and Transmission Study", www.osti.gov/bridge

Further, the underlying precept that "if you build enough wind turbines all over the land, and because the wind is always blowing somewhere, then you always have enough wind power" is seriously flawed. A review of wind patterns as a function of time over large areas clearly demonstrate that massive reliance on wind is folly. Unless, of course you do not mind being a 3rd world country where power randomly comes on and off.

Renewable energy is incapable of competing in the marketplace without massive subsidies. This has been the story since the 1970's. It's time to stop shoveling money out to "welfare queen" green-energy industries.

The free market is more than capable of solving our energy problems when allowed to function without interference from inept politicians. Case in point: gas turbines were only about 25% efficient where the technology first began being used in the power industry. Combined-cycle power plants are now about 55% efficient.

Technology is more than capable of solving our energy problems, provided the market is allowed to weed out the charlatans.

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