Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Is the Answer Blowing in the Wind?

Speaking of the environment, the news about offshore wind turbines is not encouraging. Governors from true blue Northeastern states thrill to the prospect of building more and more of them. Fortunately for them, but not for their citizens, these machines are a boondoggle.

Despite what Bob Dylan crooned, the answer to America’s energy problems is not blowing in the wind.

Steve Gorham tells the sad story at Watt’s Up With That (via Powerline):

Several eastern US states are planning major investments in offshore wind. Wind turbines are touted as clean, green, and economically sound. But experience from around the world shows that offshore wind systems are both expensive and at high risk for early system degradation.

The governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia have signed executive orders or passed laws to procure offshore wind systems valued at billions of dollars. Officials are eager to win leadership in what is perceived to be a new growth industry. The US Department of Energy has funded over $200 million in offshore wind research since 2011.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a law in 2016 requiring utilities to purchase 1,600 megawatts of electricity from offshore wind systems over the next 10 years.

Of course, there’s a downside to this fantasy. It’s called reality. Let’s count the problems created by these machines. Gorham explains:

Ocean-located turbines face one of the harshest environments on Earth. Turbines are battered by wind and waves, struck by lightning, and need to endure salt spray that is very corrosive to man-made structures.

In February, it was reported that Danish wind operator ├śrsted must repair more than 600 wind turbines due to early blade failure. The blades are to be disassembled and brought to shore for repair after only five years of operation, at a cost on the order of $100 million.

Then in March, it was announced that wind turbines at the 175-turbine London Array, the world’s largest offshore wind system, would also need major repairs after only five years of use. Few offshore systems have made it to the end their specified 25-year lifetimes without a major overhaul.

Wind turbines sited off the eastern US coast must survive brutal weather compared to offshore turbines in Europe. From March 1 to March 22 of this year, four powerful extratropical cyclones, called nor’easters, battered our east coast from Virginia to Maine. These storms produced ocean storm surges, large snowfalls, wind gusts of up to 100 miles per hour, and even 20 tornados.

Specifications call for wind systems to withstand gusts up to 156 miles per hour, but this isn’t good enough for some of our Atlantic hurricanes.

But, you will be thinking, it’s worth it to save the environment. But, what is the price tag on the good feelings that will flood your psyche:

[H]istory shows that costs are likely to be far above the New England wholesale market price of 5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Massachusetts paid solar generators a subsidy of 25 cents per kilowatt-hour during the state’s solar build-out in 2013. Rhode Island’s Block Island wind system, the first offshore system in the United States, now receives over 27 cents per kW-hr, with an annual guaranteed rate increase of an additional 3.5 cents per kW-hr. New England residents must enjoy paying renewable generators more than six times the market price for electricity.

And this, Hinderaker reminds us, does not count the massive number of birds who will be killed by these machines.


sestamibi said...

"Specifications call for wind systems to withstand gusts up to 156 miles per hour, but this isn’t good enough for some of our Atlantic hurricanes."

But isn't that a feature, not a bug? Just think of how much juice can be generated under such conditions.

David Foster said...

Wind turbines have to shut down above some wind limit, IIRC it is about 70mph at most.

The major issue with all these 'green' sources is their intermittent nature. There are times when the sun doesn't shine very much and the wind doesn't blow (or blows too much) for days on end...yet people still want to cook and run their air conditioners, factories would prefer to avoid shutting down, etc. It is unlikely that batteries can economically store more than a few hours' worth of power. Geographical diversity, ie, grid interconnections over a wide area, can help, but it's not 100%. A very significant portion of peak demand needs to be provided by a dispatchable, on-call, power source, and this usually means gas-fired turbines. So the capital cost of these turbines, and of any battery storage as well, needs to be added when considering the economics of wind or solar.

It seems almost impossible to explain to a journaist that a kilowatt-hour at time 'A' and a kilowatt-hour at time 'B' are not the same thing. Indeed, few of them seem able to even grasp that a kilowatt and a kilowatt-hour are not the same thing. Sadly, this is true of business journalists also.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for the clarifications.

Sam L. said...

Well, perhaps for the offshore windmills killing birds, the birds killed will sink and not get blown ashore. Small favors...

Ares Olympus said...

You can know your argument is weak when you end it with talking about bird deaths. We'd ban cats and skyscrapers if we were really worried about birds.

I am continually surprised by what humans can do, and everything hard has a learning curve, including intermittence as David says.

Myself, if I was investing in energy, I'd invest in established technology that has a future, which is a tricky question. Wind has an advantage that it'll still be blowing long after humans leave this world, while burning one-time fossil fuels moves our descendants one step closer to energy poverty, even if climate change is a "hoax" perpetrated by scientists looking for meaningless work to raise a family.

Yesterday I mowed my lawn and my sister's lawn, and just recharged the battery less than $0.02. Electricity is cheap, and so even if prices went up by a factor of 10, it would still be cheap, but we'd probably waste a little less of it if we felt its cost a little more. I heard bitcoin mining is using a huge amount of electricity to create imaginary wealth.

sestamibi said...

@David Foster

I was being sarcastic, but apart from that I spent my entire career in the electric utility business and can tell you there were people in my company (mostly HR, lawyers, and other staff positions who had nothing to do with actual energy production or delivery) who also didn't know the difference between a kW and a kWh.

Uncle Max said...

I have to believe these farms will heavily depend on Federal grants or subsidies. No way the cost curve EVER would come close without it. So, there is HOPE, that even before those big farms can be built, maybe the Federal money will be canceled and/or withdrawn. And the farms will be a fancy idea with no funding. If not, they'll be built, and within 15 years they'll be derelicts off the coast. Too expensive to fix, and the "wind energy fad" will surely have been over by then.

Dan Patterson said...

Don't call me Shirley.

Sam L. said...

Ares,I wasn't arguing.