Tilting at Windmills?

“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”     

Don Quixote

I hope I am not, but I probably am, the only person that sees the irony in the fact that the latest wind farm battle in New Hampshire involves a Spanish developer of wind farms (Iberdrola Renewables).   The proposed wind farm near Newfound Lake has many of the residents in that area concerned about the visual and noise impacts of the project.  Electricity generation from wind has grown significantly throughout the country over the past several years and along with this growth has come a concomitant increase in opposition to the projects.

Wind generators accounted for a significant portion of capacity additions since 2007 (see chart below), and were the largest source for generating capacity additions in 2008 and 2009. If all planned wind generators in 2012 come on-line, as reported by industry participants, wind capacity additions could top 12,000 MW for this year. This would account for 45% of total additions and exceed capacity additions from any other fuel source, including natural gas, which was the leading fuel source for electric generating capacity additions in 2010 and 2011.

additionsbytype

The wind energy production tax credit (PTC), along with state-level policies, has boosted the growth of the U.S. wind industry over the past decade and the anticipated expiration of the PTC at the end of 2012 created a rush to complete projects in 2012.  This tax credit was first implemented in 1992, when the United States had less than 1.5 gigawatts (GW) of installed wind capacity. By the end of 2011, wind capacity stood at more than 45 GW, about 4% of U.S. power generating capacity, and provided 3% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2011.

The most recent state level data available on electricity generated from wind (2010) show that less than 1% of NH’s electricity was produced by wind but with recent projects in the state that figure is outdated.

Wind Generation by state

I don’t know what the future of wind power is in New Hampshire.  I have no professional or business stake in the issue. Like everywhere, aesthetic issues and local opposition will play a prominent role in determining its growth but there are other issues that must be considered if policymakers are to make reasoned decisions about its efficacy in meeting the state’s power needs.  The two most often cited concerns about wind as a source of electricity (besides aesthetic and local opposition) seem to be that turbines are so inefficient that they actually increase carbon dioxide emissions, and that they are so unreliable that they require constant backup from conventional coal and gas-fired generators.  Concerns about increased carbon from wind seem misplaced to me.   As electricity demand increases, say on a weekday morning when people are waking up and getting ready to go to work,  power plants increase output to meet it. Plants with the lowest marginal cost – that is, those that can produce additional electricity most cheaply – are selected first by the market. Here wind beats gas and coal, as no fuel is needed to generate electricity.  So in theory at least,  adding wind power to the energy mix should displace coal and gas, and hence cut carbon.  On the important matter of reliability, the obvious worry is that because the wind does not always blow, the system will sometimes not be able to supply electricity when needed.  This seems like common sense.   But the reliability of wind power does not depend on the variability of wind, it depends on how well changes in wind power output can be anticipated. Forecasts of wind farm output are increasingly accurate, and drops in output can be predicted and compensated for using conventional power stations.

I have driven by wind turbines in several states and am in awe of their size visual impacts.  I don’t know how I would feel about living near them,  but I also can’t ignore that the world (especially in the UK) is increasingly using wind power as a way to limit fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

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