The Problem With Wind

I have an innate confidence in technology.  For example, while I understand solar to be uneconomic for powering my house today, I fully expect that to change.  I look forward to the day, not that far in the future, when I can take my Arizona house off the grid, at least during the day.

In contrast, though, it may be that wind power can't be fixed, in large part due to its inherent unpredictability.  Sure, solar has a problem as well, in that it doesn't work at night.  But at least the times when solar is off here in Arizona (ie when it is dark) are predictable and coincide with lower load periods.  Wind is utterly unpredictable and variable, and its peaks and troughs are unrelated to peaks and troughs in electricity demand.

So, if the grid is to reliably supply sufficient power to meet demand, wind must have a backup.  And there is the rub.  Because just about every technology that might currently be used as a backup takes a really, really long time to start up.  Small gas turbines can be producing electricity from a cold stop pretty quickly, but a large coal-fired power plant can take days to go from a cold stop to producing electricity.  This is in part because there are a series of steps where A has to precede B which must come before C to start plants up, and partially just because immediately heating the whole system up would cause the plant to blow up just from the thermal stresses.

So, to back up wind power, traditional fossil fuel plants have to be kept warmed up with turbines spinning.  This means that fossil fuels are burned but no electricity is produced.  I mentioned in a previous post that the largest utility in Germany estimated that 48,000MW of wind capacity was in fact allowing the shut down of just 2000MW of traditional fossil-fuel powered capacity.

A recent article in the National Post argues the Danes are seeing absolutely no substitution from their substantial investment in wind.

There is no evidence that industrial wind power is likely to have a significant impact on carbon emissions. The European experience is instructive. Denmark, the world's most wind-intensive nation, with more than 6,000 turbines generating 19% of its electricity, has yet to close a single fossil-fuel plant. It requires 50% more coal-generated electricity to cover wind power's unpredictability, and pollution and carbon dioxide emissions have risen (by 36% in 2006 alone).

Flemming Nissen, the head of development at West Danish generating company ELSAM (one of Denmark's largest energy utilities) tells us that "wind turbines do not reduce carbon dioxide emissions." The German experience is no different. Der Spiegel reports that "Germany's CO2 emissions haven't been reduced by even a single gram," and additional coal- and gas-fired plants have been constructed to ensure reliable delivery.

Indeed, recent academic research shows that wind power may actually increase greenhouse gas emissions in some cases, depending on the carbon-intensity of back-up generation required because of its intermittent character.

It probably comes as no surprise that the Danes have the highest electricity costs in Europe.  The article goes on to call wind power in the US a "huge corporate welfare feeding frenzy."

Update: Well, the Danish wind industry certainly seems to be in good hands (via Tom Nelson):

Ditlev Engel, president and chief executive of the Danish wind-energy company Vestas, said anecdotal evidence about birds being caught in turbine blades and other environmental horror stories do not usually hold up under scrutiny.

"Do people think it's better all those birds are breathing CO2? I'm not a scientist, but I doubt it," said Engel, whose company is expanding its U.S. manufacturing and distribution operations. "Let's get the facts on the table and not the feelings. The fact is, these are not issues."

LOL - Nothing like a paragraph that simultaneously includes the phrase "Let's get the facts on the table" with the hypothesis that a couple hundred ppm increase in CO2 concentrations hurts birds.  By the way, from the same article, a lot of discussion of the environmental impact of renewables due to their out-sized use of land.  Clearly an issue for solar and wind, and possibly for others:

One of the biggest challenges renewable-energy projects pose is that they often take up much more land than conventional sources, such as coal-fired power plants. A team of scientists, several of whom work for the Nature Conservancy, has written a paper that will appear in the journal PLoS One showing that it can take 300 times as much land to produce a given amount of energy from soy biodiesel as from a nuclear power plant. Regardless of the climate policy the nation adopts, the paper predicts that by 2030, energy production will occupy an additional 79,537 square miles of land.

I am always amazed at the number of environmentalists that laud the Brazilian ethanol push, given the out-sized effect that industry has had in carving up the Amazon rain forest.  As a disclosure, I am a member of the Nature Conservancy, and wild land preservation is my environmental interest of choice, though I prefer to pursue it through private means (ie via private purchases of land for conservation purposes).  The Nature Conservancy used to spend most of its money for this purpose, though of late it has diverged, as so many environmental groups have, into lobbying government to force people to achieve its ends for them rather than to pursue these ends through non-coercive means.


  1. Link:

    I used to think that wind and solar wouldn't make more than a 20% contribution to our electricity needs within 20 years -- which is about what our antiquated nuclear plants already deliver. With your recent posts on the European experience, you have me thinking it won't hit 10%, maybe not even 5%, despite Obama's commitment.

    So what is Obama up to with his energy plans? Do his followers not see these issues?

    Energy is but one piece of the Obama puzzle -- but it's the one where he's most exposed to rational criticism.

    It bothers me that late in the campaign he did a head fake to suggest he was open to more nukes -- to deflect a line of attack.

  2. Shenpen:

    A silly question from a non-engineer: can't wind be backed up by wind somewhere else - it always blows somewhere...?

  3. Tim:


    Yes, wind can be backed up by other wind, but you need to account for the transmission losses.

    Ideally, you would use your wind power to charge some energy storage system; and then connect *that* to the grid. That would smooth out generation peaks as well as accommodate the generation lulls. At the small level, maybe a large bank of Li-ion batteries; and at the large level.... maybe pump water up to a reservoir and let it run back down through a turbine.

  4. Brad Warbiany:

    Maybe I'm just morbid, but I thought he was cheering for the death of the birds because they were EXHALING CO2... After all, they're just another cog in the carbon footprint, right? ;-)

  5. Nobrainer:

    2 major points here:

    1 - There are what are referred to as load following plants. These typically run on natural gas or oil and use steam to turn the turbine. These units typically have large dispatchable ranges. Therefore they can run between, say 20% of capacity or 100%. When they run below full capacity, as they do regularly, they'll typically count as high quality spinning reserves for the grid. Therefore they are specifically not burning fuel without outputting electricity. Additionally, let me emphasize that they aren't burning fuel at 100% while only generating some smaller % of their capacity. There is a roughly linear relationship between the amount of fuel burned and the number of MW produced... More fuel burned, more heat created, more steam formed, more output; a basic study of thermodynamics.

    2 - The Danish system, from my understanding, is largely different from the American system in that they simply do not have load following fossil fuel plants so their option to follow load (and wind) with hydro. Admittedly, this can vary a lot throughout the US.

    A lesser point, is that this piece leaves me confused, "It requires 50% more coal-generated electricity to cover wind power’s unpredictability..." I can think of several ways to interpret that, and then the only I can decide is that the author has over-simplified something, or worse simply doesn't know what he's talking about. For example, people frequently confuse capacity with output. So in terms of the grid, variability requires more capacity and not really more output. As an additional example, let's make up a system where the demand is always 10MW and that 10MW is always served by a coal plant. Let's then add a variable-output wind turbine that sometimes produces 1 MW. Based on what the author said, and assuming the system load stays fixed at 10MW, then it is a mathematical impossibility for the amount of electricity needed from the coal plant to not decline.

    Also, my comment from your previous post is still worth reading, if I may so myself.

  6. DKH:

    Brad: That's the message I got from his comment.

    Incidentally, I don't care much, but it's nice that negatives can be canceled out by just naming a corresponding positive. Is there really a bird massacre going on at the wind farms? Is the net production of CO2 of those birds really so large as to cheer their death?

  7. Orthogonal Vision:


    I'd interpret the confusing statement as it requires an additional 50% (non-wind) power generation capacity to adequately cover power generation from wind due to variability in generation. For example, it you build a 10MW wind farm (for a 10MW power requirement), you'd need at least 5MW of some other power generation capacity elsewhere.

    I would also add that anciallary issues unrelated to wind are complicating the picture. For example, a smarter power grid with less transmission losses would help everyone regardless of the source of power generation. This should have been emphasized in the stimulus bill because regardless of what energy source we work towards (solar, wind, hydrothermal, coal, oil, etc.), an upgraded grid is a must and will become critical over the next couple of decades.

    Also, another issue is power (as opposed to energy) storage. Our inability to store power creates the need for all these standby power plants. Even with traditional coal plants, this is still a problem because the plants are built to peak demand which means that for most of the time, they are not operating at their peak capacity. If there was a way to store the power generated, the plant could be smaller and run over a more narrow operating range for greater efficiency.

    Obviously batteries will not cut it, but there have been alternative proposals. One intriguing suggestions is using underground caves that takes excess power generation (off-peak) and pressurizes the cave. When demand exceeds generation, you can use the pressure to drive turbines to get back that energy. If we really did have a way to store power, think about how much power we could generate during hurricane season.

  8. Link:

    Does anyone have a plan for how much we can expect to get from wind/solar in say 10 years at what cost per kwh? ... the kind of plan you'd expect from a major consulting firm -- inches thick, with lots of appendices.

    Does Obama? If he doesn't -- it should be an indictment of he and Pelosi-Reid.

    If we care about emissions -- and energy independence -- I see no choice but nuclear. Am I wrong?

    If Obama is as wrong as I think he is on energy -- an area where I'm just a decently-read layman -- what does it say about his other proposals?

  9. tomw:

    Quote:"If we really did have a way to store power, think about how much power we could generate during hurricane season."

    Yeah, and if we could harness lightning strikes, we would not have to have any power plants at all.

    Seriously. A few days worth of storms generates unbelievable amounts of electrical power. We just need some HUGE Leyden jars, no?


  10. Mike:

    Instead of "tilting" at windmills, we're building 'em. Same net result.

  11. septagon49:

    Why are we trying to solve a 21st century problem with a 13th century solution? If wind power was so cost effective why does it require large subsidies from government? Solar energy suffers from being too dilute. With a maximum of 160 W/m2 available on the planet surface from solar energy, it requires huge amounts of surface area to generate the same amounts as a small traditional power plant. The energy business suffers from a lack of imagination of too much government intrusion. Fission and fusion is the future.

    Issac Asimov imagined mini nucleics in the Foundation series. Nuclear powered cars, houses and handheld devices would not have to worry about the vulnerability of the grid. We have had an inordinate fear of nuclear radiation and an artificial problem of nuclear waste. Carter signed an EO preventing the reprocessing of nuclear waste. Reverse it and we could eliminate 90% of our nuclear waste with creating more nuclear fuel. The inventiveness of individual could make this happen if government would get out of the way.

    Polywell fusion could make the whole energy issue mute. The DoD is spending two million dollars on developing Polywell fusion for shore and shipboard applications. We should invest the billions misallocated on wind and solar into projects like this - the true power of the sun.

  12. Fred Z:

    Blah, blah, blah. Lots of personal opinions, all worthless.

    We already have a perfect measure of environmental efficiency, with 100s of millions of people carefully watching it.

    It's called money.

    The market, you ignoramuses.

  13. Mesa Econoguy:

    Since no one said it, well…

    The real problem with wind is it blows.

    (Also, there’s a little problem called the Betz limit….And there are major siting problems…..and it generally sucks- er, blows)

  14. Xmas:


    Wind is free and windmills are relatively low-cost and low-maintenance. But even with all that, gas-turbines and coal-fired boilers are still cheaper. At least for now.

    The hardest part about putting up windmills is the NIMBY factor. I was happy that my hometown let one be put up to power a local school.

  15. rxc:

    No one has mentioned the problem with large power swings that occur around the grid, and the effect they have on grid stability. I think this is the biggest impediment to wind, other than the fact that the only place that seems to be acceptable to locate the windmills is in the mid-west farm country, while the loads are a LONG way away. Obama talks about building a new renewable grid, but it cannot be disconnected from the existing grid structure, and it has to maintain frequency, or else it all falls apart. Utilities do major stability studies before they decide to add capacity, and they size new units to ensure that a trip does not "ring" the system and overload it.

    This is not a simple matter of adding more wires - they have to be added in the right places, which are, unfortunately, quite picturesque. I know of one utility that would like to add new nuclear capability at one site that was originally sited for two plants, but they now don't have the transmission capacity out of the site.

    And then they talk about limiting access to this new "renewable grid" to only windmills - where is the power going to come from and how is it going to get to the customers?

    All-in-all, I find all this talk about a new smart grid to be just that - talk. The people at the top have no idea what is involved to technically upgrade the grid to include the substantial amounts of renewables they want to build. It is just smoke and mirrors.

  16. seotagon49:


    All natural resources are free. The ground does not charge you for the oil. It is the effort put into the process of converting the natural resource into something useful that imposes costs. You can put up all the windmills you want just do not ask me to subsidize it through to coersive power of government.

  17. tomw:

    Quote; "You can put up all the windmills you want just do not ask me to subsidize it through to coersive power of government."

    "If you put the government in charge of the desert, you'd soon have a shortage of sand" M. Friedman, to paraphrase.

    We need these "smart" guys that "know" what is best for us deciding energy policy. Ummm Huh. Just like we need another hole in our head. Remember Jimma Cartuh's Synfuels -- gonna make Oil obsolete!! Energy Independence Now!! How many $Billions later, and where are we? Same place, but poorer. I could go on about HRH's disdain for the small business, "if they can't afford health care for their employees, then let them go out of business", but it is a waste of time and energy.

  18. Brad:

    I am more curious than confident in the statistic that a coal power plant producing roughly 500MW takes 100 sq. acres and a wind farm producing the same power takes 100 sq. miles. Whatever the exact measurements are there seems to be an inevitable clash at some point with available land. I don't particularly care for the miles and miles of horizon covered with windmills in Southwestern Wyoming right now.

  19. george:

    It's still gotta be solar,

  20. MRP:

    There is huge opposition to a wind farm which is proposed for Palmerston North's water catchment, last bush remnant and in fact right in a residential area. This has had no national media coverage but all the info you might need about this Turitea disaster can be found at

  21. raj:

    Actually, there is a perfectly good technology that complements wind energy and balances out the infirm nature of wind. Large, medium-speed reciprocating engines that run on gas, come in unit sizes upto 16 MW. 10 of them make up a 160 MW plant. These recips start/stop instantaneously one at a time or together, have efficiencies > 45%, do not need water (closed circuit radiators) can chase wind energy very well in the grid.They mix flexibility with efficiency, unlike simple cycle gas turbines or combined cycle ones which can claim to have only either of the two. Such plants have been installed in Denver, Florida and California.