More Troubles with Wind

Frequent readers of this blog know that I am very skeptical wind will make very much sense as a major power source outside of a few niche applications.  Solar may not be economic today, but I think it will someday, and maybe even some day soon.  But I am not sure wind will ever be ready for prime time.

I thought this was pretty funny: (emphasis added)

In the space of one hour last month, electricity generated at wind farms in the eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge shot up by 1,000 megawatts "“ enough to power some 680,000 homes.

Less than an hour later, it plummeted almost as much.

Sitting in front of 10 computer screens in a fifth-floor room of the federal Bonneville Power Administration headquarters in Portland, Kim Randolph had to react quickly.

Working from a keyboard, she diverted millions of gallons of water away from massive turbines spinning in Columbia River dams and sent it around the dams.

The 17-year veteran power operations specialist remembers how fast she needed to work as a wind storm caused generation to peak and fall three times over eight hours.

The article is about the difficulty for grid operators in integrating and managing wind in the grid.  But here is the part that slides by -- despite the electricity it is putting in the grid, wind is contributing...nothing.  Note that when wind production is surging, the utility is sending water around the turbines of the dam.  That lost potential energy is gone forever.  All the wind power did in this case is substitute for clean hydro power.  It has not value in this particular case (beyond the ability of the utility to put wind on its annual report and seek subsidies from the Obama administration).

Apparently the costs of trying to integrate wind into the grid is so high the utility tried to charge wind producers a higher integration charge than they do for other sources.   This attempt to set pricing equal to actual costs was apparently killed by pressure from the Obama administration, making sure that wind will continue to get preferential treatment and I presume substitute for dirty hydro power in the future.

Postscript: I just don't see how wind is ever going to work on the grid.  In this case, wind is backed up by hydro, but in others it has to be backed up by spinning, fuel-burning fossil fuel plants.  Wind makes more sense to me linked to some type of flexible local process.  Using wind to make hydrogen from water may make sense.  Wind could store its energy by pumping water backwards back up a dam to be recovered as electricity through hydro power later.  Or it could run a local process, such as water desalinization  (a good potential candidate as sea breezes tend to be more constant).


  1. Nobrainer:

    "I just don’t see how wind is ever going to work on the grid."

    I dunno, maybe with fossil fuel fired backups. Oh wait, you just said that. What don't you see?

  2. james:

    @ No Brain

    Um, the fact that wind then becomes pointless, since you're burning the fuel anyways?

    I do like the desalinization idea though. It still seems that wind is WAAAY to expensive, but an intriguing idea nonetheless.

  3. thebastidge:

    Nobrainer: that's a good handle for a shallow thinker. When someone is making a sincere argument, it's often best to think before attempting to ridicule.

    Grid-scaled fossil fuel generators don't respond in anything like an instant manner. You're not talking about a 50hp electric genset that starts up and stabilizes in 2 minutes here.

    Windpower makes sense for small applications in remote areas with no grid readily available. Particularly for applications which don't require steady power.

    Windmills might make good sense for a water pump supplying livestock, perhaps. Maybe for irrigation where more wind correlates with more evaporation from the acreage. For a small off-grid house where storage capacity and aplication can be scheduled around availability.

    For planning where demand is predictable, intermittant supply is not practical. And while the Columbia gorge is one place where wind power might be available, as demonstrated here, it doesn't actually add anything, but creates greater logistical complexity.

  4. Xmas:

    The problem of variability in the new, renewable energy sources is a technical issue that needs to be solved. I think you're being too skeptical about the odds a solution will be found.

    That said, the government meddling in the pricing model isn't going to help a solution be found any quicker. I would expect GE and the other windmill manufacturers to have a greater financial incentive to find a good way of balancing the power output from their devices if the pricing was set to the market levels.

    I'm personally fond of flywheels, but that's a rather old-school way of capturing excess power.

  5. Ian Random:

    There is one more buffering solution for wind, compressed air. I don't know if it's been tried with intermittent renewables. But the pressurize a cavern, manmade or otherwise, during non-peak and then let it run a generator during peak demand. Unfortunately, they need to heat the air at the generator to get the most out of it. Too bad they can't use that ultraviolet and CO2 to methanol process that the polish are exploring. That'd be the ultimate using wind and solar to make something we can burn.

  6. DrTorch:

    Excellent post. Good thinking that we need to find areas where an application makes sense, not just force it b/c mob-rule thinks it "should" help.

    Xmas- THere was a company named Rosen Motors that was trying to use flywheels to capture energy for hybrid cars. Sci Am had an article about them c. 1997. I believe they went under, but their flywheel developments could make sense in some applications. Probably a longer lifetime than batteries, and less hazmats involved.

  7. Stephen Macklin:

    Am I the only one who thinks it's also a waste to have a person sitting at a computer responding to the changes in the wind? Couldn't the computer do it better and faster without the person?

  8. Nobrainer:

    @ James: First, it's not "No Brain", it's Nobrainer and it's a nickname. Otherwise, congratulations for being the millionth person to throw that insult at me: very clever. Second, the amount of output of a fossil plant is very related to the amount of output.

    @ thebastidge: Go back and read my comments on Coyote's previous posts.

  9. Dr. T:

    thebastidge said: "Windpower makes sense for small applications in remote areas with no grid readily available. Particularly for applications which don’t require steady power."

    Exactly right. The only economically viable wind power applications I've seen in the USA were pumping water for livestock or irrigation. Using windmills for electricity generation just isn't economically viable (which is why it has to be subsidized by us taxpayers).

  10. rxc:

    Windmills are part of the pathway to control over the amount of energy you consume, and eventually your lifestyle. In parallel, the installation of meters and household controls that allow remote shutdown of "unnecessary" loads during times of high demand/low supply will get the populace used to energy cuts (aka brownouts/rolling blackouts). As the fossil/nuclear/hydro generating base is cut back and the supply situation becomes more tenuous, more and more people, especially those who live in places where the populace is not "enlightened", will find their ability to use electricity reduced. I don't know how businesses will deal with this, but I understand that the de-industrialization of western society is also part of the shared vision.

  11. John Moore:

    As an engineer, it amazes me the blind faith people place in "technological advances" in whatever area they think it is needed. They don't seem to realize that while computers have gotten billions of times faster and thousands of times cheaper, disk drives have only increased their seek time by a factor of 2-4, and that batteries cannot overcome fundamental electrochemical limits.

    As for the wind power... they'll save it with the "smart grid" - which is a fancy name for a fascist system allowing the power operator/government to shut off your air conditioning or water heater when you need it the most. They'll do it when the wind stops blowing, or the solar arrays are covered by cloud.

  12. alanstorm:

    "First, it’s not “No Brain”, it’s Nobrainer and it’s a nickname." No! I'm shocked to hear that!

    "Otherwise, congratulations for being the millionth person to throw that insult at me: very clever." Well, you're the one using that handle...

    "Second, the amount of output of a fossil plant is very related to the amount of output." Comments like this aren't going to help your case. Nor does the first comment you posted. The point is that starry-eyed dimwits in this country (most of them, apparently, in government) are ignoring the fact that wind and solar need backup. That's kinda the whole point.

  13. Ray:

    Livestock require a very dependable supply of water, wind can only work if the livestock have a nearby option (creek) or there is enough on site water storage to accomidate the longest possible calm periods. Short of that, cowboys are moving thirsty cows in a hurry.

    Becalmed at sea is a very old term.

  14. Nobrainer:

    @ alanstorm: You too may also benefit from my previous comments on Coyote's posts. One of those points is that all generation requires backups. To the extent that wind is less dominant than other power sources, it can be added without requiring any additional backups. And regardless of how many backups you need (and I freely admit that additional backups will be needed with ever-increasing wind penetration), to the extent that you keep the backups in backup mode, there could be considerable fuel savings (although I'm not broaching the topic of whether this makes sense either economically or from a personal freedoms point of view). Back to Coyote's point, there already is wind working on the grid, so I really want to know why he is unable to see how "wind is ever going to work on the grid."

    Sidenote: Perhaps I'll change my handle to Mr. Genius from Nobrainer. Then I'm sure people will take me seriously.