Why Wind Power Does Not Greatly Reduce Fossil Fuel Use

The problem with wind power is that electric utilities have to be prepared at any time for their power production to just stop on short notice.  So they must keep fossil fuel plants on hot standby, meaning they are basically burning fuel but not producing any power.  Storage technologies and the use of relatively fast-start plants like gas turbines mitigates this problem a bit but does not come close to eliminating it.  This is why wind power simply as a source contributing to the grid makes very little sense.  Here is Kent Hawkins of Master Resource going into a lot more depth:

How do electricity systems accommodate the nature of wind and solar? They do this by having redundant capacity almost equalling the renewable capacities as shown in Figures 5 and 6 for two jurisdictions that have heavily invested in wind and solar – Germany and Ontario, Canada.

Pt I Fig 5

Figure 5 – Duplicate capacity requirements for Germany in 2015.

Source: See note 4, sub point a.


Part 1 Fig 6

Figure 6 – Duplicate capacity requirements for Ontario, Canada, in 2018

Source: Ontario Power Authority[5]

In both figures, the left-hand columns are peak demand requirements and include all the dispatchable capacity that is required to reliably meet demand and provide operating reserve. In the right-hand columns, if you look very carefully, you can see the capacity credit for wind by the slight reduction in “Peak Demand + Op Reserve.” In summary, when wind and solar are added, the other generation plants are not displaced, and, relative to requirements, wind and solar are virtually all duplicate capacity.

Wind might make more sense in niche applications where it is coupled into some kind of production process that can run intermittently and have its product stored.  I think T Boone Pickens suggested having wind produce hydrogen from water, for example, and then store the hydrogen as fuel.  This makes more sense because the total power output of a wind plant over a year can be predicted with far more certainty than the power output at any given minute of a day.  This is one reason why the #1 historic use of windpower outside of transportation has been to pump water -- because the point is to fill the tank once a week or drain the field over a month's time and not to make absolutely sure the field is draining at 10:52 am.  The intermittent power is stored in the form of water that has been moved from one place to another.


  1. Richard Harrington:


    "Because the wind had been blowing pretty well in a "one-in-50-year storm", wind farms and the interconnector had been providing most of the state's supply. When the interconnector failed, not enough gas generators were switched on to maintain the frequency.

    The entire state blacked out.

    For the record, the weather — not renewables — caused the blackout. But the sheer volume of renewables in the system that day did contribute to the lack of stability which might have saved the power grid."

  2. james:

    We have a max KW allowance. Monthly cost much less than the next step up.
    Occasionally I come home to cook dinner, food in the oven, wife puts on the kettle, power cut.
    Then I realise that stuff is running (washing machine, tumble dryer, kids' computers...) that don't need to be on.
    Stumble about in the dark for a bit, turn off machines not in urgent use. (Loud protests from children).
    Press button. Power comes on.
    Have dinner.

    Shoudln't it be possible to regulate (no, not by government!) this stuff? Spreads out power usage for all.

  3. Ike Evans:

    I so happen to work as an engineer for the largest provider of wind energy in North America...

    ...And I can't agree more with every word of this column. I am far from alone, even in my own company.

  4. sean2829:

    I always find it amazing that the countries with the highest renewable penetration somehow manage to have consumers paying through the nose and traditional generators going bankrupt, even though they guaranty reliability of the grid.

  5. LoneSnark:

    Quite so. We can build dams at the top of hills, pump water into it when excess power is available, let it fall out to produce electricity when power is scarce. It can switch from store to withdraw pretty darn quickly. It is also very expensive, but there ain't yet another way to store enough.

  6. Mercury:

    Still don't understand why tidal energy isn't a bigger deal, at least in coastal locations reasonably far from the equator.

    Unlimited lifting capacity 2+ times a day......what the hell?

  7. JTW:

    Another thing not yet touched on is the horrible reliability of the wind generators. I live in an area where there are hundreds of the darn things littering the landscape, providing a massive eyesore and noise problems as well as scores of dead birds.
    On an average day at least 10% of them are out of commission for repairs or maintenance (and on many days 20% or more).

  8. Matthew Slyfield:

    Actually, I believe it's 4 times a day. 2 low, 2 high tides per day.
    And that is exactly the problem.

    It's not even just that it changes directions several times a day. The strength of the tidal current is not constant, it would follow an S curve. We don't need to add yet another unreliable intermittent energy source on top of wind and solar.

    Then what do you do when they get ripped apart in storms the way wind turbines do?

  9. klgmac:

    Expensive electricity generated by alternative sources is already costing people jobs and forcing others into energy poverty. It is truly a crime against humanity.

  10. Ike Evans:

    The concept is similar, of course, to traditional hydroelectrical energy, in that it takes advantage of gravitational potential energy (GPE) and converts that into electricity. The bigger the difference in GPE, the more energy you can generate. Many river dams are built to be very tall precisely for this reason, where you can get hundreds of feet in GPE.

    At most costal areas (yes, there are exceptions), a tidal dam couldn't come close to even the more shallow river dams. The amount of energy we could generate would be very small, especially along the lines of what Matthew Slyfield pointed out. There would be four times a day where the dam would produce no power whatsoever.

  11. Guide to a Crazy World:

    I'm sorry your opinion means nothing unless you are a climatologist. ;)

  12. Guide to a Crazy World:

    I'm sorry your opinion means nothing unless you are a climatologist. ;)

  13. Mercury:

    I know but getting power from both flowing and ebbing should involve at least a slightly more complex mechanism than just flowing so I said 2+.
    Current is one thing but a float pulling on a gear would or could provide a more constant force. I don't see why you couldn't have most or all of it under water away from above surface weather either. Plus, four times a day, every day is still much more reliable than wind or solar. The coastal wind turbines im my area seem to spend a lot of days not spinning either because of too little or too much wind.

  14. Mercury:

    I know but getting power from both flowing and ebbing should involve at least a slightly more complex mechanism than just flowing so I said 2+.
    Current is one thing but a float pulling on a gear would or could provide a more constant force. I don't see why you couldn't have most or all of it under water away from above surface weather either. Plus, four times a day, every day is still much more reliable than wind or solar. The coastal wind turbines im my area seem to spend a lot of days not spinning either because of too little or too much wind.

  15. Guide to a Crazy World:

    Joking aside, I thought the overall efficiency of wind turbines was also a problem for most cities even when they are running. Am I mistaken?

  16. Mercury:

    Current driving a turbine doesn't have to be the only mechanism for generating hydroelectric power.
    A four foot tide will lift the Queen Mary up and down four feet, twice a day. Seems like that's a lot of potential energy that could be exploited. Also, tides vary greatly in their timing across relatively short distances. Properly spaced generators should be able to minimize grid feed dead zones if not eliminate them completely. High tide today in Boston, MA is 1:18pm and about 10:00pm in Providence, RI - just 41 miles away...by car!

  17. bsw:

    I live in area where my daughter has to play at recess about 1000m from a an industrial gas plant. Have to breath that shit when she goes to lacrosse practice and what pisses me off the most is that people in Peterborough are using the power to light there lights.

  18. bsw:

    Complete BS. Yes you need to over build, but Ontario has 33 gas plants not one is running at full capacity. Go look at Gridwatch dot ca. They all keep headroom. The problem is Ontario has no historical data for wind and solar or gird storage. Even a small amount of grid storage sitting full will change everything.

  19. J_W_W:

    That would otherwise be interpreted as a signal for power providers to add more power to the grid. My guess it that government regulation precludes that.

    I love how high tech measuring and KW usage monitoring is indistinguishable from the reliability of power generation and delivery of a third world country.

  20. wreckinball:

    Ok first of all large scale "grid storage" is a myth. Does not exist. And will never exist without a heavy fee to pay for the storage. Thus the all you need is storage argument is bogus. It could just as be is all you need is a magical unicorn generator that requires no fuel. So rugt now you need back-up generation idling to make up for intermittency. Also a cost that is not figured in.

    Also, solar is in the same boat as wind. It even starts out with a maximum capacity factor of 50%. So actually its worse.

  21. wreckinball:

    Also go here:

    This shows the instantaneous CO2 output generators in Europe. Green is good brown is bad. Note that pretty much every day Denmark and Germany are various shades of brown. Why? because of the intermittency issue. Which means they burn a lot of gas and coal as back-up.

    The only deep green country that is not blessed with loads of hydro is France. Why is that? Nuclear.


  22. Matthew Slyfield:

    "Current is one thing but a float pulling on a gear would or could provide a more constant force."

    No, it couldn't because the tides would not apply a constant force to the float.

    "I don't see why you couldn't have most or all of it under water away from above surface weather either."

    Depends on the depth. Surface weather can churn the water to a significant depth. Then you have storm surges from strong storms, including but not limited to hurricanes, which result from extreme low atmospheric pressure created by the storm significantly and temporarily pulling up the surface of the ocean over a large area (hundreds of square miles.

    Your float idea would definitely be subject to surface weather.

  23. Charles Milligan:

    Quick someone tell Elon Musk that he can have clean power and his own source of rocket fuel if he just builds this stuff for us.

  24. Bill Setser:

    Tidal energy isn't a bigger deal because it's not economically viable.

  25. james:

    Can't be bothered to google it, but there's been a tidal energy supplier for decades. (Rance, France?) If this was such a great idea wouldn't it have been adopted worldwide by now?

  26. 衣皇后:


  27. Jaedo Drax:

    2 problems:

    1) each of those 33 gas plants that isn't running at full capacity is both wasteful and inefficient. Gas plants tend to be designed and built with a very narrow high efficiency near their peak capacity. Same with the nukes.
    2) Ontario already has grid storage, and has for years, and they still end up doing both spillage, and pay other parts of the grid to take excess when the wind generators are cranking out the power at 1am and no one on the ontario grid needs it.

    The biggest Ontario problem is political when they decided to require the OPA to buy all solar and wind power first, before all other sources of power, at a rate well above the market rate for power (up to $0.90/kwh).

  28. Mercury:

    Not a constant rate but a more or less a constant force, especially if you could harness the power of a rising and a falling weight. Also (see post below) with enough generators stationed not to far apart, one could always be generating at peak tide flow/power I should think.

    Yes, I suppose everything is subject to bad weather but that doesn't seem like an insurmountable problem. These things don't have to be 200 miles offshore like an oil rig, they can be in protected, man-made estuaries too.

  29. Matthew Slyfield:

    "one could always be generating at peak tide flow/power I should think."

    You think wrong. The tide itself isn't always operating at peak flow/power. You are talking perpetual motion type nonsense. You can't generate more energy from the tide than the tide itself contains. When you hit peak high/low tide, the flow of the water actually stops briefly. How do you plan to generate energy from the flow of water that isn't flowing.

  30. Matthew Slyfield:

    Thanks for the tip. As to why it's not been more widely available:

    "tidal power has traditionally suffered from relatively high cost and limited availability of sites with sufficiently high tidal ranges or flow velocities"


  31. Don Lesko:

    Large scale grid storage operates daily, see Niagara Falls.

  32. markm:

    @Mercury: "A four foot tide will lift the Queen Mary up and down four feet, twice a day."

    So calculate the energy you get from that: Wikipedia gives the displacement of the RMS Queen Mary as about 82,000 long tons = 180 million pounds. A 4 foot lift = 1360 million foot-pounds. A foot-pound = 1.36 Joule, so 1850 million J.

    Sounds impressive, doesn't it, but unless your muscles have to supply the work, the foot-pound and Joule are actually quite small units of energy. A kilowatt-hour = 1000 J/s * 3600 s/hour = 3.6 million J. 1850 million /3.6 million = 514 KWh. You get two tides a day, and can extract energy both going up and down so your daily energy production is 2056 KWh. I pay between 9 and 10 cents per KWh. That is, using the retired Queen Mary as a float, you get $200 worth of electricity per day.

    I won't bother estimating the ROI.

  33. marque2:

    In CA energy costs twice that - so paying millions for $400 in energy might actually be cost beneficial per nutty CA eco logic.

  34. marque2:

    Same provide great energy until you get a drought. Note that eco nuts don't include hydro energy as a renewable either

  35. marque2:

    Note on your thread, first above there is a post with calculations. The amount of energy extractable from the sea is much less than you think, making the projects very expensive for the energy you get out. But the real killer is the sea life which grows over everything and quickly gums up the works. Makes plants useless in a matter of months.

  36. Chris:

    The energy providers could simply push the storage problem to consumers, of course. (They do this in most 3rd world countries - why not the US?) Promise only, say, 20 hours of power in any 24 hour period. Then idle the fossil fuel peaking generators. When the wind / solar drops, shut down the grid until the fossil fuel peaking generators can spin up. When the wind / solar picks up, shut the peaking generators down again. So consumers would be POed - but then they would start buying Tesla storage cells, and other makers would invent and sell similar storage devices, to provide consumers with 24 hour power.

    The best part is - the energy providers are mostly public utilities, so they don't have to care what the public thinks of this "solution."

  37. Mercury:

    The tide is always operating at peak flow/power SOMEWHERE CLOSE BY which I earlier addressed below and tried to draw your attention to above.
    Tides vary greatly in their timing across relatively short distances. Properly spaced generators should be able to minimize tidal flow/power generation drops if not eliminate them completely. High tide (yesterday) in Boston, MA (was) 1:18pm and about 10:00pm in Providence, RI - just 41 miles away...by car!

  38. Matthew Slyfield:

    "Properly spaced generators should be able to minimize tidal flow/power generation"

    Tidal generators are extremely expensive and anything underwater is expansive to install or repair Having so many tidal generators spaced out like you describe is not economically feasible.

    Did you bother reading the links I posted at all? Tidal generation has been around since the 1960s. The prime reason it hasn't been more widely adopted is that very few locations have enough tidal flow even at peak to be worth the cost/effort.

  39. irandom419:

    Interesting, I was under the impression that people working for renewable companies where more ideological. You have renewed my faith in humanity.

  40. Sam P:

    I poked around and found estimates of potentially extractable tidal stream power and they were amazingly (to me) low, around 120 GW for the entire world. That's not at all much. Tidal streams are the horizontal flow of water induced in confined coastal areas due to the rise and fall of tides. Tidal streams are much more concentrated than the general rise and fall of tides.

  41. CapitalistRoader:

    From what I've seen in third- and even second-world countries, consumers fire up their gasoline generators when the local public utility take a dump. Gasoline is an economical storage cell.

  42. markm:

    I know what manufacturers would think of this - they'd either move operations to somewhere with reliable power, or install their own power plant. Or move to a third-world country and install their own power generation, as many factories in the third world do - if you have to work with third-world infrastructure, why not enjoy thrid-world labor costs?

    The _small_ electronic assembly plant I work at needs 3-phase 300A 440V power. That's 400KW - to cover 4 hour outages, it would need 1600KWH of storage. Tesla claims to have the cost of battery packs under $190/KWh. So the batteries would cost $300,000, plus hundreds of thousands more for the inverter and charger. Diesel or natural-gas fired backup would cost less.

  43. A deplorable NNYer:

    Many of the windfarms went off line 0.7 seconds prior to the interconnector tripping as a result of excess wind. This caused the overload of the interconnect which then tripped. Then the remaining gas turbines tripped on overload, and the grid was done.


  44. patb2009:

    try calculating the numbers for a 2 foot wave, every 30 seconds rolling into a tidal generator.

  45. Bart_R:

    Germany, with its policy to keep inefficient old coal running until workers can be retrained as its sole reason for duplicate capacity?

    The Ontario Power Authority? The single worst managed grid in North America is your source?

    Why not, for example, Texas?

    Or the largest provider of wind energy in North America, Carbon County WY?

  46. stevewfromford:

    The costs are worse than the charts show as the inherent intermittent nature of the electric current produced by fluctuating winds causes the huge baseload generators that are designed for rock steady operation to deteriorate much more quickly as they are called upon to balance short term fluctuations that can be quite extreme. The Columbia River dams are seeing just such increased problems as they try to balance the increasing wind generation loads in Washington and Oregon. I've never seen this accounted for in the life cycle cost of wind or solar energy production but it is a real cost and, as such, will be borne by the ratepayer.

  47. johnmoore:

    This also applies to solar power, which at least doesn't populate our countryside with ugly 300' windmills.

    Storage is the issue. The system also needs to be economically competitive with the costs of storage and energy transmission included.

    Subsidies make it very hard to see the actual economics of the situation - especially hidden subsidies that benefit consumer rooftop solar - a very dumb idea from every aspect other than the political.

    The real problems don't show up at the level of penetration intermittent energy sources currently have. Get up to 20% of capacity, though, and all of a sudden the grid can't handle it without the costs Coyote mentions. Of course, until then, everyone can pretend that it is "free energy."

  48. johnmoore:

    And our tax dollars subsidize wind power to the point that they wind companies at times sell the power for negative money! In other words, they pay the utilities to take their power.

  49. Bart_R:

    Whose tax dollars, and how many, exactly, would that be?

    Do you mean that wind companies participate in arbitrage?

    So do all electric utilities. Arbitrage is a practice done between utilities for many reasons, and it ultimately makes the cost of grid electricity cheaper for all involved.

    You think coal and gas don't pay other grids to take excess electricity off their hands at times of low grid demand?

    As for subsidy, wind gets less than one-one thousandth the subsidy of fossil on the grid: worldwide, fossil get over $5.3 Trillion in entitlements and subsidy -- a quarter of that in the USA alone -- every year.

    Further, more and more instances of totally unsubsidized wind are popping up worldwide, some selling electricity for one fifth or less than the price subsidized coal can produce.

    So, I ask you, why do you spin and contort the facts to practice restraint of trade against business-people just trying to make an honest living while you lie about them?

  50. John Moore:

    The tax dollars that pay wind farms subsidies. Otherwise, they can just shut down. Shutting down a thermal plant is expensive, while shutting down wind is a matter of feathering the props.

    The fossil fuel subsidy is spin, not real. I see it all the time. All sorts of things get tossed into that - say, US forces in the Persian Gulf, etc.

    Unsubsidized wind makes sense *in some places.* Not so in the continental US, unless you are powering a very remote place and the power distribution line costs are prohibitive and they are not already in place.

    But wind is most certainly subsidized in the US. It is a lousy power source due to its intermittency, not to mention its horrible environmental footprint (unless you are a total CO2 cultist).

    Add more wind to the system, and the grid becomes unstable. So Germany had to *build* new coal plants to keep their grid up, and spend $1 Trillion on transport facilities. As a result, they have some of the highest consumer electric prices of any developed country. The only reason they are an export power is that the consumers subsidize the electricity for their manufacturers, who get it at a steep discount.