Wind Energy's House of Cards
The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently issued their 2009 Wind Energy Report. Brian Smith, chair of the IEA Wind Executive Committee, states that wind member countries “installed more than 20 gigawatts of new wind capacity” (nameplate capacity). The report was written by representatives of 20 member countries, consisting of 14 European nations, Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and the United States.
The report is very optimistic about wind energy’s prospects. Member nations report on “how they have progressed in the deployment of wind energy, how they are benefitting from wind energy deployment, and how they are devising strategies and conducting research to increase wind’s contribution to world energy supply.” But a deeper analysis shows that the wind industry is a house of cards built on a foundation of sand.
The house of cards is a global industry based entirely on subsidies, price guarantees, and mandates. Wind generation systems are not deployed anywhere in the world without extensive government financial or mandated support. Fourteen of the 20 IEA member nations use feed-in tariffs (FITs) to force utility companies to buy electricity from wind farms at above market rates. Examples are FITs used by Finland, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, which are set in the range of 7.8-12.1 Eurocents per kilowatt-hour, equal to 11.2-17.4 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour. These are subsidized wholesale prices, yet significantly above the average U.S. retail price of 9.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. Nine of the twenty nations mandate that utilities supply a percentage of electricity from renewables. Nations that have provided little government support for wind, such as Japan, Korea, Mexico, and Norway, have seen little growth in installations.
In the U.S., the 2009 Recovery Act authorizes a direct cash grant of 30% of the total value to wind projects. Alternatively, the federal government provides a 30% investment tax credit, or a 2.1 cents per kW-hr production subsidy. State governments add loan guarantees, further investment tax credits, and the forbearance of property and sales taxes. Twenty-nine states have enacted Renewable Portfolio Standards to force utilities to purchase renewable energy, primarily wind. These mandates raise the price of wind energy, a further subsidy to the industry. In total, taxpayers are subsidizing 30-50% of the price U.S. wind energy installations. Wind must be subsidized because it is much more expensive than electricity from coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, and nuclear sources. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, wind-generated electricity is about 80% more expensive than coal-fired power, and off-shore wind is significantly more expensive. The IEA representatives from Denmark and the United Kingdom estimate costs for offshore wind at roughly double the cost of onshore wind. The planned Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound reportedly will deliver electricity at a whopping 27 cents per kW-hour, compared to the Massachusetts average price of 16 cents per kW-hour and the U.S. average of 9.7 cents.
Advocates claim that subsidies are needed to help wind energy move down the learning curve to become cost competitive with other technologies. But wind turbines have been deployed for more than 20 years. As of 2009, the United States had installed about 33,000 wind turbine towers. World installations have exceeded 140,000 turbines. When will this cost competitiveness be achieved?
Despite the growing number of installations, total wind energy costs are increasing. Wind installation costs per kilowatt-hour decreased from the early 1990s until 2001, but have been rising since. For example, U.S. installations reached a cost low of $1,285 per kw-hr in 2001, but have since risen steadily to $2,080 per kw-hr in 2009, an increase of 62%. It’s unlikely that electricity from wind will ever be competitive with conventional fuel sources.
A close read of the IEA Wind Report reveals issues with actual wind turbine operating lifetimes and maintenance. Wind turbines that were installed in the 1990s are now being replaced in Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, and other nations. In the harsh weather environments of high-wind corridors, many of these turbines have not reached the 20-year lifetimes claimed by manufacturers. In comparison, operating lifetimes for coal-fired power plants consistently reach 50 years.
Very costly repairs are often required to maintain wind turbine operation. Japan reports that lightning hits and typhoons have damaged “a considerable number of wind turbines,” finding that on average, each turbine will fail three times over its 20-year life. Denmark reports that each turbine’s gearbox must be replaced on average four times during its lifetime, costing about 20% of the price of a wind turbine.
The story of Denmark is illustrative. Over the last 20 years, Denmark has installed 5,100 wind towers, one for every thousand citizens. A map with a black dot for each wind farm shows that 300-foot-high steel and concrete towers can be seen from almost every field, farm, hill, and seashore of this nation. In 2009, these towers provided only 767 megawatts of electricity, less than the output of a single conventional coal-fired power plant. This single power plant would occupy the space of one black dot on the map.
Wind towers provide only about 10% of Denmark’s electricity, but contribute to electricity rates of 28 Eurocents per kilowatt-hour, the highest in Europe and four times the U.S. price. Yet, Danish government officials are proud of their wind system. Why would they install 5,000 towers instead of one coal plant? It’s because they believe they are reducing global warming.
In fact, the global wind industry is built on a foundation of sand-the hypothesis that man-made global warming is destroying Earth’s climate. The IEA report contains repeated statements about carbon emissions saved by wind installations in each nation. Yet, mounting satellite temperature data, new studies of ocean cycles such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and research on solar activity, show that global warming is due to natural cycles of the Earth,not man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Should global warming alarmism fail in its efforts to promote wind energy, the subsidies will disappear, and the house of cards will collapse. Then the world will be left with 140,000 silent monuments to Climatism.
Steve Goreham is Executive Director for the Climate Science Coalition of America and author of Climatism! Science, Common Sense, and the 21st Century’s Hottest Topic.