News Story

How Wind Energy Creates More Dependence on Fossil Fuels

'Any informed student of wind energy ... understands that'

Truth has a habit of emerging from unexpected places. An article in the Daily Kos about the desire to end dependence on fossil fuels for energy needs reveals a “nasty little secret” about wind energy: It relies on fossil fuels. That’s a message wind energy opponents in Michigan have been trying to get across to the news media and the public over the past few years.

The article is part of a series titled “Getting to Zero,” by Keith Pickering, and is written with the premise that global warming is a dire and immediate threat. It states, “If civilization is to survive, we need to get to zero emission of fossil carbon, and we need to get there rapidly.” Overall it paints a pessimistic portrait of efforts to reduce carbon emissions from human sources.

A major aspect of the article’s pessimism about actually “getting to zero” pertains to wind energy. The following paragraphs serve as an example:

Wind farms are dependent on the weather to work, and most of the time they're sitting idle or underperforming because the wind isn't strong enough to turn the blades. The capacity factor (CF) for wind varies by location, but Iowa is pretty good, so let's assume a CF of 35 [percent]. Nuclear has no such dependency and can operate around the clock.

In the [U.S.], nuclear plants have an average CF of 90 [percent].

So when we factor CF into those prices … most of wind's advantage is wiped out by just that factor alone.

Over the long term it gets even worse for wind, because nuclear plants today are engineered for a 60-year lifetime, and wind generators are engineered for a 20 or 25 year lifetime. ... That means that wind is cheaper than nuclear in the short term, but more expensive in the long term. Then there's the backup problem. ... When the wind dies, the lights still have to stay on. Right now that's done with natural gas. ...”

According to Kevon Martis, director of the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition, a non-profit organization concerned about the construction of wind turbines in the region, what the Daily Kos article shows is that people knowledgeable about the technology understand that wind energy depends more on fossil fuels than on wind, no matter their views on contentious issues like global warming.

“Any informed student of wind energy, regardless of whether they are on the left or the right politically, understands that, far from freeing Michigan ratepayers from fossil-fueled electricity, wind energy actually binds us to fossil fuels at roughly a two-parts-fossil one-part-wind ratio,” Martis said. “Properly understood, wind energy should always be called ‘fossil-wind.’ What’s sad is that the vast majority of Michigan residents and probably members of the news media as well are not aware of this information. That situation needs to be remedied.”

In its assessment of wind energy, the Daily Kos article states: "Wind-plus-gas-backup is certainly better than gas alone, but it's not the endpoint of a fossil-free grid, and it never will be."

One of the strongest arguments against wind energy is the assertion that “natural gas alone” would produce fewer emissions than when it is combined with wind. That's because having to switch natural gas generation on and off, literally at the whim of the way the wind blows, is less efficient and therefore less clean.

However, a news media and public that mistakenly believe wind energy is just wind, rather than two-thirds fossil fuels, cannot be expected to comprehend or participate in such a debate. Restricting important facts or (as some still insist) “alleged facts” about wind energy to the province of “experts only” is an affront to transparency and an obstacle to open public discourse. The Legislature owes the people of Michigan a hearing or series of hearings on this issue.

David Wand, deputy director of strategic communications with the American Wind Energy Association, did not return a phone call offering him the opportunity to comment.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.