American Elephants

Why Windpower Doesn’t Work. by The Elephant's Child

To understand the controversy about wind energy, you must start with the light switch.  When you flip the switch, you expect the lights to come on.   Most of us have experienced a power-outage and are reduced to candles, flashlights, or if you are prepared — oil lamps or lanterns. Even if you have an expensive generator, you will need a flashlight so you can find the generator and get it fired up.

Your local electric utility must adjust the power they are putting out according to the demand on the system. Demand on the system is less late at night when everyone has turned most things off;  in contrast to a really hot day when everyone turns on their air conditioners.

Because wind blows intermittently, electric utilities must either keep their conventional power plants running all the time to make sure the lights don’t go out, or continually ramp up and down the output from conventional coal-fired or gas-fired generators.  Coal and gas-fired generators are designed to run continuously, and if they don’t and are in start and stop mode, they run much less efficiently and fuel consumption and emissions generally increase.

The chart below demonstrates typical electricity production as a percentage of wind capacity. The yellow part is the electricity production measured by minutes.  Production can be as low as 20% of capacity and as high as over 90% of capacity in just a half an hour with all sorts of variations in between.  Balancing production of electricity to the ordinary demand of lights and machines being turned on an off during an ordinary day is complicated when the production from a gas-fired plant  is steady and constant.

The relentless fluctuation of wind generation between zero production which occurs 10–15% of the time and maximum possible performance (rated capacity) which is achieved very rarely.  Over a year a wind project in good wind territory will produce an average yield of 25–30% of rated capacity.  60% of the time it produces less.

From a Bonneville Power Administration random posting on January 1, 2009, BPA had 1600 MW of installed wind.  At this time actual generation of wind was 442 MW in the first minute, 5 minutes later it was 454; then 476; then 489; then 505 and so on.  Three hours later it had fallen below 200 MW and continued downward.

The uncontrollable, largely unpredictable nature of wind destabilizes the grid more than demand does, and efficient grid performance is not possible.  We expect that our electricity supply will be reliable, affordable and secure — which means that supply and demand must match continuously.

Unreliable wind volatility is the antithesis of supply stability.  Wind comes in fits and starts which necessarily makes the mirroring energy supply inefficient.  Wind thus supplies no capacity value, and cannot be dispatched.

Wind energy is an old, old technology.  The Dutch stopped using windmills to grind grain and pump water hundreds of years ago when steam engines were introduced.  Back then, if the wind stopped, it just took longer to get the grain ground, or the water tank filled.  Our modern society has evolved because of a steady electric supply and is dependent upon it.

If wind is an inefficient source of supply for electricity, the reason for the existence of wind farms is to abate significant levels of greenhouse gas levels that some believe are causing adverse warming trends in the earth’s climate.  Wind energy has been offered as a clean, natural, alternative source of power to coal-fired plants.  A recent energy research study  in Colorado concluded that the industrial wind technology it sampled in Colorado and Texas did not reduce carbon dioxide emissions, nor did it roll back consumption of fossil fuels.

This piece is derived from a four-part series on windpower at Master Resource, which is a wonderful website for anything you might want to know about energy.

8 Comments so far
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Just to clarify, the graph you are showing looks to be the output either for one machine or for one wind park — i.e., in a specific geographic locale. The variability will even out somewhat when averaged over multiple sites. That is not to disagree with what you say in your text, however. Besides the problem of unpredictability, there is also the issue of disturbance of land (especially on high mountain ridges) for access roads, and the large amount of concrete poured into the pedestals (measured per MW or capacity) — concrete which is almost never removed when a wind turbine is decommissioned. Wind may come into its own once a cheap way is found to store its energy, but for the time being it is an expensive eyesore.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

Nope, wind power does indeed work. We get as much as 10% of our electricity from wind powered generators here in Colorado.

You right-wingers do nothing but complain. You have no ideas for energy, no ideas for jobs, no ideas for anything. You have no ideas.


Comment by Ben Hoffman

Ben, If you would follow the links in an article, you might learn something. You are not getting 10%of your energy in Colorado from wind. The reason for the existence of wind farms is the belief that the wind blows steadily all the time at the right speed. This is the capacity rating, which is what the wind companies use to sell wind. On average the wind blows at 30% of the capacity value. 60 % of the time it blows at less than 30%, or not at all. The belief is that because wind is free, somehow wind energy will be cheaper. This is also false. You are paying more for your power, and paying more in taxes so that the multinational companies can gain significant income mostly through tax avoidance.

Wind is assumed to cut CO2 emissions and to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Both are false. Because of the intermittent, unpredictable nature of wind, you get an increase in emissions and an increase in fossil fuel use. The wind energy association recommends pumped hydro as a storage device, but it cannot respond in time to be useful. Wind energy doesn’t work.

Subsidy, the study was done by Bentek Energy, a Colorado energy analysis outfit, and was unusual in that they got real time information, and you can find more information at Master Resource. I mentioned BPA information, but the chart came from Bentek, unless I misread it. If you Google images for wind turbines, you’ll find the abandoned Tehachipi windfarm. I don’t know if it has been removed, but ugly doesn’t even begin to describe it.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

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I mean, I don’t think anyone actually believes that coal/gas is one to one comparable to renewable sources. There will be different benefits/drawbacaks to each.

What your post brings up, is more of the need to upgrade our electrical grid. I think, many people agreethat it’s outdated and contributes to black outs/brown outs. Improving it, allowing more opportunities for differnt energy methods, better ways to store and move power, can only help…everyone.


Comment by oneiroi

So far there are no “renewable” sources that actually contribute. The figures you get are all “capacity,” which means what the source would produce if (for wind farms) the wind blew at a constant, perfect, speed all the time. If the wind blows too hard, the turbines shut down, and a goodly percentage of the time it doesn’t blow at all. It blows, on average, about 30% of the time to successfully produce energy. The other 60 % of the time it produces less, or none at all. The sun, you may have noticed, sinks beneath the horizon every night, and we are approaching the shortest day of the year — Dec. 21. The energy from these sources cannot be stored.

If you evaluate industrial wind technology NOT as a source of energy, but as a mechanism for delivering significant income in the form of tax avoidance for CFOs of multinational energy corporations with lots of taxable income — then wind is of use for the multinationals. Ordinary consumers get screwed. Wind farms do not decrease CO2 emissions. Wind farms do not decrease use of fossil fuels.
It is a power grab, plain and simple.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

Ben your using a really wide brush to paint with.
Seems like quite a bit of new ideas are being
tried , it will take some time to sort through
Wind power has a problem using it on the same
grid with a coal fired plant , because of
cycling the coal plant then puts out MORE
You claimed Colorado gets as much…as 10%
could you post that info.
Most I could find was 6%
A trivial amount ..even 20% ..get off coal
the answer is small nuclear power plants and…
….! <- About
Colorado , wind power , and coal.

Ben , What you say?


Comment by Ron spins

Aargh. The film of the buzzard being hit is not pretty. Nor is the wash-out of the access road. I’m glad to see that there is now some real debate on wind power. No doubt the industry will come back with some positive messages, and counter-claims. But at least with a debate we may see less of governments pushing wind even where it does not belong.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

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