An Abell Foundation report recently trumpeted the supposed "potential" of offshore wind to provide two-thirds of Maryland's electricity needs. Talk about hot air. With about 100,000 industrial wind turbines in operation around the world -- 35,000 in the U.S. alone -- there is not a shred of empirical evidence that wind has been responsible for offsetting greenhouse gas emissions in the production of electricity -- or that it has contributed to any reductions in fossil fuel use.
Although 20 percent of Denmark's installed electricity capacity consists of wind energy, much more than half of its actual generation is exported, for grid security reasons, to elsewhere in Scandinavia, where it displaces highly flexible hydro generation at no savings in CO2 emissions but with substantial cost to Danish ratepayers. Moreover, hydro imported from the rest of Scandinavia is used to balance most of the wind volatility that remains in Denmark, so that any CO2 offset there is due to hydro, not wind.
If Denmark did not have the Scandinavian "sink" in which to dump its considerable excess wind, and if that sink did not have hydro as its principle source of power, Denmark would be awash in both carbon dioxide emissions and wind turbines in the production of electricity. As the journalist Robert Bryce has written, "In 1999, Denmark's daily coal consumption was the equivalent of about 94,400 barrels of oil per day. By 2007, despite a 136 percent increase in the amount of electricity produced from wind, Denmark's coal consumption was exactly the same as it was back in 1999."
The apotheosis of wind technology was embodied in the wonderful Clipper ships of the 19th Century. There's a good reason they are now consigned to museums. The energy requirements of 2010 insist upon precision, controllable machine performance that passes stern tests for reliability standards. Wind technology is completely inimical to reliable performance standards. Our modern system of power insists on capacity value -- getting a specific amount of energy on demand and controlling it whenever desired.
And so the issue is how to make people believe that a source of energy that relentlessly, continuously destabilizes the essential match between supply and demand, is highly variable and unresponsive, and provides no capacity value (while being inimical to demand cycles) can effectively provide two-thirds of Maryland's electricity. Although there are indeed vast stores of energy in the ocean's winds, the trick is to convert them to useful power. Energy is the ability to do work and power is the rate at which work is done; wind technology delivers fluctuating energy at a rate appropriate for 1810 -- even with a flotilla of wind rigs anchored offshore.
Imagine that Maryland had 500 skyscraper-sized wind turbines -- say, 100 in the mountains, 200 in and around the Chesapeake Bay (by far the best wind resource within the state's interior) and another 200 offshore -- with a total installed capacity (that is, the optimum performance of the turbines) of 1,250 megawatts. Odds are that the capacity factor for all that installed wind would not exceed 30 percent (for a variety of reasons). Consequently, the area's grid, which generates more than 140,000 megawatts at peak demand times, would get an average yield of only 375 megawatts from all that wind. Sixty percent of the time it would generate less than 375 megawatts, and 20 percent of the time, especially at peak demand, it would produce virtually nothing.
All this wind wouldn't dent a grape in the scheme of things. What must happen when, for example, 1,000 megawatts of wind energy drops in an hour to less than 50, as it sometimes would? Tripling the number of wind turbines would magnify the problem.
More than 70 percent of any wind project's installed capacity must come from conventional generation that performs inefficiently as it quickly ramps up and back to balance wind's relentless volatility. This is not "supporting" or back-up generation but rather pro-active, reliable power that must be actively entangled with wind to make it work. Given the dearth of hydro in the PJM, this means the inefficient use of fossil fuels, particularly coal units.
Yes, any grid can "integrate" wind volatility, at least up to certain levels of penetration. But not without substantial increased costs, both in dollars and CO2 emissions. Wind behaves much like a drunken driver. Imagine what must happen to "integrate" a substantial number of drunks on our highways, and you get some idea of what is necessary to incorporate wind as it staggers its way around the grid. Maryland wind would play a dysfunctional role in terms of improving the state's grid security and reducing greenhouse gases.
Industrial wind is perhaps the silliest modern energy idea imaginable. In the final analysis, it's a faith-based proposition, requiring people to close their minds and clap their hands to revive it from a life-and-death struggle against unbelief, bringing the technology back from the oblivion that the steam engine consigned it to hundreds of years ago.
Throwing vast amounts of the public's treasure down the rathole of wind is to deny investment in infinitely more effective technologies -- such as nuclear -- that will preserve the energy requirements of modernity. It is incredibly irresponsible.
Wind may seem like cutting-edge and progressive technology. In reality, it's antediluvian and uncivil. Only authoritarian government would force such nonsense on anyone's backyard.
Jon Boone, a Western Maryland resident, is a former college administrator and longtime environmentalist who has written and spoken extensively on the subject of wind energy. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.