Tilting At Windmills

The UK, and particularly Scotland, are taking the lead in the production of electricity through renewable sources. Motives are arguable; the green agenda is no doubt part of it – but a big reason for the call for Scotland to generate all electrical power by the end of this decade (2020) is not a fear of petro-fuels, it is a desire to become self sustaining on energy when faced with the predicted decline of production from the UK owned North Sea oil assets and there is something laudable about a nation looking to create energy security for the future. The Scots and English simply want to avoid being hostage to another country that supplies energy to them.

To accomplish this, wind energy has been chosen to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden.

Just today it was reported that the largest wind farm development in the world will be build off the shores of Scotland of the northern North Sea coast of Scotland. From The Scotsman:

The world’s biggest offshore wind farm is set to be built in Scotland with a multi-billion-pound investment, securing hundreds of jobs and further cementing the country’s position as a global leader in renewable energy.

The £4.5 billion project envisages up to 300 turbines in water 200ft deep more than 13 miles off Caithness, generating enough power for more than a million homes by 2020.

The wind farm would be a major boost to the Scottish Government’s target of generating 100 per cent of the country’s electricity demand from renewables by the end of the decade.

The international companies behind the scheme said the investment was a sign of confidence in Scotland as a place to invest in the offshore renewables market.

Moray Offshore Renewables Ltd (MORL) is a joint venture between a Spanish/Portuguese company, EDP Renewables, and Spanish oil and gas firm Repsol Nuevas Energias UK, which was awarded a “zone development agreement” by the Crown Estate for offshore wind energy.

Note this:

The wind farm would cover about 114sq miles and could produce up to 1,500MW of wind power, about the same as a conventional power station.

Two facts about the wind farm:

  • The construction cost is tagged at £4.5 billon is equal to roughly $7.1billion US or about $4.73 per watt of construction cost.
  • The 1,500MW is quoted as a “could generate” number because it depends on weather conditions.

In the interest of comparison to more conventional methods, let’s look at the cost of an electricity generating plant using abundant natural gas. In 2008, TVA announced that it was going to build a combined cycle natural gas plant in Tennessee. From the Knoxville News and the AP:

The Tennessee Valley Authority on Thursday decided to build an $820 million natural gas power plant in northeastern Tennessee to comply with a North Carolina lawsuit over air quality.

The 880-megawatt combined-cycle gas plant would be as large as the 1950s-era, coal-fired John Sevier plant in Rogersville that a federal judge has targeted for new pollution controls on North Carolina’s behalf.

Two facts about the natural gas plant:

  • The construction cost is tagged at $820million or about $0.932 per watt of construction cost.
  • The 880MW is quoted as a “will generate” number because it only depends on supply of natural gas, not the weather conditions.

Far from being sour on wind generation of electricity, I am for any sort of renewable source that lives up to the promise it makes. The ideal situation would be to be able to generate our energy from plentiful, environmentally neutral, inexhaustible sources and in my research. My issues are that I can scarcely find reasons to believe that our global quixotic drive to tilt at windmills will ultimately end as did Don Quixote did.

I am a big proponent of facts and reality. I cannot afford to believe something that isn’t supported by facts and the wind energy “answer” doesn’t yet qualify as an answer, nor does it justify in performance the trillions of dollars of taxpayer money that is being thrown at it.

In April of this year, the BBC published an article detailing a study commissioned by the John Muir Trust (I covered it here upon its release), an environmentalist group, the study concluded:

Wind farms are much less efficient than claimed, producing below 10% of capacity for more than a third of the time, according to a new report.

The analysis also suggested output was low during the times of highest demand.

The report, supported by conservation charity the John Muir Trust, concluded turbines “cannot be relied upon” to produce significant levels of power generation.

During each of the four highest peak demands of 2010, wind output reached just 4.72%, 5.51%, 2.59% and 2.51% of capacity, according to the analysis.

It concluded wind behaves in a “quite different manner” from that suggested by average output figures or wind speed records.

The report said: “It is clear from this analysis that wind cannot be relied upon to provide any significant level of generation at any defined time in the future.

“There is an urgent need to re-evaluate the implications of reliance on wind for any significant proportion of our energy requirement.”

However, Jenny Hogan, director of policy for Scottish Renewables, said no form of electricity worked at 100% capacity, 100% of the time.

That last statement is actually true but not really relevant. The point being is that fossil fuel or nuclear generation plants are scalable – they can be controlled to generate more power when more is demanded and less when less is needed. Wind and wave farms are at the mercy of weather cycles and daily wind patterns that are not scalable to match supply with demand.

My question is this – is a solution that:

  • Costs almost 5 times the cost per watt of another,
  • Is entirely dependent on the weather for generation,
  • Can’t me managed to match power demand cycles,
  • Produces less than 10% of the stated energy,
  • Has no method for mass storage of energy generated in excess of demand,
  • Driven by a devotion to dubious climate “science”,
  • While consuming 114 square miles,

…really a solution at all?

Today, there is no real substitution for petro-based energy. There is no form of material that:

  • Other products can be derived from,
  • That generates more power per unit of consumption,
  • That is as transportable,
  • That is as safe and,
  • That is as cheap (even at today’s prices).

There will come a time over the next 200 years that oil will be depleted and there will still be wind but until wind power can duplicate at least 4 out of the 5 characteristics of petro, it can’t be considered a substitute.

9 thoughts on “Tilting At Windmills

  1. Well, you saw what the Gentle Knight thought of windmills. I don’t know how sunny Scotland gets, but I take it they didn’t choose solar because they get more wind than sun?

    • One of my best friends of the past 20 years grew up outside Glasgow – he jokes that the way that one discerns the different seasons in Scotland is by checking the temperature of the rain – warm rain, summer – cold rain, winter! It is raining all week this week in Edinburgh according to the weather reports…

      Scotland has plenty of wind and wave energy…not so much on the sunshine.

  2. Thanks for the reality check; what part of 114 sq. miles doesn’t shock the populace into saying ‘nae wae, Hosea’?
    After the excessive land usage, the major stumbling block would seem to be the storage problem.More efficient batteries would allow peak power to be stored for use when demand is greater. Just imagine if we could store the energy from lightning strikes; ‘go fly a kite’ would be good advice, not an insult.

    Still, I wonder if wind and solar energy aren’t better suited for on-site power needs, and on a smaller scale.

    The renewable energy source that intrigues me the most right now, is tidal energy, although it’s the coolness factor and the simplicity of it that I find most appealing. I haven’t crunched the numbers yet, it may not be any more efficient than the windmills.

    Petroleum has so many uses besides powering and lubricating our vehicles, we need to conserve it starting now. I say go nuclear, if France can do it right, so can we.

    • I’m a nuke man, too. The hell of it is that if we could take some of the pressure off the oil business, we could make it last twice as long.

      Wind and wave will never be effective as a viable power source until there is some way to mass store the electricity generated in low demand periods to use in high demand or during periods of low generation.

      The last 3 weeks of 2010 were the coldest in Scotland adn coincidentially, the lowest weeks of output for wind power.

  3. Pingback: Tilting at Windmills – Part II « The Rio Norte Line

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