What could be better than generating electricity from the wind? I mean, it's perfectly clean and completely free! Carbon emissions? Zero! Just put up a few mills to catch the wind and voilà!, energy utopia. It's such a simple story, and so obvious. Pretty much everybody falls for it.
Somehow real world experience doesn't seem to support the narrative. I have long noted the striking correlation between increased use of intermittent wind and solar electricity generation sources and increasing price of electricity for consumers, for example just a couple of weeks ago in a post titled "How Self-Delusional Can We Be About The Cost Of Electricity From Renewables?" That post pointed out that consumer electricity prices in places like Germany, Denmark and South Australia -- which generate in excess of 30% of their electricity from wind and solar -- are in the range of three to four times average U.S. prices. But how could that be if the wind and the sun are free?
Aside from the many other issues identified in previous posts (e.g., need for back-up, need for storage, need for excess capacity, etc.), for today let's consider yet an additional problem unique to what is called "off-shore wind." Germany and Denmark are particularly big on this fantasy, otherwise known as "put a huge field of big wind turbines out in the North Sea where the wind blows somewhat more steadily and there are no people around to object." What could go wrong?
I know that I am somewhat more cynical than most, but I did once (more than two decades ago) own a house near the Atlantic Ocean on New York's Long Island. And here's what I learned: Nothing made of metal survives for long near the ocean. The waves and the breeze put a fine salt mist in the air that quickly corrodes everything. Doorknobs wouldn't work after as little as a year. Same with hinges. "Stainless steel"? It might give you one extra year. Screens needed to be replaced constantly. Bikes more than a year old would be covered with rust. Paint? That might stave off rust for a year, or maybe two with multiple coats. And so forth. So let's just say, in my usual way, I had a certain skepticism that off-shore out-in-the-salt-water wind was really as "free" as people thought.
But hey, it's the geniuses from companies like Siemens and General Electric who sell these gigantic wind turbines. Surely, they must have the corrosion problem licked if they're going to sell you these things at $10 million or so a pop.
The Global Warming Policy Foundation on February 23 translates an article from Denmark's Jillands-Posten on how the off-shore wind thing is going there. Excerpts:
Ørsted must repair up to 2,000 wind turbine blades because the leading edge of the blades have become worn down after just a few years at sea. The company has a total of 646 wind turbines from Siemens Gamesa, which may potentially be affected to some extent, Ørsted confirmed. . . . Ørsted’s problems mean, among other things, that almost 300 blades at its offshore wind farm at Anholt have to be taken down after just a few years of operation, sailed ashore and transported to Siemens Gamesa’s factory in Aalborg.
No cost has been given, but you know that this can't be cheap. The big Danish wind farm in question was completed in 2013, which means that the Siemens "coating" at least works somewhat better than my can of Rustoleum; but there's only so much you can do to stop corrosion in the salt air. And how does it affect the overall cost of electricity from wind when major structural repairs are needed on the wind turbines every 4-5 years or so? Believe me, nobody will give you the answer to that question.
Meanwhile, back here in the U.S., the big investor-owned utility known as AEP (American Electric Power) -- covering big swaths of states like Ohio, Indiana, Texas and Oklahoma -- has long been the most prominent hold-out from the wind/solar stampede, proudly generating most of its power from coal. As recently as 2005, AEP generated 70% of its power from coal, and only 4% from renewables like wind and solar. But the Obama administration's threat of predatory regulation got them moving faster down the "renewables" path.
In July 2017 AEP made a big announcement of a major move into wind generation. See if this makes any sense to you at all. According to Power Engineering, July 27, 2017:
American Electric Power is now seeking regulatory approval to purchase power from what will be the largest wind facility in the United States. Including the cost of a new 350-mile power line, AEP plans a total investment of $4.5 billion into Wind Catcher, which will have a total capacity of 2,000 MW. Reuters reported it will come online in 2020. Wind Catcher is currently under construction in the Oklahoma Panhandle by Invenergy.
OK, $4.5 billion for 2000 MW of capacity comes to $2,250 per kw. But of course, you only get about 25% of that capacity over the course of the year, and you don't know when it will come at full strength, when at half, and when not at all. Meanwhile, the EIA reports that the average cost per kw of newly-built natural gas generation capacity in 2015 was $696. And that kind of capacity works essentially all the time, whenever you want it or need it. So, after building all this new wind capacity, how much coal or natural gas capacity can AEP now get rid of? The answer is, essentially none. Unless they can induce their customers to use less electricity, they will need all the fossil fuel capacity as backup. They will now have double the capacity, at more than four times the cost of capital, to produce the same 2000 MW of power.
And it seems that that is only the beginning. According to Pi Online on February 9, New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced that his pressure (as trustee of the New York employee pension funds, owner of 1.35 million shares of AEP stock) had finally forced AEP to agree to make drastic reductions in its emissions of CO2:
American Electric Power will adopt long-term targets for reducing greenhouses gases, said Thomas P. DiNapoli, the sole trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, Albany, in an announcement Friday. As a result, the $201.3 billion pension fund has withdrawn a shareholder request seeking such a commitment, said Mr. DiNapoli, who is also the state comptroller, in a news release.
And indeed on the same day AEP came out with its so-called "Strategic Vision for a Clean Energy Future." We're going to reduce CO2 emissions 60% from 2000 levels by 2030 and 80% by 2050! Sure guys. And how exactly are you going to do it? Try reading this fluff and see if you can get any idea of how they plan to accomplish this in the real world. There are no specifics here. Lots of talk about "conservation" and "efficiency." Lots about more fields of wind turbines to come, with no mention that any problems might arise when the percent of electricity coming from wind starts going from 20% to 30% and 40%. Will we need to build capacity equal to double and triple peak usage? No mention. Will we need to keep the full fleet of fossil fuel plants around and idle most of the time? No mention. How will this affect consumer electricity bills? No mention.
If you're wondering if all might not be on the up and up, there is this:
In early 2017, AEP completed the sale of four fossil-fueled plants totaling approximately 5,300 MW. The sale further decreased AEP’s carbon exposure going forward.
So it doesn't count as your emission if you sell the coal plant to somebody else and buy the electricity back from them? Well, I guess that's one way to "reduce emissions" by 80%! I'll bet that will fool DiNapoli -- but not the Manhattan Contrarian!
I tend to think that a company as large and successful as AEP is likely not to be completely stupid. Which means that the only way to look at this is that they are only too happy to build huge excess capacity, just as long as they can add the cost to their rate base, and triple or quadruple their prices to consumers. Hey, our shareholders and regulators demanded it! Let us know when you notice the costs spinning out of control, and we'll be happy to go back to our old methods. Meanwhile, we can all delude ourselves together.