A Wall Street Journal op-ed authored by a staffer of the industry-funded Heartland Institute claimed that "[p]hysical limitations" will not allow wind to become a major source of our power. However, he ignored recent positive developments for the wind industry and areas where further innovation can help wind capacity further grow.
WSJ Obscures Wind's Growth
WSJ Op-Ed Claimed Wind Cannot Be A Viable Large-Scale Energy Source. In an op-ed titled "The Rationale for Wind Power Won't Fly," Jay Lehr of The Heartland Institute claimed that "[p]hysical limitations will keep this energy source a niche provider of U.S. electricity needs." [Wall Street Journal, 6/17/13]
Wind Was No. 1 Source Of New U.S. Power In 2012. In 2012, wind became the number one source of new generating capacity in the U.S. for the first time, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA):
The fourth quarter of 2012 saw 8,385 megawatts (MW) of wind power capacity installed, bringing total 2012 installations to 13,131 MW. The U.S. wind industry now totals 60,007 MW of cumulative wind capacity (and more than 45,100 turbines) through the end of December 2012. During 2012, wind energy became the number one source of new U.S. electricity generating capacity for the first time, providing some 42% of all new generating capacity. [AWEA, accessed 6/18/13]
EIA: Wind Has Grown Significantly In Recent Years. This graph from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that U.S. wind capacity, displayed in yellow, has grown significantly since 2005 and is expected to increase even more in the next few years:
The EIA has further noted that "Wind plants have a much shorter planning horizon and are built more quickly than fossil fuel-fired plants," and projected in its most recent Annual Energy Outlook that "wind continues to be the leading source of nonhydropower renewable capacity in 2040." [EIA, June 2013] [EIA, accessed 6/18/13] [EIA, 4/15/13]
Study: Wind Power Has Potential To Be A Primary Source Of Energy. According to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, "There is enough power in Earth's winds to be a primary source of near-zero-emission electric power as the global economy continues to grow," given development of high-altitude wind turbine technology:
There is enough power in Earth's winds to be a primary source of near-zero-emission electric power as the global economy continues to grow through the twenty-first century. Historically, wind turbines are placed on Earth's surface, but high-altitude winds are usually steadier and faster than near-surface winds, resulting in higher average power densities1. Here, we use a climate model to estimate the amount of power that can be extracted from both surface and high-altitude winds, considering only geophysical limits. We find wind turbines placed on Earth's surface could extract kinetic energy at a rate of at least 400 TW, whereas high-altitude wind power could extract more than 1,800 TW. [Nature Climate Change, 9/9/12]
Scientific American: Wind Has Potential Far Beyond Demand. An analysis and future energy plan published in Scientific American similarly indicated that global energy potential from wind and solar is far greater than projected global demand:
Today the maximum power consumed worldwide at any given moment is about 12.5 trillion watts (terawatts, or TW), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency projects that in 2030 the world will require 16.9 TW of power as global population and living standards rise, with about 2.8 TW in the U.S.
Even if demand did rise to 16.9 TW, WWS [wind, water or sunlight] sources could provide far more power. Detailed studies by us and others indicate that energy from the wind, worldwide, is about 1,700 TW. Solar, alone, offers 6,500 TW. Of course, wind and sun out in the open seas, over high mountains and across protected regions would not be available. If we subtract these and low-wind areas not likely to be developed, we are still left with 40 to 85 TW for wind and 580 TW for solar, each far beyond future human demand. Yet currently we generate only 0.02 TW of wind power and 0.008 TW of solar. These sources hold an incredible amount of untapped potential.
[In this energy scenario] Wind supplies 51 percent of the demand, provided by 3.8 million large wind turbines (each rated at five megawatts) worldwide. Although that quantity may sound enormous, it is interesting to note that the world manufactures 73 million cars and light trucks every year.
Only about 0.8 percent of the wind base is installed today. The worldwide footprint of the 3.8 million turbines would be less than 50 square kilometers (smaller than Manhattan). When the needed spacing between them is figured, they would occupy about 1 percent of the earth's land, but the empty space among turbines could be used for agriculture or ranching or as open land or ocean. [Scientific American, 10/26/09, emphasis added]
WSJ Downplays Fossil Fuel Land Use
WSJ Op-Ed Complains Wind Farms "Do Take Up Space." The op-ed unfavorably compared the land use of a wind power plant to a coal, nuclear or natural gas power plant without considering that land needed to mine and extract the resources that these plants run on:
But wind farms do take up space. The available data from wind-power companies, with which the Environmental Protection Agency agrees, show that the most effective of them can generate about five kilowatts per acre. This means 300 square miles of land--192,000 acres--are necessary to generate the 1,000 megawatts (a billion watts) of electricity that a conventional power plant using coal, nuclear energy or natural gas can generate on a few hundred acres. A billion watts fulfills the average annual power demand of a city of 700,000.
Importantly, the amount of electricity the wind can generate per acre of land is unrelated to the size of the turbines. Yes, by doubling the turbine's blade length you quadruple the turbine's power output. The problem? If the turbines are big and tall you need fewer of them, but they must be more widely separated. If they're smaller you need more of them, closer together. [Wall Street Journal, 6/17/13]
DOE: Majority Of Wind Farm Land Can Be Used For Other Purposes. According to a Department of Energy report from the Bush administration, the actual space occupied by turbines is nowhere near that encompassing the wider boundaries of each wind farm. If wind power were ramped up to provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity, the vast majority of the land used to house the turbines would remain available for other purposes and result in a land use footprint that compares favorably to that of fossil fuel sources:
Wind development also requires large areas of land, but the land is used very differently. The 20% Wind Scenario (305 GW) estimates that in the United States, about 50,000 square kilometers (km2) would be required for land-based projects and more than 11,000 km2 would be needed for offshore projects. However, the footprint of land that will actually be disturbed for wind development projects under the 20% Wind Scenario ranges from 2% to 5% of the total amount (representing land needed for the turbines and related infrastructure). Thus the amount of land to be disturbed by wind development under the 20% Wind Scenario is only 1,000 to 2,500 km2 (100,000 to 250,000 hectares)--an amount of dedicated land that is slightly smaller than Rhode Island. For scale comparisons, available data for existing coal mining activities indicate that about 1,700,000 hectares of land is permitted or covered and about 425,000 hectares of land are disturbed (DOI 2004). An important factor to note is that wind energy projects use the same land area each year; coal and uranium must be mined from successive areas, with the total disturbed area increasing each year. In agricultural areas, land used for wind generation projects has the potential to be compatible with some land uses because only a few hectares are taken out of production, and no mining or drilling is needed to extract the fuel. [Department of Energy, October 2008, emphasis added]
Scientific American: Wind Turbines Providing Half The World's Energy Would Occupy Less Space Than Manhattan. As noted in Scientific American's 2009 renewable energy scenario, 3.8 million wind turbines, enough to supply more than half of the world's energy, would take up less than 50 square kilometers (31 square miles):
The worldwide footprint of the 3.8 million turbines would be less than 50 square kilometers (smaller than Manhattan). When the needed spacing between them is figured, they would occupy about 1 percent of the earth's land, but the empty space among turbines could be used for agriculture or ranching or as open land or ocean. [Scientific American, 10/26/09]
Research Is Going Into Different Turbine Options. As a National Geographic News article pointed out, nontraditional wind turbine forms, such as "kite-lofted" or counter-rotating turbines, may enable greater energy production from tight spaces, and some have suggested a system of alternating large and small turbines. Further technological advances may be in the offing:
Companies continue to work to improve turbine technology. Future turbines could be lighter, contain fewer parts, have better controls, or work together to optimize energy. [National Renewable Energy Laboratory Wind Technology Director Fort] Felker predicts both onshore and offshore turbines will get bigger. Engineers will continue to learn from present models, and work to find a variety of ways to make turbines better.
WSJ Ignores Solutions For Intermittency
WSJ: Large-Scale Use Of Wind "Never Really Made Sense" Due To Intermittency. The op-ed claimed that it "never really made sense" that wind and solar could replace conventional energy because they are intermittent sources of power -- the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine:
The promise that wind and solar power could replace conventional electricity production never really made sense. It's known to everybody in the industry that a wind turbine will generate electricity 30% of the time--but it's impossible to predict when that time will be. A true believer might be willing to do without electricity when the wind is not blowing, but most people will not. And so, during the 30% of the time the blades are spinning, conventional power plants are also spinning on low, waiting to operate during the other 70% of the time. [Wall Street Journal, 6/17/13]
New Scientist: Industry Is Increasingly Able To Predict Varying Output Of Wind Power. According to an article by an Institute for Public Policy Research fellow published in New Scientist, predictions of when changes in wind power will happen, a key factor in ensuring reliability, are increasingly accurate:
This seems like common sense. However, the reliability of wind power does not depend on the variability of wind. Instead, it depends on how well changes in wind power output can be anticipated. Forecasts of wind farm output are increasingly accurate, and drops in output can be predicted and compensated for using conventional power stations. [New Scientist, 1/21/13]
Research Institute: Combining Renewable Sources Can Lead To Reliable Grid. A German research firm recently found that combining renewable energy sources (solar, wind and bio-gas) can yield a stable 24-hour-a-day grid:
By skillfully combining the output of a number of solar, wind and biogas plants the grid can be provided with stable energy 24 hours a day without fear of blackouts, according to the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology (IWES) in Kassel.
Kurt Rohrig, deputy director of IWES, said: "Each source of energy - be it wind, sun or biogas - has its strengths and weaknesses. If we manage to skillfully combine the different characteristics of the regenerative energies, we can ensure the power supply for Germany."
The idea is that many small power plant operators can feed their electricity into the grid but act as a single power plant using computers to control the level of power.
UK Study: Wind Turbines Need Very Little Power Back-Up. The UK's National Grid determined that very little fossil-fuel generation was needed as a back-up to wind turbine output, as The Telegraph reported:
Now the National Grid has studied what actually happens in practice, with explosive, if surprising, results. Between April 2011 and September 2012 - its head of energy strategy, Richard Smith, told the Hay Festival - wind produced some 23,700 gigawatt hours (GWh) of power. Only 22GWh of power from fossil fuels was needed to fill the gaps when the wind didn't blow. That's less than a thousandth of the turbines' output - and, as it happens, less than a tenth of what was needed to back up conventional power stations.
It proved to be much the same with emissions. Wind saved nearly 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over that 18 months; standby burning of fossil fuels only reduced this by 8,800 tonnes, or 0.081 per cent.
Not surprisingly, given these figures, no new fossil fuel power station has been built to provide back up for wind farms, and none is in prospect. [The Telegraph, 5/31/13, emphasis added]
Winds Sufficient To "Shut Down" Turbines Are "Storm Force" Winds. According to the European Wind Energy Association, wind turbines do typically shut down in winds going about 25 meters per second (56 miles per hour), but those speeds constitute "storm" to "violent storm" force winds, which can cause "considerable structural damage." Physical vulnerability and failure to operate under such conditions is not a phenomenon endemic to wind turbines. [EWEA, accessed 6/18/13] [NOAA, accessed 6/18/13]
WSJ Fails To Disclose Heartland's Fossil Fuel Ties
Heartland Is Funded By Oil Interests. The Wall Street Journal noted that the op-ed writer, Lehr, is "science director of the Heartland Institute" but failed to disclose the Heartland Institute's funding from oil interests. ExxonMobil contributed over $600,000 to Heartland between 1998 and 2006, but has since pledged to stop funding groups that cast doubt on climate change. Heartland does not disclose its current donors, but internal documents obtained in 2012 revealed that Heartland received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, whose founder is the CEO of a corporation with significant oil operations. [Wall Street Journal, 6/17/13] [The New York Times, 3/9/09] [Media Matters, 11/28/12]
Heartland Compared Those Who Accept Climate Science To Murderers. In 2012, Heartland used a billboard featuring Ted Kaczynski to launch its campaign comparing those who accept climate science with "murders, tyrants, and madmen." After drawing strong criticism, including from some of its own staff, Heartland quickly removed the billboard, but refused to apologize. [Media Matters, 11/28/12]
Heartland Institute: Policymakers Should Do "Nothing" About Climate Change. From "About Global Warming Facts" by The Heartland Institute:
If global warming is not a crisis, what should policymakers do about it? The answer, obviously, is "nothing." This is not a problem that needs to be solved. The case should be marked "closed" and policymakers should move on to other, more important, issues. [Heartland Institute, accessed 6/19/11]
Shauna Theel contributed to this report.