Wind turbines may cause more carbon emissions!

Thank goodness the government didn’t jump on that bandwagon, or spend billions of dollars on turbines, or pass regulations in favor – oh wait, yes they did.

According to a WSJ article by Robert Bryce, wind is one of the more reliable renewable sources for energy companies being hit with mandates to use certain amounts of renewable sources, but it won’t have the intended effect of reducing carbon emissions.

Wind—not solar or geothermal sources—must provide most of this electricity. It’s the only renewable source that can rapidly scale up to meet the requirements of the mandates. This means billions more in taxpayer subsidies for the wind industry and higher electricity costs for consumers.

None of it will lead to major cuts in carbon emissions, for two reasons. First, wind blows only intermittently and variably. Second, wind-generated electricity largely displaces power produced by natural gas-fired generators, rather than that from plants burning more carbon-intensive coal.

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 dark, or continually ramp up and down the output from conventional coal- or gas-fired generators (called “cycling”). But coal-fired and gas-fired generators are designed to run continuously, and if they don’t, fuel consumption and emissions generally increase. A car analogy helps explain: An automobile that operates at a constant speed—say, 55 miles per hour—will have better fuel efficiency, and emit less pollution per mile traveled, than one that is stuck in stop-and-go traffic.

Recent research strongly suggests how this problem defeats the alleged carbon-reducing virtues of wind power. In April, Bentek Energy, a Colorado-based energy analytics firm, looked at power plant records in Colorado and Texas. (It was commissioned by the Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States.) Bentek concluded that despite huge investments, wind-generated electricity “has had minimal, if any, impact on carbon dioxide” emissions.

Bentek found that thanks to the cycling of Colorado’s coal-fired plants in 2009, at least 94,000 more pounds of carbon dioxide were generated because of the repeated cycling. In Texas, Bentek estimated that the cycling of power plants due to increased use of wind energy resulted in a slight savings of carbon dioxide (about 600 tons) in 2008 and a slight increase (of about 1,000 tons) in 2009.

Missouri passed a mandate a few years ago that requires electric utilities to become 15% dependent on wind or solar energy by 2021.  On the state and federal level, these new laws will dramatically increase costs for utilities, which will almost certainly raise rates in response.  But the reasons why these particular types of subsidization were necessary now look like they could be blown over by a strong gust of wind.

If I were an environmentalist right now I’d be weeping, dissolving my biodegradable shoes.  It seems like you just can’t win: you buy cloth diapers, only to find out that the energy it takes to wash them (not to mention the ew factor) is far “worse” for the environment, according to the people keeping that list.  Or, consider that the Hybrid is coming under fire for doing more harm to the environment than the long-beleaguered Hummer.  There is a long line of products that purport to be atmospherically advantageous, but turn out to have nastier consequences then their run-of-the-mill competitors.

At the end of the day, I can change my behavior, if I want to, based on new information.  I can decide what businesses I want to support with the money I earn.  Regulation, well, not so much.  That’s what bothers me about so many environmental regulations of late: not only is government deciding what business activity is better than another, they could easily be subsidizing (i.e. using my money to prop up) activity that moves the needle in the opposite direction.  Bottom line: even for the environmentally conscious, subsidizing renewable energy is heading down the wrong path.

Emily Iles
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