The Dirty Part of Green Energy

The apparent ubiquitous proliferation of hillsides stuffed with majestic 400-foot wind turbine blades seemingly innocently whirling to churn out kilowatt after kilowatt of sacrosanct green energy, are now embedded as quaint Americana. Just gaze at these mammoths and breathe deep the hardy pristine air, visualize shrinking carbon footprints and global warming being in the past tense.

Unfortunately, when we unfold the curtains, the naked wizard behind the propaganda exposes things significantly less wholesome, even inconvenient truths, as Al Gore might say.

Let’s get to it. I spent time studying power industry arcana to convert things like kilowatts to megawatts to Btu’s to the energy output of a Mcf of natural gas. A Mcf, one thousand cubic feet, is the standard unit to quote this commodity. One Mcf trades as of June 14 traded at about $2.60. Seeking to understand analogous energy outputs, I compared a natural gas well making 1 MMcf (one million cubic feet) per day versus a 1.5 MW (megawatt) wind turbine. The results were astonishing. It requires 25, yes twenty-five, 1.5 MW wind turbine to produce the energy of one natural gas well that produces 1 MMcf per day. I did my first calculations looking at the number of kWh (kilowatt hours) that each generated in one year. So sure my arithmetic skills had atrophied, I re-ran my numbers using a different metric, looking at how many Btu’s (British Thermal Units) each source yielded in one year. The results were the same, less than one-half of one percent differential. Still wobbly, and out of my field of expertise, I contacted senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and wind energy expert, Mr. Robert Bryce. He does his figures using BOE/d (barrel of oil equivalent/day). Nearly identical to mine, his numbers yielded the gas well spewing out 24.6 times the energy of the wind turbine. (All calculations are shown below)[1]

One of the key assumptions in estimating turbine output is, in the trade jargon, “capacity factor.” How often does the turbine spin? What percent of the time is the wind blowing hard enough to feed energy into the transmission lines? Originally, I used a 25 percent capacity, which is a figure assumed by National Wind Watch. That number in my formulas had gas wells making 33 times the energy of a single turbine. Mr. Bryce insisted that a 33 percent capacity was a more industry standard, so that was the number used to arrive at the 25 to 1 ratio. There is a credible Scottish study which places capacity even lower than my original 25 percent figure.

With natural gas prices low, there is little new exploration. That said, it would take a whole lot more production than 1 MMcf/d to justify committing capital to drill a new well. As an exercise, I picked a random county in the prolific Marcellus shale region to see what top gas wells were producing. As of October 2015, the top 10 gas well in Washington County, Pa. were each averaging production over 12 MMcf/d. Some had been online for more than a year. The translation means it would take over 3,000  1.5 MW wind turbines to match the energy output of just these ten wells.[2] (In fairness, many of the new generation of turbines are rated at 2.5 to 3 MW of potential output, though many older ones are a lot less than 1 MW.)

Land, Construction, and Pollution

The clean energy advocacy group National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates 10 MW of wind energy output requires one square mile (640 acres) of land. So to mimic the energy output of the 10 Marcellus above mentioned gas wells would require the development of 450 square miles (288,000 acres) of virgin land.[3] That’s lots of destruction of mountain ridges, open plains, not to mention the clearing for roads and dynamiting necessary for the turbine platform site construction.

Turbines are enormous. The GE-1.5 MW model stands 328 feet tall with a total weight of 164 tons. The Danish 1.8 MW turbine reaches 410 feet tipping the scales at 267 tons. The 2 MG Spanish Gamesa G87 weighs 334 tons and measures 399 feet. Imagine building roads to accommodate trucking in 140-foot blades, a 71-ton tower or a 56-ton nacelle? A lot of nature must be obliterated with very questionable returns.

The platforms made to anchor the turbine tower require more than one thousand tons of concrete and steel rebar, and depending on the land contour, are 6 to 30 feet deep. The manufacture of each one ton of cement emits 900 kg (kilograms) of CO2 into the atmosphere. That equates to uncountable millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions attributable to wind energy.

Killing of Innocents

While the turbines turn, innocent flyers get churned. Estimates vary widely, but millions of birds are decimated for the grail of going green. The Smallwood Study (Wildlife Society Bulletin) concluded in 2013, on a 2012 installed base of 51. 6 thousand MW of installed wind capacity, 888,000 bats and 573,000 birds gave their lives. For 2016, wind energy in place will approach 80 thousand MW. You can extrapolate and do the math. Of the 573,000 birds, an estimated 83,000 were raptors or birds of prey. Besides owls, red-tailed hawks, and kestrels, this includes both bald and golden eagles. In Dr. Smallwood’s 2004 survey at Northern California’s Altamont Pass wind facility, he determined the Golden Eagle (GE) bird kill at 116 annually, putting the total GE carnage over 3,000 in the 26 years of operations. At only 576 MW of energy output, Altamont represents well less than one percent of America’s total wind output. Once again, with an overall Golden Eagle population of only around 100,000 make your statistical guess to what the yearly reduction of our eagle populations is.

For more perspective, the Altamont Pass wind farm has 4,930 inefficient antique turbines annually making only 125 MWH of energy. With a 576 MW potential, this translates to a paltry 21.7% capacity. It takes only two of the Marcellus above mentioned gas wells to churn out significantly more energy than the total of these nearly 5,000 antediluvian killing machines that each year systematically wipe out thousands of other birds besides the cherished and, other than wind, legally protected eagles. I have driven by these hillsides, 60 miles or so due east of San Francisco, and they are a pox on the otherwise beautiful natural landscape.

 As legal guardians of our wildlife, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department (USFWD) has fiduciary responsibilities transcending any other government agency. In something surreal, USFWD is currently in a 60 day public comment period to “improve” its eagle conservation program. The proposed “improvements” center around extending eagle kill permits for wind farm developers from 5 years to 30 years. Ostensibly, a 30-year longevity license to murder facilitates project finance. Lawsuits, led by the American Bird Conservancy, are flying to prevent these government “improvements”. If only the Eagles knew the nefarious machinations of their protectors. If the 30-year permits are granted, Robert Bryce puts the Bald Eagle turbine exterminations as high as 4,200 per year on an estimated population of only 72,434.

Evasion, or rather excused evasion of the Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is what is at issue; Hundreds of oil and gas industry prosecutions for running stop signs versus zero for genocide. Up to a year in the slammer plus potential six figure fines for everyone but the wind business for the first violation and it gets worse from there.

So, as measurable percentages of the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle populations are, without ceremony (prosecution), annually slaughtered by turbine blades, I am compelled to bring attention to the egregious 2011 holocaust in Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. A total of 6 ducks, yes that’s correct 6, and one “Says” Phoebe, unexpectedly perished as they navigated themselves into open oil waste pits. The justice department was swift in their diligence to hand down criminal indictments against evil doers Continental Resources, Newfield Production, and Brigham Oil & Gas.

There are some very credible sources that put overall turbine bird kill exponentially higher. In 2012, “the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO/Birdlife) reviewed actual carcass counts from 136 monitoring studies. They concluded that Spain’s 18,000 wind turbines are killing 6-18 million birds and bats yearly”. A German and Swedish study, using similar methodologies “extrapolated 39,000 U.S. wind turbines” would end the lives “of 13-39 million birds and bats every year”!

The wanton abetment of the slaughter of our national emblem is pardoned to placate chief wind puppeteers. A far more politically correct solution would be to sacrifice the wicked souls culpable of the sedition of global warming denial.

Base Load, Peak Load, Intermittency, and Transmission and the PTC

Power grids have the unenviable task of being tasked with providing uninterrupted electricity to businesses and households 24/7 and 365 days a year. Base loads are met by always on standby call sources mostly natural gas, nuclear, and still some legacy coal plants. They are always ready and can be “called upon” at a moment’s notice. As the weather gets hotter and factory demand ramps up, power demand approaches peak load. Less efficient sources referred to as gas-fired “peakers” may be “called upon” to meet excess demand.  Conversely, the wind is an intermittent source of energy, meaning it puts energy into the grid only when the wind blows which as we have seen from capacity averages, is a minority of the time. Director of Science at the Energy and Environmental Legal Institute, and renewables and wind expert Tom Tanton, “the vagaries of wind forces dispatchers to ramp up and ramp down gas plants normally ready on standby. The starting and stopping of combined cycle gas plants cause efficiency losses not only as heat rates degrade but also as more fossil fuels are burned in multiple startups”. The wind often blows at inconvenient intervals. Tanton again, “As wind energy is dumped un-used onto transmission lines during late night low demand periods, taxpayers still pay developers the 2.3 cent production tax credit (PTC)”. So every kilowatt hour of power produced by the wind receives the 2.3 cent PTC regardless of whether that power was “dumped” at two a.m. and went unused. This subsidy cost taxpayers $2 billion in 2013, and there are about 25% more megawatts of wind today.  Mr. Tanton again, “Making matters worse, the best wind locations are long since developed, meaning longer transmission runs, lower capacities, and more fuel burned for gas turbine startups, to balance even more volatile (wind) output.”

Transmission lines or systems are often constructed for a specific wind installation. It may be many hundreds of miles from the nearest power station hook up. While the EIA puts average power losses for all lines at 5% for the ten years ending 2014, according to Mr. Tanton, “ because of much larger average transmission distances, (and other factors)  in the west at least, a 10% power loss is a good rule of thumb. I might add though that the big boondoggle occurs with the line construction. Codes require these systems are built assuming 100% of output when average output trends 30% or so, raising the cost per kilowatt hour delivered”. This is many millions of more wasted dollars.

  Sierra Club Against Wind? Huh?

The choice between birds and wind now becomes binary and thus mutually exclusive; That wind industry and the Sierra Club could be on opposing sides are oxymoron enough. They’ve been having sex together for so long the sense of mutual betrayal must be unbearable. But to protect the birds, as far back as 2011 the Sierra Club, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife took legal action in Kerns County, CA. to block two proposed wind projects; North Sky River and Jawbone. Beam yourself 3,000 miles to present day upstate New York in Erie, Orleans, and Niagra Counties. Their opposition focuses on the 200 MW Lighthouse project which would encumber 20,000 acres of land abutting Lake Ontario.[4] Other townships in New York state have banned or are in the process of protesting new wind projects. As an aside, the Center for Biological Diversity has filed and settled various lawsuits against Altamont Pass.

The inherent schism comes from perverse incentives both to expand wind energy and utility mandates to purchase it. Therefore, these electricity providers are lined up to procure wind energy. Besides the PTC there is another equally degenerate acronym called, ITC or Investment Tax Credit. This government giveaway rebates 30% of the cost of wind project construction in the form of a dollar for dollar tax credit; not a deduction but a full credit. Given the 2.3 cent PTC, the 30% ITC, and utility quotas to meet date certain carbon levels, the leading impediment to a wind development isn’t financing, but project approval permits. Landowners and townships across America are taking harder looks at allowing not only behemoth landscape disturbing turbines but also ghastly transmission lines. Courts are clogged more and more with eminent domain cases, with many plaintiff ranchers and farmers fighting to prevent swaths of their lands seized by fiat for access roads and transmission lines that often run hundreds of miles. 

Conclusion

There is a place for wind energy regimes under the right circumstances, and soon enough General Electric will be making a 6 MW rated land turbine. But Ad Hoc installations driven by the financial inducements of the investment tax credit and the generous production tax credit is prodigal public policy.

Despite my compendium of inefficiencies, taxpayer subsidies, and sanctioned lawlessness, wind energy development is expected to add 6,000 MW more capacity in 2016 bringing our national total to 79,000 MW or enough to supply a bit over 5% our nations’ electricity. “If there’s a better example (than the wind industry) of regulatory capture and crony capitalism, I can’t think of one.” Sage words from Robert Bryce. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

[1] A) 1.5 MW x 365 days x 24 hrs. x 33% capacity = 4,336.2 MWh x 1,000= 4,336,200 KWh

   1 Mcf = 298.932 KWh x 1,000 x 365 = 109,110,180 KWh therefore  109,110,180/4,336,200 =25.16

  1. B) 1 MW= 3,412,141.2 BTU x 1.5MW x 24 hrs. x .33 capacity x 365 days = 14,795,726,671.4 BTU p/yr

    1 MMcf= 1,027,000,000 BTU/d x 365 = 374,885,000,000 therefore 374,885,000,000/14,726,671.4 = 25.33

  1. C)  1.5 MW x 24 hrs x .33 cap factor = 11.88 MWh/d = 40.1 mmbtu = 7 boe/d

      1 mmcf/d = 1 Bbtu = 172 boe/d   therefore  172/7 = 24.6    (boe= barrel of oil equivalent)

 

[2] 25 wells at 1Mcf/d = 1.5 MW turbine output 12MM cf/d x 25 x 10 wells = 3,000  1.5 MW turbine output

[3] 3,000 turbines x 1.5MW= 4,500MW; 10 MW per sq.mile therefore 4,500/10= 450 sq. miles land required

   640 acres= 1 sq.mile therefore 450 sq. miles x 640 acres = 288,000 acres land required

[4] Mr. Tanton is an expert witness representing the opposition to the Lighthouse project

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