Can you build a wind turbine without fossil fuels?

Wind

Robert Wilson addressed the captioned question in Wind Turbines and Fuel Used in Creation. Robert summarized the materials required for wind nameplate generation capacity:

On average 1 MW of wind capacity requires 103 tonnes of stainless steel, 402 tonnes of concrete, 6.8 tonnes of fiberglass, 3 tonnes of copper and 20 tonnes of cast iron. The elegant blades are made of fiberglass, the skyscraper sized tower of steel, and the base of concrete.

I think of the captioned question from a slightly different angle:

If we have a grid powered only by wind power — will we be able to replace the aging turbines at their 20 to 25 year end-of-life?

I think the answer to my question is

  1. We must synthesize a substitute for the diesel fuel.
  2. We will still need coal and/or natural gas for steelmaking and cement.
  3. Regardless of chemistry we will need a LOT of reliable, clean energy to manufacture the replacement wind turbines every 25 years or so.

To synthesize all those fuels you will want to have plenty of low-carbon nuclear electricity. And the chemistry of both steel and concrete production will continue to produce large volumes of CO2 (absent innovations I’m not aware of).

Robert walks the reader through the steel supply chain from ore mining and transport, to the blast furnace that converts the iron ore into steel. Every step requires (steel) heavy machinery and copious fossil fuel to power the engines. The final stages require either or both coal (coke for the iron ore to iron reduction) and natural gas. From Chemistry Explained:

Steel furnaces. In the steel furnace, sulfur and phosphorus impurities and excess carbon are burned away, and manganese and other alloying ingredients are added. During the nineteenth century most steel was made by the Bessemer process, using big pear-shaped converters. During the first half of the twentieth century, the open hearth furnace became the main type of steel furnace. This gave way mid-century to the basic oxygen process, which used pure oxygen instead of air, cutting the process time from all day to just a few hours. In the twenty-first century, most new steel plants use electric furnaces, the most popular being the electric-arc furnace. It is cheaper to build and more efficient to operate than the basic oxygen furnace. In the electric-arc furnace a powerful electric current jumps (or arcs) between the electrodes, generating intense heat, which melts the iron scrap that is typically fed into it.

The most modern process for making steel is the continuous process, which bypasses the energy requirements of the blast furnace. Instead of using coke, the iron ore is reduced by hydrogen and CO derived from natural gas. This direct reduction method is especially being used in developing countries where there are not any large steel plants already in operation. 

The 402 tons of concrete per MW of nameplate capacity requires the similarly challenging cement supply chain (from US EIA)

NewImage(…snip…) the most energy-intensive of all manufacturing industries, with a share of national energy use roughly 10 times its share of the nation’s gross output of goods and services. (…snip…) Cement is also unique in its heavy reliance on coal and petroleum coke.

 

 And because wind capacity factors are typically 25 to 35% in excellent productivity areas, and because we are assuming that the electric grid depends entirely on 100% wind power, then we will have to build 3 to 4 times as many wind turbines as the nameplate capacity promises. That’s a lot of concrete and a lot of steel. Back to Robert Wilson, who concludes with this:

Total cement production currently represents about 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions, to go with the almost 7% from iron and steel production. Not loose change.

In conclusion we obviously cannot build wind turbines on a large scale without fossil fuels.

Now, none of this is to argue against wind turbines, it is simply arguing against over-promising what can be achieved. It also should be pointed out that we cannot build a nuclear power plant, or any piece of large infrastrtucture for that matter, without concrete or steel. A future entirely without fossil fuels may be desirable, but currently it is not achievable. Expectations must be set accordingly.

 

System LCOE and minimizing GHG avoidance costs

Recent references on full life cycle costing of electricity generation options – including accounting for intermittency and integration costs.

Why the Best Path to a Low-Carbon Future is Not Wind or Solar Power Analysis of Brookings paper by Charles Frank

This paper examines five different low and no-carbon electricity technologies and presents the net benefits of each under a range of assumptions. It estimates the costs per megawatt per year for wind, solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, and gas combined cycle electricity plants. To calculate these estimates, the paper uses a methodology based on avoided emissions and avoided costs, rather than comparing the more prevalent “levelized” costs. Three key findings result:

First—assuming reductions in carbon emissions are valued at $50 per metric ton and the price of natural gas is $16 per million Btu or less—nuclear, hydro, and natural gas combined cycle have far more net benefits than either wind or solar. This is the case because solar and wind facilities suffer from a very high capacity cost per megawatt, very low capacity factors and low reliability, which result in low avoided emissions and low avoided energy cost per dollar invested.

Second, low and no-carbon energy projects are most effective in avoiding emissions if a price for carbon is levied on fossil fuel energy suppliers. In the absence of an appropriate price for carbon, new no-carbon plants will tend to displace low-carbon gas combined cycle plants rather than high-carbon coal plants and achieve only a fraction of the potential reduction in carbon emissions. The price of carbon should be high enough to make production from gas-fired plants preferable to production from coal-fired plants, both in the short term, based on relative short-term energy costs, and the longer term, based on relative energy and capacity costs combined.

Third, direct regulation of carbon dioxide emissions of new and existing coal-fired plants, as proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, can have some of the same effects as a carbon price in reducing coal plant emissions both in the short term and in the longer term as old, inefficient coal plants are retired. However, a price levied on carbon dioxide emissions is likely to be a less costly way to achieve a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

The Optimal Share of Variable Renewables. How the Variability of Wind and Solar Power Affects Their Welfare-Optimal Deployment

This paper estimates the welfare-optimal market share of wind and solar power, explicitly taking into account their output variability. We present a theoretical valuation framework that consistently accounts for output variability over time, forecast errors, and the location of generators in the power grid, and evaluate the impact of these three factors on the marginal value of electricity from renewables. Then we estimate the optimal share of wind and solar power in Northwestern Europe from a calibrated numerical power market model. The optimal long-term share of wind power of total electricity consumption is estimated to be 20% at cost levels of 50 €/MWh, about three times the current market share of wind; but this estimate is subject to significant parameter uncertainty. Variability significantly impacts results: if winds were constant, the optimal share would be 60%. In addition, the effect of technological change, price shocks, and policies on the optimal share is assessed. We present and explain several surprising findings, including a negative impact of CO2 prices on optimal wind deployment.

 System LCOE/ What are the Costs of Variable Renewables? by Falko Ueckerdt, Lion Hirth, Gunnar Ludere

Levelized costs of electricity (LCOE) are a common metric for comparing power generating technologies. However, there is qualified criticism particularly towards evaluating variable renewables like wind and solar power based on LCOE because it ignores integration costs that occur at the system level. In this paper we propose a new measure System LCOE as the sum of generation and integration costs per unit of VRE. For this purpose we develop a conclusive definition of integration costs. Furthermore we decompose integration costs into different cost components and draw conclusions for integration options like transmission grids and energy storage. System LCOE are quantified from a power system model and a literature review. We find that at moderate wind shares (~20%) integration costs can be in the same range as generation costs of wind power and conventional plants. Integration costs further increase with growing wind shares. We conclude that integration costs can become an economic barrier to deploying VRE at high shares. This implies that an economic evaluation of VRE must not neglect integration costs. A pure LCOE comparison would significantly underestimate the costs of VRE at high shares. System LCOE give a framework of how to consistently account for integration costs and thus guide policy makers and system planers in designing a cost-efficient power system.

The Economist on past and future emissions cuts

 

Chart 1 – click to embiggen

The above graphic is from The deepest cuts, a contribution fromThe Economist to grappling with the “big picture” on effective carbon avoidance strategies.There are some obvious problems with the numbers in Chart 1 – particularly the Cumulative Emissions avoided by Hydropower and Nuclear. There are also some very big issues with the Chart 2 where authors attempt to project the carbon avoidance situation in 2020. I  addressed some of these issues in my comments to the article:

I hope this is just the beginning of an ongoing Economist project to refine and update an understanding of what is working, what is not working – all in the context of the essential measure of cost/benefit, specifically cost-per-ton-CO2-avoided.

I need to highlight a few errors in your data presentation. In your Chart 1 you report Cumulative Emissions Avoided for both Hydropower and Nuclear that understate the actual avoidance by roughly thirty times. Nuclear and hydropower avoidance should be about 64 and 90 GtCO2-eq respectively vs. your 2.2 and 2.8 GtCO2-eq. I derived these values from two sources. First, the IAEA report you referenced Climate Change And Nuclear Power 2013 states on page 14

Over the past 50 years, the use of nuclear power has resulted in the avoidance of significant amounts of GHG emissions around the world. Globally, the amount of avoided emissions is comparable to that from hydropower.

From inspection of IAEA FIG. 5 we can see that cumulative historical Hydropower avoidance is very roughly 25 GtCO2-eq greater than the nuclear avoidance, but otherwise similar. But what is the cumulative avoidance? in “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power” Pushker and Hansen, 2013 calculated that the cumulative global CO2 emissions emissions avoided by nuclear power is 64 GtCO2-eq. Here’s their Figure 3, page 12 for both historical and projected emissions avoided:

Click to embiggen

The authors calculated the 64 GtCO2-eq avoidance based on a different IAEA source document: Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050: 2011 Edition; International Atomic Energy Agency, 2011.

Is 64 GtCO2-eq a big number? It is a Very Big Number, as Pushker and Hansen 2013 contrast to 35 years of USA coal emissions:

For instance, 64 GtCO2-eq amounts to the cumulative CO2 emissions from coal burning over approximately the past 35 yr in USA


Chart 2: Click to embiggen

Regarding your Chart 2, forecasting “the policies likely to have the biggest impact in 2020” is a courageous undertaking. To make useful projections requires a deep knowledge of the energy industry, the electric power industry, economic forecasting and the political trends of the significant emitting countries. That is a Very Big Ask, so I decided to have a look for related work by the firm retained by The Economist: namely Climate Action Tracker. The principles of this consulting firm are listed as Dr. Bill Hare, Dr. Niklas Höhne, Dr. Johannes Gütschow and Dr. Michiel Schaeffer. The first three gentlemen are affiliated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research (PIK). That affiliation immediately boosted my estimate of the Climate Action Tracker qualifications because I have been studying the work of other PIK researchers who have been publishing very important and original work on the difficult subject of integrating variable renewable generation sources, especially at potentially high future penetration levels. This work requires a deep understanding of electric power systems. In particular I will recommend these three PIK papers:

  1. Hirth, Lion, The Optimal Share of Variable Renewables. How the Variability of Wind and Solar Power Affects Their Welfare-Optimal Deployment (November 8, 2013). FEEM Working Paper No. 90.2013. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2351754 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2351754
  2. Ueckerdt, Falko and Hirth, Lion and Luderer, Gunnar and Edenhofer, Ottmar, System LCOE: What are the Costs of Variable Renewables? (January 14, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2200572 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2200572
  3. Hirth, Lion and Ueckerdt, Falko and Edenhofer, Ottmar, Why Wind is Not Coal: On the Economics of Electricity (April 24, 2014). FEEM Working Paper No. 39.2014. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2428788 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2428788

What I found in an afternoon of Internet research on Climate Action Tracker gives me concern about the Chart 2 conclusions. You have probably noticed in Chart 2 that in the six short years to 2020 nuclear power has become so insignificant it doesn’t even make the top-eleven list. That is puzzling, as nuclear power is currently the largest source of non-hydro emission-free electricity.

I confess that all of my searching for anything related to nuclear power trends in publications by Climate Action Tracker principles is a single update:  Climate Action Tracker Update, 30 November 2012 from which I have extracted the only two, widely separated paragraphs wherein nuclear is even mentioned:

…Society also would lose the ability to choose whether it wants technologies like carbon capture and storage and nuclear energy, because those, along with bio-energy, would likely have to be deployed on a larger scale.
…More pressure on future policy requirements. For example, full global participation would be required after 2020, and society may have little freedom to choose technologies, such as the freedom to reject large-scale nuclear energy, CCS, or bio-energy.

The only way I can read these comments is that the authors political view is that nuclear power should be rejected. This supports my conclusion that the members of Climate Action Tracker are possibly experts in climate science, but perhaps not so expert in the electric power industry and the economics of energy. The economics is fundamental to policies that can be implemented in the real world.

Are global wind power resource estimates overstated?

Update: I have bumped this 2013 post to emphasize the significance of this work on limits to wind extraction. The answer to the captioned question is “Yes”, probably overstated by a factor of 5x to 10x. This isn’t an issue for small, dispersed collections of turbines – but it is absolutely a big problem at the scale Germany is planning for offshore wind.

Harvard’s Amanda S Adams and David W Keith recently published their modeling and analysis of the impact of scale on available wind resources in Environmental Research Letters. Update: Dr. Keith’s video abstract is compelling – not to be missed.

(…) Each wind turbine creates behind it a “wind shadow” in which the air has been slowed down by drag on the turbine’s blades. The ideal wind farm strikes a balance, packing as many turbines onto the land as possible, while also spacing them enough to reduce the impact of these wind shadows. But as wind farms grow larger, they start to interact, and the regional-scale wind patterns matter more.

Keith’s research has shown that the generating capacity of very large wind power installations (larger than 100 square kilometers) may peak at between 0.5 and 1 watts per square meter. Previous estimates, which ignored the turbines’ slowing effect on the wind, had put that figure at between 2 and 7 watts per square meter.

In short, we may not have access to as much wind power as scientists thought.

(…) “One of the inherent challenges of wind energy is that as soon as you start to develop wind farms and harvest the resource, you change the resource, making it difficult to assess what’s really available,” says Adams.

(…) “If wind power’s going to make a contribution to global energy requirements that’s serious, 10 or 20 percent or more, then it really has to contribute on the scale of terawatts in the next half-century or less,” says Keith.

If we were to cover the entire Earth with wind farms, he notes, “the system could potentially generate enormous amounts of power, well in excess of 100 terawatts, but at that point my guess, based on our climate modeling, is that the effect of that on global winds, and therefore on climate, would be severe—perhaps bigger than the impact of doubling CO2.”

Environmental Research Letters Volume 8 Number 1; Amanda S Adams and David W Keith 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 015021 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/015021

Besides scalability and intermittency there is the minor issue of “how much does it cost“.

How Taxes Pervert our Energy Choices

In 2009 Nuclear engineer Joseph Somsel examined some of the US tax code provisions which favor building wind rather than nuclear power. This was originally published in American Thinker.

(…snip…) the current code allows what’s called accelerated depreciation so that they can recover the capital costs earlier in the asset’s life rather than later.  Like cash and lottery payouts, a tax deduction today is worth more than one 20 years from now so we can see how Congress views competing electrical generation sources by how quickly they allow the write-offs to occur.

For wind farms, the current code allows the write-offs over 3.5 years, a real boon for investors in wind mill projects. In fact, many such projects depend on this tax advantage to secure financing, especially since the right to take these deductions can be allocated with some freedom amongst the project’s investors and the developers.

Alas, for nuclear power plants, the tax picture is not so rosy.  They have to take their write-offs over 20.5 years, a significant disadvantage over a comparable investment in a wind project.  Taking a hypothetical $5 billion in generation investment in each technology, here’s a chart showing when those deductions could be taken and for how much:

Depreciationfavorswind

From this chart, it is easy to see that the investors in a wind project get to write-off a LOT more money a LOT sooner than the investors in a nuclear plant.  This is greatly to the advantage of the wind developers.  At a 35% corporate tax rate, the difference in Year 2 alone is over $650 million in bottom line after-tax profits to the wind investors – that’s cash money that can cut dividend checks.  Maybe now you can see why T. Boone Pickens is pushing wind farms.

Let’s take the figures from Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency for capital costs and productive experience (“capacity factor”) to see exactly what this means in terms of electrical production.  Let’s assume an equal “overnight” investment of $5 billion in wind mills and $5 billion in nuclear power plants.  That will buy you about 1.5 gigawatts of nuclear capacity and 2.6 gigawatts of wind farm capacity.  However, that’s only the equipment’s theoretical ability to make electricity and not how much electricity it likely will supply per year once in service.  For that we need to multiply our capacity by something called “capacity factor” which is what it really delivers.  Again, using EIA’s numbers on what really happens out in the real world in terms of expected production:

Nuclear2xwindsameinvestment

So that $5 billion will produce over TWICE the annual electrical output for American consumers if invested in nuclear power plants than if in wind farms.  One has to ask, do these provisions in the tax code really serve Americans’ interests or are they written with someone else in mind?  Yet, Congress wants 20% of our electricity to come from “renewables” like wind.  The California legislature, to prove its green bona fides, recently passed a law to make California electric consumers buy 33% of their electricity from renewables.  All I can say is, “Thanks guys!”

(…snip…)

So, in comparing the tax treatment of wind against that of nuclear power, one could get the idea that Congress is rewarding the inefficient while hobbling the productive.  I’d call that perversion and poor public policy.

Chinese solar/wind subsidies: who benefits?

I enjoyed Joris van Dorp’s comments on “Energy idiocy”: Solar Panel Tariffs. Here’s a lightly-edited reprise of the dialogue:

The tariff’s are imposed because the Chinese state has been heavily supporting the Chinese solar manufacturers financially. Chinese panels makers have been earning only 2$ for every 3$ in costs, with the Chinese state making up the difference. That is called dumping, and the EU and USA are fully in their right to impose tariffs in order to protect their PV manufacturers, who cannot operate similar structural loss making enterprises as the Chinese have been able to do for years.

I invite criticism of my reply:

I agree with all your facts. I also agree with John Cochrane’s main thesis, but I will try to state John’s observations on “Silly Policy” from a “Who benefits?” perspective.

To promote internal growth China has been subsidizing their solar and wind manufacturers. Hence China is literally delivering a “free lunch” to global solar consumers (which basically means heavily taxpayer subsidized PV projects). By “free lunch” I mean a transfer from China’s savers/taxpayers to e.g., German taxpayers/consumers. I mention China’s savers because the financial repression imposed upon the savers is a central part of the Chinese government funding, direct taxes are relatively small.

The Chinese subsidized solar isn’t fun for a German PV manufacturer – but these companies are only in business because of a transfer from German taxpayers to the company. For a German PV installer the Chinese subsidy is a win – their costs go down a bit (not hugely, because the PV cells are a modest part of the life cycle cost of PV solar). Of course the German taxpayer and consumer win.

So there are mostly winners from the Chinese subsidy, unless you are a Chinese taxpayer/saver. Chinese citizens benefit from more jobs, more village farmers employed in the over-sized solar factories. 

My personal long run view – I don’t think these Chinese PV companies have a future. How long will OECD taxpayers be willing to continue funding a “feel good” energy policy that obviously doesn’t work? 

Today’s update on the “policy that obviously doesn’t work” Cost of German Solar Is Four Times Finnish Nuclear. This is a very instructive analysis of a truly silly energy policy. The true cost is much worse than 4X – see the graphic depicting life cycle costs at the end of the article:

Lastly, if anyone knows of a study demonstrating a solar project that is economically competitive with nuclear without subsidy please comment. By viable I mean all-costs-inclusive life cycle costs.  I’m not aware of any PV projects in the first world that would have been built on purely economic grounds). It’s not easy to obtain objective data on any of the wind/solar projects because they are all intrinsically political – and it is definitely not in the politicians’ interest to publish the facts.

Merkel’s Offshore Wind-Power Dream for Germany Stalls

At some point the German voters are going to figure out they have been scammed:

RWE AG (RWE) is delaying investments. SIAG Nordseewerke GmbH filed for insolvency. REpower Systems SE is cutting temporary staff. All show how German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 550 billion-euro ($734 billion) plan to replace nuclear reactors with renewable sources is stalling.

About 700 workers demonstrated in Hanover last week calling for more support from Merkel to the offshore wind industry. Her 2011 plan to shutter atomic plants and add sea-based wind farms that could cover an area six times the size of New York City remains bogged down amid wrangling over financial risk-sharing and upgrading the transmission grid.

“It’s a chaotic standstill,” Claudia Kemfert, who heads the energy unit at the Berlin-based DIW economic institute and advises the government, said in an interview. “Actions have failed to live up to promises.”

Merkel wants to more than triple the share of renewables in Germany’s power mix by 2050 in the biggest energy overhaul in the country’s post-World War II history. The costs and scope of the project have moved energy to the center of the political agenda as the chancellor seeks re-election this year.

(…) 

Ben Heard: “New wind power at low penetrations cheaper than new baseload fossil in Australia”

Ben Heard is the prime mover behind Zero Carbon Options and the proprietor of the reliable Decarbonise SA. Recently Ben did a great job taking apart a misleading Bloomberg report headline. 

(…) This headline comes from new analysis from research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance  who have foundelectricity can be supplied from a new wind farm at a cost of AUD 80/MWh (USD 83), compared to AUD 143/MWh from a new coal plant or AUD 116/MWh from a new baseload gas plant’.

This may have caught people by surprise, not just that the wind is cheap(ish) but that the new fossil is costly.

But if you have already spotted the flaw, you get a star. This analysis, and the breathless headline accompanying it, are a great demonstration of how to be correct and irrelevant all at the same time.

These figures compare the cost of electricity production between:

  • Marginal costs of introducing incremental new wind, which will be intermittent with capacity factors around 30%
  • Marginal cost of introducing new modern coal, which would be baseload and quite large, with potential capacity factors above 85%
  • Marginal cost of introducing new baseload gas, which would be combined cycle plant, again quite large, again with potential capacity factors above 85%

All three produce ostensibly the same product (electricity), but they do not provide the same service. A new wind farm, with the well understood intermittency does a poor job of meeting our requirement for baseload, being the minimum electricity demand required at all times.

If you want to compare these sources fairly, you need to set them the same challenge, namely that of providing baseload.

(…)  

Read Ben’s complete post and don’t miss the comments by informed regulars at Brave New Climate. E.g., I loved Robert Wilson’s quip comparing wind to real baseload power: 

It’s like train taking me half to London, but costing me less than one that goes the whole way.

Wind farm life cycle output even less than estimated poor results (part 2)

Why is the real world economic life of the wind farms roughly half the industry-claimed 25 years? See the 52-page Renewable Energy Foundation report “The Performance of Wind Farms in the United Kingdom and Denmark“. There’s a bit of math and statistics — the details are in the Appendix: Data and Methods.

There isn’t much data yet on offshore wind — but what data we do have should give pause to the government planners counting on enormous investments in new offshore wind farms.

For the United Kingdom the raw data were extracted from the Renewables and CHP Register database compiled by Ofgem. This government data is used in the administration of the market in Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs, otherwise known as transfers from taxpayers to wind operators).

The data for Danish wind farms used in this study comes from a database compiled by the Danish Energy Agency covering the characteristics and performance of all wind turbines from 2002 up to the end of August 2012.

The decline in operational performance is empirical fact. As I read the data the rate of degradation is not improving with newer generations. The technology is mature so I would expect initial performance to be worse as the best sites are populated first.

The causes of degradation from initial power-on are likely a combination of industrial aging (vibration which increases rate of bearing wear, etc), blade performance degradation due to chips, dings and accumulated coatings of bird and bat bits, and downtime. Usually aging equipment needs more servicing so you observe increasing outages of longer duration. Vestas and GE probably have good data on the performance degradation, but it isn’t obvious why they would be motivated to publicize what they know. They get paid at both ends, initial sale, replacement turbines and other parts.

I don’t know how much the operators care as the taxpayer subsidies are so high they make money no matter what. If the subsidies went away the whole “industry” would evaporate except special cases where the reliable grid is distant from demand while the supply of high quality wind is close to site of demand. And there is nearby hydropower which can be tapped for cheap backup storage.

Wind farm life cycle output even less than estimated poor results (part 1)

Every energy economist knows that, under present rules, the Renewables Obligation is a scandalous boondoggle — Gordon Hughes.

Boondoggle: Webster’s College Dictionary – the standard US dictionary – offers the following definitions of a boondoggle: “(1) work of little of no value done merely to keep or look busy; (2) a project funded by the federal government out of political favouritism that is of no real value to the community or the nation”.

Wind has one HUGE advantage, it is “Politically Correct” and favored by all the innumerate greenies and politicians. I.e., the ones who know nothing of what it takes to operate a national grid to deliver dependable, affordable energy to essential industries and consumers. But they love the “feel good” energy policies that use middle-lower-income taxes to subsidize investments by rich-taxpayers in  economically unproductive wind and solar projects. Meanwhile efficient base-load nuclear power is widely ignored. Actually that’s an overstatement for the UK – whose nuclear policy is looking more and more sane.

There is a new study by Prof Gordon Hughes, an economist at Edinburgh University: Why is wind power so expensive? An economic analysis [PDF, 42 pages]. The Hughes study documents the magnitude of economic burden imposed by subsidized wind projects. It will curl your hair.

For a gentle introduction I recommend the summary by Robert Mendick, Chief Reporter at The Telegraph. Mendick concentrates on one aspect of the wind boondoggle – the efficiency of the turbines turns out to be less than half what the promoters claim. Less than half what the government proposals and plans assume.

The analysis of almost 3,000 onshore wind turbines — the biggest study of its kind —warns that onshore wind farms will continue to generate electricity effectively for just 12 to 15 years. 

The wind energy industry and the Government base all their calculations on turbines enjoying a lifespan of 20 to 25 years. The study estimates that routine wear and tear will more than double the cost of electricity being produced by wind farms in the next decade.

Older turbines will need to be replaced more quickly than the industry estimates while many more will need to be built onshore if the Government is to meet renewable energy targets by 2020.
The extra cost is likely to be passed on to households, which already pay about £1 billion a year in a consumer subsidy that is added to electricity bills.

The report concludes that a wind turbine will typically generate more than twice as much electricity in its first year than when it is 15 years old.

The report’s author, Prof Gordon Hughes, an economist at Edinburgh University and a former energy adviser to the WorldBank, discovered that the “load factor” — the efficiency rating of a turbine based on the percentage of electricity it actually produces compared with its theoretical maximum — is reduced from 24 per cent in the first 12 months of operation to just 11 per cent after 15 years.

The decline in the output of offshore wind farms, based on a study of Danish wind farms, appears even more dramatic. The load factor for turbines built on platforms in the sea is reduced from 39 per cent to 15 per cent after 10 years.

Please see Part 2 for more on the data that explains the short economic life of wind turbines.