Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Telegraph gets it wrong again

The Telegraph recently published an editorial titled "The Duke of Edinburgh sees clearly over wind turbines".  Click here for the article.

The Telegraph is staunchly Conservative and has been pro-nuclear, anti-wind for quite awhile.  Even this editorial is internally inconsistent or downright deceptive.

Let's break it down, paragraph by paragraph.

The problems are legion. The turbines are hugely expensive to build and to operate, and are not a reliable source of power. The figures on their electricity-producing “capacity” are thoroughly misleading, since they are based on what the turbine would produce if the wind blew constantly at the optimum speed. 

Turbines are now at parity, or less expensive, than all other forms of electrical generation (source: US DOE).  All forms of generation are based on their peak power output, not their annual energy output.  While nuclear has the highest capacity factor, any generator that isn't being used for base load generation (e.g. gas, hydro and coal) have capacity factors similar to wind.  More fundamentally, though, capacity factor is a fairly irrelevant economic ratio.  What really counts is ¢/kWh.  As an analogy, the capacity factor of a grain harvesting combine is probably less than 5%.  What's more relevant is harvesting costs per bushel compared to any alternative.

But, of course, the wind on which the turbines depend does not blow constantly – and when, as often happens during some of the coldest spells in winter, it does not blow at all, the turbines generate zero power. When the wind blows too hard, they also have to shut down – and there is no financially practicable way of storing the electricity they produce when the wind blows at the optimal rate. So in order for the country not to run out of electricity on a regular basis, wind power has to be supplemented by gas-fired power stations, whose operation pushes more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In truth, the wind blows most strongly during the heating months.  The wind probably blows over 95% of the time during the winter.  Turbines are very seldom curtailed by excessive winds - less than 1% of the time.  It's true that electricity can not be stored but it's also true that nuclear plants can not easily be throttled down.  Nuclear power and renewable power (other than hydro plants with abundant storage) have the same problem - they can't be dispatched.  This is the new reality of running a power system under carbon constraints.  You can't just burn your way out of a problem - you really need to think through how the system needs to reduce carbon emissions at minimum cost.  It's now a two variable optimization exercise.

Many pro-nuclear or pro-fossil fuel advocates claim that renewable energy - wind in particular - requires gas backup.  Of course, most jurisdictions have access to hydro power, or they could if they built more connecting transmission.  Ignoring that fact, critics would lead you to believe that each wind turbine needs to be backed up by a dedicated gas turbine that needs to operate continually at sub-optimal conditions.  Of course, the independent system operator (they exist in all power systems, just like stock exchanges) has the ability to schedule one gas turbine to back up the variability of hundreds or thousands of wind turbines.  Numerous studies have been performed on this issue and the answer is that wind power backs off more than 95% of equivalent fossil fuel emissions (source: IEEE).

The facts about wind power are obvious, and have been frequently pointed out in this newspaper, not least by our columnist Christopher Booker. Yet the Government’s energy policy is based on denying them. 

Christopher Booker has the dubious honour of having an award named after him.  The award was created by George Monbiot, famous for his book "Heat" that raised the awareness of climate change.  Check out this article that detailed all the crap that Booker has published as a climate change denier.

Even if we were to build 10,000 wind turbines between now and then, they would come nowhere near meeting a third of our electricity needs – indeed, during the coldest winter months, when demand is highest, they would supply only about one tenth of the demand. Yet the cost will nevertheless be met by every household in the country. Electricity generated by wind is vastly more expensive than that generated by gas-fired power stations. And yet the Government is determined to press on with its hopeless strategy.

Apparently, it's quite feasible to build thousands of wind turbines by 2020.  Based on recent experience, though, it's not feasible to build a green-field nuclear plant in less than ten years.  Wind powered electricity, as proven by the US DOE, is not more expensive than gas.  But if the editorial is pushing nuclear, why wouldn't they contrast wind and nuclear.  That's because nuclear is dramatically higher cost than wind and intrinsically more dangerous (see Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima).

which means that until there is a fresh technological breakthrough, nuclear power remains the best, if not the only, option for producing large amounts of electricity reliably without also adding to greenhouse gas emissions.

Whenever, I had a weak argument in an essay, I'd close with a flat out assertion.  It never worked.  One professor scribbled, "yeah, and then magic happened".  

Well, even magic and an out-of-touch, irrelevant (at least when it comes to modern electrical systems) Royal won't save the Telegraph's assertions.

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