Putting Wind on Trial

Why would a putative environmental law center choose to put wind on trial? As director of the law center prosecuting the State of Colorado, arguing that the State’s renewable energy mandates, ostensibly requiring wind energy, are unconstitutional, I have been asked this question by colleagues, by the news media, by family members, and my dog has been looking at me funny too. So, why did we do it?We are putting wind on trial because we are an environmental law center. We are committed to using the law to promote environmental quality. Assuredly, we have other purposes too. For example, we advocate economic liberty – a traditional American value. But in this case, the only value we need to have as a public interest law center is an interest in the environment.

And, why publish this essay in a Virginia policy publication; after all we are suing Colorado? In part, because while 31 states have mandatory renewable energy standards, 30 of which we believe are unconstitutional, the rest of the states, including Virginia, have voluntary standards that the public has been led to believe make sense. Because Virginia seems to be going down the “all of the above, including wind energy” path, Virginians also need to understand how Colorado made its mistakes – in part to make sure Virginia doesn’t do so as well. And, I live in Virginia, so I admit, it’s personal to me.

Hard facts have emerged from the noise of environmental activism, from the hush of subsidy-driven self-interested energy company green-washing and from the increasingly grumpy offices of the state public utility commissions.

Wind is not affordable and it is not clean.

Let’s dispense with the cost issue first, in part because without economic success we can’t afford environmental improvements. And, because economics helps frame this policy issue. By 2020, Colorado rate-payers are supposed to be purchasing at least 20 percent renewable energy. The cost of renewable energy will be over $700 million, nearly 23 percent of the total retail electricity sales, as calculated using the fuzzy math of the public utility commission. That is to say, to get the benefit of wind and solar energy, Coloradans will pay nearly $500 per year per ratepayer for wind, a large portion of which is more than if their electricity companies were allowed to simply use coal and natural gas. That is a very conservative estimate. Our own studies show the number is more than double that amount. We estimate that over the decade from now until 2020, these ratepayers will each have to spend an additional $12,000 above the cost of fossil fuel energy.

These aren’t hidden costs. They already show up on the electricity bill and they come out of the take-home pay of Colorado workers.

And there will be fewer employed workers too. Well documented facts indicate a state loses two jobs for every job it creates when investing in wind energy. Our study of the Colorado renewables mandate shows the state’s workforce will shrink by about 18,000 jobs and perhaps as many as 30,000 jobs by 2020, and due to increased electricity costs, annual wages will fall by about $1,200 per worker – this on top of the $500 to $1,000 increase in home electricity bills.

Nearly 600,000 Coloradans live in poverty and over 200,000 are out of work. Half of Colorado families make less than $71,000 in income, and 12 percent make less than $22,000. The cost of the renewable energy mandate is not affordable to many hundreds of thousands of Coloradans. So what do all these dollars buy? Where’s the environmental benefit?

That’s the problem. There aren’t any environmental benefits from wind energy in Colorado.

Yes, you read it correctly. Wind power causes more pollution than it prevents.

I am not writing about the adverse human health effects of living in the shadow of wind mills. I’m not writing about all the birds and bats they kill. I’m not writing about the oil leaks at the base of the towers that, in some ecosystems, propagate downwind ecological harm. Let’s leave that for another day.

Wind energy on the electrical grid causes fossil fuel generators to operate in ways for which they were never designed, forcing them to cycle up and down to fill in for when the wind blows down and up. The result is that these coal and gas generators emit more air pollution than they would if allowed to simply run in a steady, even manner, as they would if windmills were not connected to the grid.

How bad is it? As a brief reminder, the two most significant pollutants regulated under the federal Clean Air Act, and emitted by fossil fuel electricity generation units, are sulfur dioxide (SO2) which causes acid rain and nitrogen oxides (NOx) which causes smog. With wind on the grid Colorado gets more of each.

Looking only at the incremental increase in pollution, subtracting out the emissions avoided by wind energy, the result is that due to wind generation, SO2 and NOx emissions are significantly higher (approximately 23 percent and approximately 27 percent, respectively) than they would have been if the coal plants had not been cycled to compensate for wind generation. And, these figures are not from old, dirty coal plants. The plants already have all the pollution controls a new plant requires. Indeed, the annual increases in SO2 appear to be larger than allowed under their permits and larger than allowed under the basic requirements of the Clean Air Act, and thus should probably require the facilities to obtain new permits (and pay some fines in the process).

But that’s not all.

Concerns about global warming stand behind all the hoopla of renewable energy mandates, so, how many tons of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) does Colorado wind eliminate?

Well – none. Rather, CO2 emissions increased by about 2 percent more than if the erratic variability of wind had not caused the fossil-fueled plants to be cycled.

As a scientist, I had to ask, could these increases in pollution actually be true? After all, the many models and extrapolations and forecasts and estimates – they all said pollution would go down. Well, OK, not all of them, but most of them did.

But they were predictions based on assumptions that, upon honest inspection, were found lacking. Hard data, real observations – these are the stuff of science and engineering. Once we had hard data in hand, the facts became clear. Wind is dirtier than coal and natural gas. Soon to be published additional engineering studies confirm the initial research.

So, what is a fellow to do? I’ve been an environmental scientist for 37 years and I’ve been suing companies to stop air pollution for nigh on a dozen years. I don’t see any reason to stop now, just because it is politically incorrect. Wind is scientifically incorrect. It is environmentally incorrect. It is economically incorrect. In a court of public opinion wind may find a way to look good, but in a court of law, the facts will out and reason ought to prevail. The ATI Environmental Law Center represents the public interest and that interest demands putting wind on trial.

ATI will file its complaint in federal court on Monday, April 4th. Copies of that complaint and associated materials will be available on the ATI website immediately after we file.

Virginia’s environmental policy makers should find this legal challenge of great interest as they look to the future and our Commonwealth’s energy needs.

About David Schnare:
Dr. David Schnare, Esq., Ph.D. is an attorney and scientist with 40 years of federal and private sector experience consulting on and litigating local, state, federal and international environmental legislative, regulatory, risk management and free-market environmentalism issues.

20 Responses »

  1. re: " Wind is not affordable and it is not clean" how affordable are Nukes without massive insurance subsidies?

    re" .. Wind energy on the electrical grid causes fossil fuel generators to operate in ways for which they were never designed, forcing them to cycle up and down to fill in for when the wind blows down and up. The result is that these coal and gas generators emit more air pollution than they would if allowed to simply run in a steady, even manner"

    this is an amazing statement. While it's true that Coal cannot cycle quickly, natural gas does and, in fact, natural gas is often used as "peaker" plants to quickly come online to handle high-use periods and then drop back down quickly.

    While it's true that wind does not blow all the time - everywhere - it's not true that wind does not blow anytime anywhere and that's a flaw in reasoning. Wind and Solar are usable power that do not pollute and while they do have environmental impacts they are much less than coal or nukes and the excuses for not evolving our grid to take advantage of them is just plain dumb.

    New advances in wind to got generate noise and fundamental breakthroughs in solar could happen and then our grid would be flat-footed in the ability to accommodate them and when you look at it in this light - it becomes apparent that the big power generation companies would see such a innovation as a threat to their monopoly control.

    An antiquated power grid is like the buggy whip industry claiming that autos are "unsafe" compared to horses.

    We're not going forward on a smart grid because the power companies are too heavily invest in a dumb grid.

    One major battery breakthrough lies between us and electric cars. One major breakthrough lies between us and solar. When one or both of them occur - cars will become electric and solar and wind will not only be needed but demanded.

  2. Commenter LarryG simply needs to get the facts. The ATI complaint will be filed Monday and it will be available on the ATI website, link in the article above. The scientific and engineering basis for our complaint will also be available there. The fact is that in Colorado they use coal and natural gas to balance wind energy variability and in both cases, having wind on the grid produces more traditional air pollution than if wind were not on the grid. Notably, for those not familiar with electrical generation, the balancing generation is not "peaker" generation, but "intermittent" generation, and is already in use on the grid, but used intermittently during the day, cycling up and down as necessary to keep power supply in balance with demand.

    Another common fallacy of wind is that if enough wind turbines are on line, they will balance themselves out. The facts are they don't, as explained in our technical materials.

    I would be delighted if a new energy source could provide reliable, high quality electricity at lower prices. The important point to understand is that the physics of wind energy will never allow it to offer a cleaner, more cost effective alternative to current fossil fuel generation. These are the facts. We are putting wind on trial so that these facts will replace the hype of the wind lobby.

  3. Is there a long-view of the data that tells us at what additional percentage of other-than-fossil-fuel energy production, the adverse affects of starting up and shutting down the fossil fuel plants is no longer a concern? Or in other words, how many days does the average coal or oil fired plant need to be offline to make up for the adverse affects related to the shutdown and startup? Surely there's a break-even threshold to be found, and the issue being highlighted by the Center's complaint is that wind is not consistent/reliable enough to fill the gap and produce an environmentally neutral shut down and start up scenario. How short does wind fall from meeting this objective? What energy source (available today? or in the latter phases of meaningful R&D?) are able meet this objective?
    Do not lose sight of the real issue, that being a finite supply of fossil fuels. On behalf of the generations that follow, what will fuel our (presumably growing) energy needs when the fossil fuels are gone? That's not a question to be answered by lawyers and lawmakers. Maybe more funding for the work at places like Newport News' Jefferson Labs is what the lawyers and lawmakers should be considering.

  4. I agree that wind and solar power are variable in their generating capacity and that this has the effect of needing to use fossil fueled plants to smooth out the variations, which leads to cycling inefficiencies in the pollution control devices. Didn't a wise man once say that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction?

    Sure it would be nice if we had a "smart" grid. It would be nice if we had smart politicians, too, but we have neither. So pretending that using wind and solar will somehow be an impetus to creating a smart grid is just wishful thinking, sort of like the tail wagging the dog.

  5. Through 35 years of unwaivering pursuit of energy alternatives in building construction, it has long been clear that wind generated electricity technology has still not achieved viability for any more than an on-site supplemental energy source. Fundamentally, advances in electricity storage technology could provide a paradigm shift that might make wind generators viable.
    A breakthough with fusion is much more likely, however, in the foreseeable future.
    Annually, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories report grid and distrubtion losses of 25 -30%. These losses make industrial scale wind generation virtually useless on the grid.

  6. My understanding of the fluctuations in electricity produced by wind is that they pale in comparison to fluctutations in demand, thereby rendering Dr. Schnare's argument utter nonsense from a NIMBY who just doesn't want to have to see wind turbines in viewsheds near his home. Think it through for yourself. If wind produces X percentage of the total kilowatt-hours supplied by a grid, and demand fluctuates by and amount greater than X (and typical fluctuations are more than 10X just within a 24-hour cycle) then Dr. Schnare is just desperately grasping at straws.

  7. LarryG:

    Implicit in your assertions is that there is some equivalence between wind energy and nuclear. In reality it is like comparing golf carts to Mack trucks.

    Both are "vehicles" but no quantity of golf carts will EVER equal the cost, performance and reliability of one 18-wheeler.

    For a scientific assessment of our energy situation see EnergyPresentation.Info.

  8. If wind currently provides a smaller amount of our grid's supply than the amount of normal fluctuation in demand, then arguing that using wind energy is bad because it is inconsistent doesn't make any sense. We all know how demand varies within a 24-hour cycle, particularly in summer afternoons when air conditioning demands more kilowatt-hours. Conventional sources of electricity (gas in particular) are already accomodating far more variation in demand than the relatively-small variation in supply of power produced from wind. Unless every consumer and every business agrees to synchronize their A/C to turn it on at exactly the same time, there's constant variation within both the peaks and the valleys of demand on the grid, and modern power plants not only theoretically CAN accomodate this variation, they DO accomodate it. Dr. Schnare's argument is nonsensical. It's like arguing that someone won't be qualified for a $60,000 mortgage loan when they've already been approved for $1,000,000.

  9. The two "O Really's need to read the declaration of Tom Tanton that accompanies the complaint. Go to http://www.atinstitute.org and follow the links to the legal filings.

    The second by second variations of wind power force fossile fuel generation to cycle up and down, causing much greater cycling than if wind was off the grid and in a manner so inefficient to the fossile fuel generation units that pollution with wind on the grid is greater than without wind on the grid. We argue from facts on these matters. The fact is, wind is not affordable and not clean.

  10. The American Wind Energy Association, the heavily-funded lobbying group made up of wind developers and manufacturers, has pushed the benefits of wind energy for many years now. Many well-intentioned people have accepted them as gospel. The problem is that they can't back up most of those claims with science. And now that there are a plethora of industrial wind turbine installations (I refuse to use "farm" and "windmill" as those words are deliberately misleading), there's a lot of data available. And that data has now become the subject of many mainstream news stories. So now horse sense has to take over in this debate. The very simple question is, "Should the USA commit trillions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies and consumer mandates to a technology cannot back up the claims of proponents?" Proponents try to answer this by saying that the newer turbines work better (only very slightly) and that one day they'll all have battery backup (cannot work as downtime is too long and batteries would drain too soon). They tout a Department of Energy study by Berkeley Labs that I believe was done to justify wind, rather than analyze it. It's based on computer models, and those can be manipulated to get the theoretical data one is seeking....garbage in, garbage out. Plus, each turbine creates thousands of gallons of radioactive waste water in China as the rare earths for the magnets are mined, and they have a huge carbon footprint of their own from shipping, clear-cutting of land, and the fact that they use electricity from the grid (more reliable) for their own systems. Here's some real world stuff to think about:

    http://www.denverpost.com/headlines/ci_15081808
    CO2 and other power plant pollution worsens in Colorado due to wind turbines

    http://www.ens.dk/en-us/supply/renewable-energy/windpower/onshore-wind-power/loss-of-value-to-real-property/sider/forside.aspx
    If property value is not an issue , why is iy now the law in Denmark and other places that property owners be compensated for loss of value?

    http://www.energytribune.com/articles.cfm/6310/Britains-Wind-Farms-are-No-Spin-Zones-When-Cold-Hits
    Britain's Wind Farms produce almost no power for the past two winters.

    http://www.wind-watch.org/documents/ben-hoen-on-need-for-property-value-guarantee/
    Ben Hoen is the main author of the Berkeley Lab study that tries to prove there's no impact on property values. Here, Mr. Hoen flips and acknowledges that homeowners living close to turbines should be compensated.

    http://www.savewesternny.org/docs/pierpont_testimony.html
    Sworn expert testimony on Wind Turbine Syndrome.

  11. Eliminate the subsidies paid to coal and natural gas companies and then try to tell us wind is not affordable. You'll be laughed right off your NIMBY soap box.

    As Eldon said, wind works best in a distributed fashion. Install smaller scale wind turbines where the energy will be used. With them you can "store" the energy produced on the grid (net metering) or in batteries. There are significant developments happening in storage for distributed energy producers (wind and solar, to name two). Giving these technologies at least the same benefits that the fossil fuel guys got would help tremendously in their advancement.

    So what do you say? Let's give the distributed wind energy companies, aka small wind, the same leg up that got coal as entrenched in Washington as they are today. Advocate for national, state and local policies and incentives that make it more affordable today so the prices can come down in the future.

  12. Drinking all this in from the firehose, it appears that the standard calls for 10% production from renewable sources more or less immediately, 20% by 2020 and 30% by 2030. And drinking further, it appears that the arguments against the standard assume that wind (renewable) will be the primary source, with fossil fuels being supplementary/secondary. And thus the need for fossil plants to cycle up and down as the wind (renewable) sources vacillate. If I've not strayed too far at this point, does a different set of assumptions (i.e. a gradually declining pool of fossil plants serves as the primary source and a gradually growing pool of improved-efficiency, renewable plants serve as supplementary/secondary sources) make the renewable standards more palatable? Is it possible to reach the required production volumes using renewable sources to, in effect, "clip" the second-by-second peaks in demand with renewable sources when they are available, all-the-while maintaining the fossil plants in a steady state that meets the baseline demand? What is the rationale for assuming renewable sources as "primary"?

    And beyond fro the requirements beyond 2030, additional emphasis on fusion R&D (or another promising source) is needed. Sooner rather than later.

  13. Mr. Schnare, is it true that the study upon which you based your arguments above was paid for by the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States? I read that it was, but honestly don't know if it was true. I would assume that Mr. Schnare could put that question to rest with a simple yes or no.

    For those who don't already know, IPAMS is an industry trade group which advocates increased drilling for oil and gas on public lands in the western states.

    BTW, I followed the links Mr. Schnare suggested and didn't see anything to contradict the assertion that the "wind is too inconsistent" argument doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Did I miss something?

  14. In response to O.Really, the complaint cites to the Bentek study which was funded, in part, by what is now known as the Western Energy Alliance. They are a pro-natural gas group. The study, however, is but one of a number that demonstrate the same outcome, that wind energy requires excessive cycling of coal and gas backup, causing more air pollution than if wind was not on the grid. I have carefully vetted their work and find it cogent, reproducible, and unimpeached by any other study done using actual data. I have spoken with the authors and also find that O.Really's contemptus ad hominem attack on the study authors to be without foundation.

    Mr. O.Really seems to be blowing hot air with regard to the question of inconsistent production. The major Colorado wind energy generation company admits in its own corporate filings that actual wind capacity is only 12.5 percent of design capacity and that is because of the inconsistency of wind.

    I'm going with the hard observations and factual statements on this one. I'll leave unscientific ad hominem attacks to others.

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