If you are like me you have seen the “Picken’s Plan” advertisements on TV ad nauseum. Visit the pickenplan.com website and what you see is not a plan but an advertisement. The so-called “plan” is 1,243 words to justify the expenditure of over $1 trillion taxpayer dollars or about $800 million per word. As is typical with environmental lobby promotions it is full of false assumptions, exaggerations and half-truths.
Basically Pickens plan is to replace all of the current electric power plants using natural gas with wind turbines running from N. Dakota to Texas. He would then use that natural gas for powering automobiles. Voila, no foreign oil. This is an especially good idea if you own natural gas reserves as does Pickens BP Energy, a company he started in 1997 to invest in fossil fuels and which made him $2.7 billion in 2007. He has also started a wind farm company called Mesa Power that plans on installing 2,700 40-story wind turbines on 200,000 acres in Texas. It is notable that Mr. Pickens has stated he has no intention of having any of these 40-story monstrosities on his little 68,000 acre farmette in west Texas.
The big problem with Picken’s main concept is wind power can never, repeat never, do what he is proposing: replace all gas fired electric generating plants with wind powered electricity. In fact, as we will explain below, wind power is basically useless as a source of national power because it is so unreliable it must be backed up by traditional power plants 24/7.
These facts are well known by Europeans who have had wind farms since 1990. Here are some of their conclusions concerning wind energy:
- From German electric utility E.on Netz: “The relative contribution of wind power to the guaranteed capacity of our supply system up to the year 2020 will fall continuously to around 4%. In concrete terms, this means that in 2020, with a forecast wind power capacity of over 48,000 MW only 2,000 MW of traditional power production can be replaced by these wind farms.”
- From Royal Academy of Engineering study “On The Practicalities of Developing Renewable Energy for the United Kingdom”: “If, say 22,000MW of wind turbine capacity were installed, approximately 16,000 to 19,000 MW would have to be available in the form of conventional capacity in order to provide back-up power when wind is light or absent.”
- From Danish utility Elsam, May 2004: “Increased development of wind turbines does not reduce Danish CO2 emissions”
- From E.on Netz “Wind Report 2005”: “Wind energy is only able to displace traditional power stations to a limited extent. Their dependence on the prevailing wind conditions means that wind power has a limited load factor even when technically available. It is not possible to guarantee its use for the continual coverage of electricity consumption. Consequently, traditional power stations with capacities equal to 90% of the installed wind power capacity must be permanently online in order to guarantee power supply at all times.”
- EPAW, European Platform Against Wind-farms, calls wind power “Ecological deception and financial scandal” because: “It has now been proved that industrial wind power does not reduce CO2 emissions and therefore does not contribute to the fight against global warming. This is principally due to the intermittent and uncontrollable nature of wind, which makes it necessary to rely on the back-up of polluting fossil-fuel power stations, 24 hours a day.”
How is this deception possible you ask? It is possible because of the enormous influence of environmentalists in our media and political system. In the case of wind, only taxpayer support via subsidies, tax credits and legislative purchase mandates makes wind profitable. There is no economic or environmental justification to have wind farms.
Welcome to the world of wind power and the environmental-industrial complex where economics is turned on its head for the benefit of the few (think Al Gore and Boone Pickens) and to the detriment of the many (the rest of us). This wind ideology is so “green” with taxpayer dollars that even bona fide capitalists like Boone Pickens are attracted to it. This is how Al Gore is becoming a billionaire.
How the electrical power grid works
Electrical power grids work on the premise that electricity cannot, for all practicable purposes, be stored. It needs to be used as it is created. It needs to be reliable, consistent and available exactly when needed. When you turn your air conditioner on you don’t want to wait for two hours for it to start cooling. That is what is called “dispatchable” power i.e. when you ask for it you get it just like when you dial 911.
The electrical grid (hereinafter known as “grid”) consists of three parts: base load plants, spinning reserves plants and peaking plants. Currently 90% of all power plants are “thermal” plants since they use heat to create electricity via coal, gas or nuclear energy. The other 10% is hydro which is limited to the areas where large dams have been constructed. We are going to ignore hydro in this discussion because it has no chance of being expanded, and in fact may be reduced due to environmental concerns.
Base load plants are just what they sound like: plants set up to provide the basic needs of the grid at any given time. They are running constantly and generating electricity constantly. Most of the power plants are “base load” plants. All nuclear plants are base load plants because nuclear is the cheapest to operate.
Spinning reserve plants are those acting as backup to the base load plants. They are called “spinning reserves” because they must actually be up and running at all times (the turbines spinning) just in case they are needed. They need to be ready to provide electricity immediately if the load goes up beyond the base load capacity (as on a hot July afternoon) or if there is a failure of one of the base load plants forcing it to go off line. In that case a spinning reserve plant would immediately kick in with enough electricity to keep the grid running. It is important to remember that spinning reserve plants are burning fuel (coal or gas) even if they are not generating electricity.
Peaking plants are basically jet engines fastened to the ground that can be fired up on short notice to provide a boost beyond what the base load and spinning reserves can provide. Most commonly they are used during the hot summer months and seldom run for more than a couple of hundred hours per year. They are very expensive to use so are only used in an emergency.
How wind energy works
The concept of wind energy sounds great. After all wind is free and it’s everywhere. It’s been used by man since at least 500BC to power grist mills and water pumps and for those purposes it works because the energy is not needed instantly, on demand. If the wheat doesn’t get ground in the morning it will get ground in the afternoon when the wind picks up.
Unfortunately wind energy has none of the characteristics that the grid needs: it is inconsistent, unreliable and usually not available when you need it. If you depended on wind energy and turned your air conditioner on and the wind was not blowing hard enough nothing would happen. You would have to wait until the wind started to blow and blow hard enough to generate enough energy to fire up your air conditioner. Obviously this would never work or be acceptable. In other words wind (and solar too) are not “dispatchable”. It would be analogous to calling 911 and 80% of the time no one answered.
Because of the inherent unreliability of wind power there is virtually no savings in fossil fuel plants because they must be kept running (as spinning reserves) in case the wind is not blowing. All wind power does is increase the cost of electricity because although wind is free, construction, installation, maintenance and increased grid costs are not free. When these costs are added to the cost of backup thermal plants, wind power costs up to three times as much as traditional power. This has been shown by studies in Ireland, England, Germany and Denmark (see here).
But this is exactly what the environmental lobby has forced on the country: unreliable, unneeded, unwanted and expensive wind power. Only a corrupt political system could force this expense upon the taxpayers via tax credits and subsidies for people like Gore and Pickens.
The current high-end version of a wind turbine is a 3MW (mega watt/hr) about 410ft high with a rotor 340 feet in diameter. In other words 40 stories high with a propeller larger than a football field. To maximize output the manufacturer recommends each one be placed on a 137 acre plot of land. If placed closer together than that turbulence from one might interfere with the rotation (and energy output) of another one downstream from it.
And the 3MW stated power output is never actually reached because the wind never blows constantly at 30 MPH for an hour, which is what it would take to generate rated capacity. No power is generated below about 10MPH or above about 50MPH. European records indicate their actual wind output runs about 20% of rated capacity so divide wind capacity by five to arrive at actual output. England, the windiest country in the world, has determined their wind towers generate less than 10% power about 20% of the time.
Why the Picken’s Plan won’t work
To replace 20% of the country’s electric power would require 175,000 of these 40 storey wind mills to be built, assuming Europe’s 20% efficiency factor. That would be about 30,000 in each state in the Great American Wind Corridor from North Dakota to Texas each one taking about 137 acres, 1200 tons of concrete, 150 tons of steel and 40 tons of plastic. And that does not include at least 75,000 miles of heavy duty roads needed for heavy equipment to access the turbines for maintenance. The area needed would be over 37,000 square miles an area the size of Indiana.
If we calculate the amount of co2 generated by all these activities we would be well over 1 million lbs of co2 created per tower. That is a big co2 deficit to start with meaning you would have to spin for a long time just to make up for the co2 you created by building these giants. Imagine the co2 cost of hauling 4.5 million tons of steel, 1.2 million tons of plastic and 36 million tons of concrete to North Dakota alone to build their 30,000 towers.
Additional co2 is generated because the towers actually use electricity from the grid (see here) to power lights, oil pumps, dehumidifiers and deicers among other things. So if the tower is not generating, it is actually DECREASING power availability by using power from the grid.
And by the way the grid infrastructure available in these remote areas is not nearly robust enough to transmit this power even if it were available. That will be another huge cost and result in even more co2 being generated in support of the Picken’s Plan.
Picken’s 10 year time frame to accomplish all of this borders on fantasy. Here in Illinois, in rural Mclean County, it took almost 5 years just to negotiate all the legal agreements for a 240 wind turbine farm covering 32,000 acres (see here). One can only imagine the time it would take to negotiate contracts for 175,000 units spread over 6 states and 23 million acres.
As for using CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) to power cars, I am afraid the train has already left the station. Only one company makes CNG cars for N. America (Honda GX) and it is doubtful any others will start. The main reason is this: in the US there are 1,000 CNG stations, 170,000 gas stations and 50 million garages with an electrical outlet. Refueling in your garage is obviously the answer.
It’s rather pathetic to see a supposed die-in-the-wool capitalist like Boone Pickens grovel on TV asking for tax breaks and credits to allow him to make a profit on wind power, a product that would never see the light of day without taxpayer support. And as we have seen above it will never work as advertised even with that cost.
- Wind power does not decrease co2 emissions.
- Wind power will never work on its own without massive support from thermal power.
- Wind power adds to the cost of energy for everyone.
- No utility in the world would buy this product if not forced to do so by government mandates.
Without the massive lobbying of environmentalists this product would be limited to pumping water and electrifying small farms via a garage full of batteries. As a replacement for traditional thermal power it simply doesn’t work. Coal, natural gas and nuclear are all cheaper to run, easier (and cheaper) to construct and work perfectly in our electrical grid system. Let’s start building the power sources that will work and stop allowing unelected green lobbyists to determine America’s energy future. All of our lives and livelihoods depend on it.
Bill Zettler is a free-lance writer and consultant specializing in public sector compensation. He can be contacted at this mail address.