There’s been a lot of talk lately about wind as a growing segment of America’s electrical power supply. I’d like to point some things out about it and other renewables.
To dispose of this right wing talking point, bird strikes are a red herring, mostly. The numbers of birds killed by wind farms is tiny compared to window glass, cats, and traffic. The species killed by wind farms is a problem, however. Thermalling raptors searching for food from hundreds of feet up over open fields are much more likely to be killed by a windmill than a window. A top predator is more precious to an ecosystem’s health than a seed eating finch.
Wind power farms are aware, or have been made aware, of the problem, and are working on a fix, including better site choice and far more experimental, more expensive, and less effective bird radars and cameras. The problem with radars and cameras is their slow response time. A bird can travel hundreds of feet in the 2 minutes it takes to stop a turbine, easily into harms way. Emergency stops and restarts on a turbine with blades over a hundred feet long are nor trivial. During migration in the spring and fall, I’d expect wind farms should just not bother operating in some places, considering the amount of time to stop and restart with every warning.
The other thing that troubles me about wind farms is something I’ve mentioned before: transmission losses. Large wind farms are always away form population centers, and often quite a long way away from large population centers. The power they generate has to be transformed to a higher voltage, pushed down miles of aluminum wiring, and then transformed one or two times for distribution and consumption. All these things cost energy, and lots of it. No matter how smart the grid is, the electricity has to be pushed through wires, which costs energy. The national average energy loss from transmission is around 50%. In other words, half the fuel we burn for electricity is used to get the electricity to where it is used. That is pitiful.
In all fairness, I don’t know if wind farms are any more remote from their customers than coal or gas fired power plants. Wind farms need to be where the wind is, and coal plants need to be where the coal is, or be where the rail line is, at least. Something like a quarter of all rail freight in the United States is for coal for power plants.
Coal has lately become a shrinking asset in America. Natural gas, through fracking, has become ruinously cheap. Ruinous, because people investing in natural gas extraction operations expected a higher price of natural gas going in. Historically cheap natural gas has made building gas plants much more attractive for power companies than building or even using coal plants.
The cost of building plants at all is falling into doubt with the rise of wind and solar. This summer, Germany generated so much power through solar that the price of electricity to customers plummeted. It cost the power plant companies more money to generate and transmit the power than they made from their customers. Luckily for them, this did not last into the winter. Germany is the same latitude as Alberta, so they never get as much sun as Arizona, California, or even New York. But solar panel capacity continues to grow. Germans are well served by power that is “too cheap to meter”, and it is in their interests to keep building that local, distributed capacity.
America is well behind Germany in the march to renewables. It still costs more to check that box on my power bill that says I would like a modicum of my bill put towards wind power in some abstract ferngully. Germany’s example shows us that rather than costing more by default, renewable energy can cost less, a lot less, once we get the infrastructure in place.
Power companies will get into the solar panels and CW wind turbine rental business if they want to be around in a decade.