Parasitic power: Dollars blowing in the wind

Wind energy produces costly, intermittent, unpredictable electricity, yet government

Viv Forbes

Viv Forbes

subsidies and mandates have encouraged a massive gamble on wind investments in Australia – over $7 billion has already been spent and another $30 billion is proposed. This expenditure is justified by the claim that by using wind energy there will be less carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere which will help to prevent dangerous global warming.

Incredibly, this claim is not supported by any credible cost-benefit analysis – a searching enquiry is well overdue. Here is a summary of things that should be included in the enquiry.

Firstly, no one knows how much global warming is related to carbon dioxide and how much is due to natural variability. However, the historical record shows that carbon dioxide is not the most important factor, and no one knows whether net climate feedbacks are positive or negative. In many ways, the biosphere and humanity would benefit from more warmth, more carbon dioxide and more moisture in the atmosphere.

However, let’s assume that reducing man’s production of carbon dioxide is a sensible goal and consider whether wind power is likely to achieve it. To do this we need to look at the whole life cycle of a wind tower.

Wind turbines are not just big simple windmills – they are massive complex machines whose manufacture and construction consume much energy and many expensive materials. These include steel for the tower, concrete for the footings, fibre glass for the nacelle, rare metals for the electro-magnets, steel and coppe for the machinery, high quality lubricating oils for the gears, fibre glass or aluminium for the blades, titanium and other materials for weather-proof paints, copper, aluminium and steel for the transmission lines and support towers, and gravel for the access roads.

There is a long production chain for each of these materials. Mining and mineral extraction rely on diesel power for mobile equipment and electrical power for haulage, hoisting, crushing, grinding, milling, smelting, refining. These processes need 24/7 reliable electric power which, in Australia, is most likely to come from coal.

These raw materials then have to be transported to many specialised manufacturing plants, again using large quantities of energy, generating more carbon dioxide.

The Miracle of Green Energy – by Steve Hunter

The Miracle of Green Energy – by Steve Hunter

Then comes the construction phase, starting with building a network of access roads, clearance of transmission routes, and excavation of the massive footings for the towers. Have a look here at the massive amount of steel, concrete and energy consumed in constructing the foundations for just one tower.

Not one tonne of steel or concrete can be produced without releasing carbon dioxide in the process.

Almost all of the energy used during construction will come from diesel fuel, with increased production of carbon dioxide.

Moreover, every bit of land cleared results in the production of carbon dioxide as the plant material dozed out of the way rots or is burnt, and the exposed soil loses its humus to oxidation.

Once the turbine starts operating the many towers, transmission lines and access roads need more maintenance and repair than a traditional power plant that produces concentrated energy from one small plot of land using a small number of huge, well-tested, well protected machines. Turbines usually operate in windy, exposed, isolated locations. Blades need to be cleaned using large specialised cranes; towers and machinery need regular inspection and maintenance; and mobile equipment and manpower needs to be on standby for lightning strikes, fires or accidents. All of these activities require diesel powered equipment which produces more carbon dioxide.

Even when they do produce energy, wind towers often produce it at times when demand is low – at night for example. There is no benefit in this unwanted production, but it is usually counted as saving carbon fuels.

Every wind farm also needs backup power to cover the 65%-plus of wind generating capacity that is lost because the wind is not blowing, or blowing such a gale that the turbines have to shut down.

In Australia, most backup is provided by coal or gas plants which are forced to operate intermittently to offset the erratic winds. Coal plants and many gas plants cannot switch on and off quickly but must maintain steam pressure and “spinning reserve” in order to swing in quickly when the fickle wind drops. This causes grid instability and increases the carbon dioxide produced per unit of electricity. This waste should be debited to the wind farm that caused it.

Wind turbines also consume energy from the grid when they are idle – for lubrication, heating, cooling, lights, metering, hydraulic brakes, energising the electro-magnets, even to keep the blades turning lazily (to prevent warping) and to maintain line voltage when there is no wind. A one-month study of the Wonthaggi wind farm in Australia found that the facility consumed more electricity than it produced for 16% of the period studied. A detailed study in USA showed that 8.3% of total wind energy produced was consumed by the towers themselves. This is not usually counted in the carbon equation.

The service life of wind towers is far shorter than traditional power plants. Already many European wind farms have reached the end of their life and contractors are now gearing up for a new boom in the wind farm demolition and scrap removal business. This phase is likely to pose dangers for the environment and require much diesel powered equipment producing yet more carbon dioxide.

Most estimates of carbon dioxide “saved” by using wind power look solely at the carbon dioxide that would be produced by a coal-fired station producing the rated capacity of the wind turbine. They generally ignore all the other ways in which wind power increases carbon energy usage, and they ignore the fact that wind farms seldom produce name-plate capacity.

When all the above factors are taken into account over the life of the wind turbine, International cashonly a very few turbines in good wind locations are likely to save any carbon dioxide. Most will be either break-even or carbon-negative – the massive investment in wind may achieve zero climate “benefits” at great cost.

Entrepreneurs or consumers who choose wind power should be free to do so but taxpayers and electricity consumers should not be forced to subsidise their choices for questionable reasons. People who claim climate sainthood for wind energy should be required to prove this by detailed life-of-project analysis before getting legislative support and subsidies.

Otherwise we are just blowing our dollars in the wind.

Would you like to know more?

UK Wind farms create more carbon dioxide than they save

Wind energy does little to reduce carbon dioxide emissions

The High Cost of reducing carbon dioxide using wind energy

Wind power does not avoid significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions

Wind Integration: Incremental Emissions from Back-Up Generation Cycling (Part I: A Framework and Calculator)

Wind Power may not reduce emissions as much as expected

Why Wind Won’t Work

Energy Consumption in Wind Facilities

Growing Problem of Grid Instability

Contractors prepare for US81M boom in decommissioning North Sea wind farms

Time to End Wind Power Corporate Welfare

Australia’s Carbon Sense Coalition


About the Author: Viv Forbes

Viv Forbes is Chairman of Australia's Carbon Sense Coalition. He was awarded the “Australian Adam Smith Award for Services to the Free Society” in 1988, and writes widely on political, technical and economic subjects.

  • Philip Beck

    All of the collateral damage is worth it, right? It is to an intellectually-lazy greenie.

  • Philip Beck

    All of the collateral damage is worth it, right? I guess it is to an intellectually-lazy, mind-numbed-lock-step-fossil-fuel-hating greenie”.
    Excellent article focusing on reality and not on elitist-just-throw-more-money-at-it-feel-good-about-yourself ideas.

  • SavageG42

    Your article is filled with half-truths and misleading statistics used out of context. Yes, all manufacture of power generating facilities require energy… wind farms make up this energy within 3-5 months of installation. The intermittent nature of wind is balanced across the electrical grid. Wind is by no means the sole answer, it is part of what should be a diverse power sector utilizing solar, wind and natural gas.

    People reading this alarmist propaganda should try to educate themselves before forming an opinion on the benefits and drawbacks of wind power.

    • ForRealScience

      I do believe the American environmentalists and Australian greenies have a corner on the market already for “alarmist propaganda.” This article is not alarmist, it is calling for some sense in making a true evaluation of costs and also calling for a stop to the cost shifting enviro/greenie ideas onto taxpayers and consumers rather than those wanting to create businesses in these areas.

    • Scottar

      You have realistic references to back up your claims? What are your credentials? I have read much the same thing in this article on Spiegle, that liberal German journal, as well as on other sites. If the technology was viable it wouldn’t have to be propped up by excessive subsidies and tax rebates, it’s just another government crony scam by unscrupulousness politicians, lobbyists and greedy industry leaders.

      • SavageG42

        Scottar, if you are really interested in the true costs of energy check out this is put out by Lazard. Which is the leading independent financial analysis firm. Hardly a bastion of liberal sensibilities. As far as who I am, I’m a law student who has spent the last six months mired in analyzing the EPA’s 111(d) rule (affecting emissions reductions from power generators). I have read through literally thousands of pages of documents from the EPA, D.O.E., and affected energy companies, both fossil fuel and alternative. This hardly makes me an expert in the field, but I’m willing to wager it makes me far more knowledgeable than just about anyone commenting on this board.

        • Scottar

          I find Lazard to be like another Goldman Sacks operation as it’s also an investment firm. To me it bases part of it’s levelized costs on carbon sequestration which is a scam.

          I find these articles to be a more honest evaluation of renewables.

          10 Reasons Intermittent Renewables (Wind and Solar PV) are a Problem


          The Catch-22 of Energy Storage

          And your subsidized figures don’t account for volume production of which fossils far surpass the wimpy solar and wind installments. A correct comparison is subsidy per megawatt hour not total subsidies. A July 2011 Energy Department study found that oil, natural gas and coal received an average of 64 cents of subsidy per megawatt hour in 2010. Wind power received nearly 100 times more, or $56.29 per megawatt hour. It was about the same for solar.

          ELI (Environmental Law Institute) is another enviro site full of distortions. They too just look at the total subsides and not the subsidy per MWH. When I read “The vast majority of federal subsidies for fossil fuels and renewable energy supported energy sources that emit high levels of greenhouse gases when used as fuel.“ that tells me their report is biased.

          To find the real costs of fossil vers. renewables you have to look at the taxes paid per unit production and how much cost there is to the consumer.

          The $2.2 billion that that the government spends annually on oil and gas is dwarfed by the $23 billion in royalties received by the federal government for production on government lands in 2008. Beyond the royalties are corporate income taxes of more than $130 billion annually just for the major producers. In fact, large oil companies pay more federal income taxes than the bottom 75% of taxpayers in the US. To support wind and solar in electricity generation, the federal government spends about 2.5 cents per kWh generated. In contrast, the government spends about 0.025 cents for each kWh generated using NG (oil use in electricity generation is very small). According to the EIA, Washington gave away $37 billion in energy subsidies in 2010, more than double what it gave in 2007. Renewables received about 3.5 times as much in subsidies as fossil fuels.

          Subsidies to ethanol and other biofuels cost $32 for the equivalent of a barrel of oil. Subsidies to natural gas and oil cost less than 20 cents for a barrel of oil. These figures come from the government’s own studies of energy subsidies and programs. One wind farm manager stated: “Government subsidies to new wind farms have only made the industry less focused on reducing costs. In turn, the industry produces a product that isn’t as efficient or cheap as it might be if we focused less on working the political system and more on research and development.”

          You must also look at those states and countries that have opted to promote renewables over fossil or nuclear. Take Denmark for example, it produces over 20% of its electricity from wind and hopes to produce 50% from wind and solar by 2020. Since Denmark can’t use all the electricity it produces it exports about 50% of its extra supply to Norway and Sweden, whose extensive hydroelectric power plants can be switched on and off to balance their grids. Still government wind subsidies cause Danish customers to pay the highest electricity rates in Europe. Same for Californians, they pay the highest electricity prices in the nation due to ‘carbon’ reduction mandates and mandated renewable usages.

          You can’t spin the bottom line of energy costs at the consumer level.

          The Levelized Cost of Electric Generation- 2013

          Official subsidized costs can be very misleading.

      • SavageG42

        Also Scottar, wind energy is hardly the only segment benefiting from subsidies. Between 2002-2008 alone, traditional drilling and fracking operations benefited from 7.1 billion in exploration subsidies. Fossil fuel also received 15.1 billion in foreign tax credits. Compare this with the 5.2 billion received by the wind energy as a production tax credit.

    • Ivor O’Connor

      Why do you bother trying to help these idiots? They still believe the earth is flat, pound their chests, and chant to each other around fires in drunken stupors. Best leave them to themselves.

      • SavageG42

        In a world ruled by ignorance, sometimes the most important thing a person can offer is a voice of reason. I hardly think I’m going to change most of these peoples’ minds, but maybe a couple, maybe one, will actually consider the worth in what I’m saying.

    • Scottar

      The net effect of wind is negative, even when balanced by hydroelectric backup. What most wind proponents neglect to include is the infrastructure costs which include the tons of raw materials which must be mined, refined and machined, and that is mostly dependent on fossil energy.

      Then there are the maintenance costs of these types of wind machines and that is more frequent then coal or nuclear plants and can require cranes driven by diesel fuel. And the average lifespan of these farms is from 20~25 years where with coal plants it’s 60+ years so the decommissioning costs are much higher.

      So in that respect these ‘props on a stock’ are net losers when it comes to grid energy and ain’t worth the concrete footings they rest on. The EROIs (energy returned on invested), is largely negative. The only winners are the investors because current laws overcompensate owners of intermittent renewables relative to the value they provide to the grid. The consumer, taxpayer and taxes on fossil fuels pay for the sustainability gaps.

      Neither coal nor nuclear plants can’t efficiently ramp up or down and expensive gas turbine plants must be run on standby for the intermittentcy. Extra, extensive transmission lines must be installed adding to the expense. The danger is that some companies will go bankrupt, or will leave the system, endangering the ability of the electric grid to provide a stable electric supply for consumers.

  • justamom

    Could we just have a simple chart…an easy to read bar chart for the environmentally challenged, showing cost, all cost, versus output saving from these monstrosities. I think that would settle the arguments quickly.

  • borehead

    Thank you for making sense about the ENRON centerpiece of nonsense, Wind Farming.

  • JohnB

    And where are the PETA people standing up for all the birds these things knock out of the sky. The same for the massive bird cookers in the California desert. But don’t get caught with a mere feather from one of the cooked endangered birds or it’s a perp walk for you.