We can probably make better use of all those wind powered turbines that are now all over the place. Consider, our continent is a tectonic plate floating on liquid magma. Now if our President were to order all wind turbines to face to the east, I figure the resulting reaction would push our tectonic plate continent west. We could float over and be next to our Oriental friends. Boy that would scare the hell out of North Korea to wake up and see America fifty miles off their shore. Then if people started griping about how expensive it is to fly to Europe, well our president could simply order all wind turbines to point west….and we’d float over there.
Okay, maybe not.
Why did I say ‘Make better use of all those wind powered turbines…”? That implies that they aren’t too useful now. Well sorta’. I’ve been in the power generation business for most of my adult life, and I’ve concluded that wind power is a fad. It is really nifty that we can use wind to turn a windmill which turns a generator to produce electricity with absolutely no fuel cost. And believe me, the cost of fuel is super expensive. But in truth, you pay a lot for wind power. (In fact I’ve seen figures that show you pay more for wind power per electrical unit than you pay for power from a gas plant). You see, we like the idea of a wind farm, as long as it is 75 or 100 miles away from us…way out on a mountain top or a desert. To get the electricity to you requires 75 miles of very expensive high kilovolt power lines….those are the thick-as-your-wrist power lines on those huge metal towers. Then there is the cost of the power company running standby generation, using costly fuel, so they can kick into warp speed when the wind dies and the turbines stop turning. All power companies know that wind power is terribly unreliable so they have to be prepared to take up the slack at a seconds notice. (Customers won’t accept the explanation that their lights went out because the wind died.)
But then it is nice when you see all those wind turbines whipping around with a nice wind blowing producing all of that pollution free electricity. Well, sorta’. I won’t go into whatever pollution is required to manufacture wind turbines and to ship them and to erect them along with the power lines….that’s too confusing for me. But recognize there is a pollution cost.
But to me, the footprint issue is pretty important. The typical 2010 wind turbine running at full speed spits out 3 megawatts of electricity. (I won’t even attempt to address power loss over 75 miles of transmission.) Using my higher math skills, I have figured out that if you have ten wind turbines, you can get 30 megawatts (MW for short). One hundred wind turbines = 300 MW. Two Hundred Fifty = 750 MW. Remember, this is maximum output when the wind is blowing strong and steady. Now wind turbines can’t be bunched up together. If one wind turbine takes the energy out of a breath of air, another wind turbine behind it will do nothing because the air has no more energy. This is simplistic, but sorta’ true. So they have to be spread out. If you drive on I-10 in Texas west of San Antonio you will see miles and miles of wind turbines. Why? They have to be spread out.
750 MW is the low-end output of a single super-critical gas unit. The footprint of this unit and every thing that goes with it will be something like one-third square mile. A super-critical unit is what is called a base load unit, which means that it is always cooking and spewing out 750 MW of electricity. Two Hundred Fifty wind turbines occupying many, many miles of countryside sputtering out 750 MW of unreliable part-time power versus a single third-mile gas unit with 100% reliable power is an interesting comparison. It is a befuddlement.
Am I anti-wind power? Absolutely not. I like non-pollution. In fact I am indirectly tied to wind power. But I think I would like to see some of the money invested in research for more efficient wind turbines, i.e. blades turning with very little wind – and invested in power storage. We simply stink at trying to store electricity. We haven’t found the magic bullet….that whatever-it-is that can hold lots of electricity and release it when it is needed. I fear we are decades away from that. These days gas powered plants are darn near pollution free and are that way at a high cost. But then, they suck up gas -- a natural resource. A single nuclear power unit spits out quite a bit more than a 1,000 MW of continuous reliable power pretty much pollution free and with minimal draining of natural resource, at a horrendous cost. Then there is that spent fuel problem – although the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel seems to hold some hope. What about solar boilers….using mirrors to direct sunlight on a boiler to produce steam and make electricity? Horribly inefficient with really low electrical output. Solar panels? Very inefficient. You would need miles and miles of solar panels to produce a smidgeon of power.
So we are trapped. State governments are begging for wind power. The industry is struggling to keep up with the demand. But behind the scenes power companies have to install conventional units (usually gas turbines) to make up for the unreliability of wind power, (I read an article the other day that stated that Texas brags that it gets 17% of it’s power from wind turbines. In fact, that 17% is based on the notion that all wind turbines are turning at maximum speed 24 hours a day. The true figure, based on actual output, was a little over 4%.) State utility commissions across the country demand that power companies install wind turbines and arguments that the money is better served building conventional units fall of deaf ears.
Am I on a crusade? Nope – just recognizing that the frenzy is a well-meaning, very expensive fad. I fear that we need to go back to gas, and perhaps nuclear, until we find better technology. Pour some of that wind turbine money into research. It’s your money we are talking about….it is what you pay for wind power inefficiency.
I mentioned that in my job I am indirectly associated with wind power. I have also worked with design and construction of coal-fired, gas-fired and nuclear power plants…and with combined and single-cycle gas turbines.