Economics, Energy and the Environment

Wind power, solar power, and unintended consequences

Two studies are out that show how hasty movements into favored technological fixes for environmental problems can backfire.

At Argonne National Laboratories, researchers were looking into claims that have been primarily anecdotal, namely, that wind power doesn’t really reduce emissions much because its intermittent availability means that backup power has to be cycled up and down in response to the wind, which is inefficient. The researchers looked at whether or not wind power would achieve the greenhouse gas emission reductions expected of it, and the answer is, well, not really. Forbes reports:

Because the wind blows inconsistently, power companies would have to turn fossil-fuel plants on when windmills fall still. Turning fossil-fuel plants on and off adds inefficiencies, producing carbon emissions just to heat up boilers before energy production can begin.

“Turning these large plants on and off is inefficient. A certain percentage of the energy goes into just heating up the boilers again,” said Lauren Valentino, one of the authors of the study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The wind is fickle, who knew?

And solar isn’t looking quite like the pain-free panacea it was promised to be. Digital Journal reports that:

Solar cells do not offset greenhouse gases or curb fossil fuel use in the United States according to a new environmental book, Green Illusions (June 2012, University of Nebraska Press), written by University of California-Berkeley visiting scholar Ozzie Zehner. Green Illusions explains how the solar industry has grown to become one of the leading emitters of hexafluoroethane (C2F6), nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). These three potent greenhouse gases, used by solar cell fabricators, make carbon dioxide (CO2) seem harmless. Hexafluoroethane has a global warming potential that is 12,000 times higher than CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is 100 percent manufactured by humans, and survives 10,000 years once released into the atmosphere. Nitrogen trifluoride is 17,000 times more virulent than CO2, and SF6, the most treacherous greenhouse gas, is over 23,000 times more threatening.

So there’s also no such thing as a free lunch. Amazing.

4 thoughts on “Wind power, solar power, and unintended consequences

  1. Kenneth’

    “producing carbon emissions just to heat up boilers before energy production can begin.”

    As if there are no alternatives to coal or oil fired steam with longer ramp-ups. Another stilted study that is either ignorant of energy production options and load balance or is in-the-bag for fossil fuels. Oh, and another reporter who is willing to report it as fact without much (if any) due diligence on his own. Here, begin your education: Toward Meta-Analysis in Life Cycle Assessment Reid Lifset

    • So.. let me understand this.

      Wind power sucks for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the inherent intermittence of the wind which requires a stable and reliable back-up plan. Modern power plant infrastructure already exists across the country, with wind-turbines being slowly introduced as perceived replacements. When there is no wind, the efficient and logical back-up plan is the reactivation of existing hydrocarbon-powered plants. The activation/deactivation of power plants wastes energy, fuel, and causes more emissions (which are .. bad, yes?), very much like a normal car in stop-and-go traffic.

      This is the back-up plan which you object to. Because there are alternatives to coal-powered plants that provide reliable and stable performance. Right? Presumably, these alternatives are cost-effective and scalable to be applied to the problem of intermittent wind. Right? (I’m just building on your vague assertions here..)

      So, if the alternative back-up plan is reliable and stable and cost-effective and free of those nasty old fossil fuels……….. why not eliminate the wind turbines entirely, as well as the traditional power plants? Why is it nobody else ever thought of it?

  2. A recent analysis from Argonne Laboratory has generated some press interest for its conclusion that adding current levels of wind energy to the grid yields even greater reductions in emissions of harmful pollutants than expected, but that at levels of wind energy several times higher than are on the grid today, the incremental pollution savings of adding wind energy to the grid are somewhat smaller than they are at lower levels of wind. Unfortunately, this study’s findings have been misreported in the press, so we’d like to set the record straight:

    - Much of the press coverage of this study is incorrectly reporting that the study finds that wind energy does not reduce pollution, or that the pollution savings are always smaller than expected. The study is explicitly clear that neither of those interpretations is correct.

    - “The study finds that at the wind energy levels of today and the foreseeable future, wind energy’s emissions savings are even larger than expected (12% carbon dioxide emissions savings with 10% of the electricity on the grid coming from wind, 21% carbon dioxide emissions savings at 20% wind).”

    - The study acknowledges that its findings are a theoretical exercise based on the assumption that power plants in Illinois are operated in isolation from those in other states, and as a result the study’s conclusions have little to no bearing on how the actual utility system works, particularly at high levels of wind generation.

    - The study also acknowledges that it uses very outdated and unreliable estimates for making assumptions about the efficiency of fossil-fired power plants at different output levels.

    - Other analyses using more accurate assumptions and more reliable sources have found that wind’s emissions savings are as large or larger than expected.

    - Real-world data confirms that states that have added significant amounts of wind energy, such as Illinois, have seen fossil fuel use and emissions decline by as much or more than expected.

    - Finally, analysis of readily available DOE data puts to rest the idea that wind energy has a significant negative impact on the efficiency of fossil-fired power plants.
    Wind energy is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to generate electricity. Wind energy emits no pollution, creates no hazardous waste, and uses virtually no water. All of these advantages are beneficial to wildlife, and they are not shared by any non-renewable energy source.

    For a more detailed analysis of the Argonne study, please see here:

    Michael Goggin,
    American Wind Energy Association

  3. Forget about renewable energy, in any form.

    Unless POPULATION is brought under control, global warming will escalate exponentially.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>