Wind energy was the single largest source of new electricity generation capacity in the US during 2012, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). With 13,124 MW of new infrastructure, wind accounted for 42 percent of all new capacity, from renewable sources or otherwise, according to a press release put out by the organization.
The new growth takes America’s total installed wind capacity to 60,007 MW. This is sufficient, by AWEA’s estimation, to meet the electricity needs of 15 million homes. The US remains second to China, which had 62,000 MW of installed wind power at the close of 2011.
The Spinning Spur
70 turbines, 160 megawatts output on a good day. Nice, but not huge. It helps that Texas is the home of blowhards and hot air. :-) (The business-friendly state government doesn’t hurt.)
Wind-energy subsidies amount to (I would say “just”) 2.2 cents per kwh, and that, for only the first 10 years of operation. It’s heartening that the gap between the market cost of wind energy and conventional is so little that 2.2 cents will bridge the gap.
Americans shop for viciously for bargains, whether it’s getting plane tickets from discount web sites or driving across town to save 30 cents on a tank of gas. But when it comes to electricity, we’ve been simply writing checks for the bills we receive at the end of the month. Few of us know how much we pay for a kilowatt hour, or how many kilowatt hours we use—or what a kilowatt hour actually is.
Since the 1920s, Americans have paid flat regulated prices per hour for electricity. But de-regulated wholesale electricity prices now gyrate extravagantly from nearly zero at night to as high as $3,000 per megawatt hour during a late-afternoon Texas heat wave.
A new study from two UC Davis economists—Katrina Jessoe and David Rapson—suggests that if we had the right information, we could become enlightened shoppers, saving money buying cheap low-pollution hydro or wind power in the middle of the night while turning off the expensive stuff made with fossil fuels in the late afternoon.
In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus provided $3.4 billion to move the US towards a “smart grid.” Establishing that grid involves a long list of behind-the-scenes upgrades but for consumers largely involved the installation of smart meters that record not just the quantity of electricity a home uses, but when it is used. The hope was that consumers who changed their behavior would save money, utilities could avoid building power plants, and we’d all produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
To fill all of these roles, though, consumers accustomed to being passive purchasers would have to become active shoppers.
After years of decline, Germany’s shipyards are now pinning their hopes on offshore wind farms, a key component of the country’s energy revolution. Some have converted entirely to building equipment for wind farms. But the initial euphoria has worn off as the true challenges of the transition become clear.
Two years ago, Tomas Marutz became the head of the Nordseewerke in Emden, Germany. The shipyard is one of the biggest and oldest in the country. But Marutz’s most important task now is, he says, “to get shipbuilding out of people’s heads.”
That’s no easy task for a man who speaks about ships like a father talking about his children. He is fascinating by the process of shipbuilding, from the lucky penny that is tossed under the first sheet of steel used in construction to the moment when a finished ship is launched from the docks. Building ships isn’t just a question of “welding individual pieces together,” he says. “It is a holistic creation.”
But these days, Marutz doesn’t have the chance to enjoy such moments. Submarines and container ships are no longer being built at the shipyard, which once belonged to German steel and shipbuilding giant Thyssen. Nowadays, the company is building towers and steel bases for wind turbines used in offshore wind farms off the German coast.
End of an Era
On Dec. 11, 2009, the Frisia Cottbus became the final container ship to leave the Nordseewerke docks. It was the end of shipbuilding at the docks; the order book was empty. In 2010, steel company Siag, which is currently undergoing insolvency proceedings, acquired the business in order to gain access to the sea and to secure a chunk of the multibillion-euro offshore wind farm business.
Indeed, it’s not only the 780 remaining workers at the Nordseewerke for whom Germany’s “energy revolution” is the last hope. After years of decline, the German shipyard industry is facing a decisive transformation: It will only have a future if it succeeds in abandoning its past. The industry’s former customers, shipping companies, have been replaced by large electricity utilities and technology companies.
As part of its energy revolution, the German government is planning a complete phase-out of nuclear power by 2022. Between now and that deadline, offshore wind farms are expected to deliver a large share of the clean energy that is slated to replace atomic power. Special ships and towers will be needed as well as transformer platforms and foundations that can anchor the steel colossuses in depths of up to 40 meters (130 feet).
A THINK TANK has claimed that wind power is by far the most expensive form of energy generation and that wind turbines can emit more CO2 than gas-fired power stations. But an energy expert has slammed the report for selecting “extreme” estimates and being out of step with the scientific consensus.
Civitas, whose mission is to “facilitate informed public debate… by producing objective and balanced publications”, makes its controversial claims in what some might call a remarkably unbalanced new paper called Electricity costs: the folly of wind power.
Ruth Lea, the economist who wrote the report, uses an age-old objection to wind power: the fact that the wind doesn’t always blow. This, she says, is a major drawback because it means that fossil fuel power stations are needed to provide back-up on still days.
Lea writes: “This means that energy users pay twice: once for the window-dressing of renewables, and again for the fossil fuels that the energy sector continues to rely on.”
The upshot is that over its ‘lifecycle’, the cost of electricity from wind is the most expensive bar none. Nuclear, gas and so-called ‘clean’ coal-fired power stations are all cheaper, she says.
Perhaps Lea’s most controversial claim is that wind power “backed by conventional gas-fired generation” can actually produce more CO2 emissions than “the most efficient” gas power stations.
The basis for this bold assertion is a study published in October 2011 by Dutch physicist C. le Pair. He found that “deploying wind turbines on ‘normal windy days’ in the Netherlands actually increased fuel (gas) consumption, rather than saving it, when compared to electricity generation with modern high-efficiency gas turbines”.
The report concludes that wind-power “is expensive and yet it is not effective in cutting CO2 emissions.”
But Civitas and Lea have been attacked for being “widely out of step with the scientific consensus” by Dr Robert Gross of the UK Energy Research Centre. As the director of the Centre for Energy Policy and Technology at Imperial College, he is an expert in wind power’s main drawback: ‘intermittency’ - what the layman might refer to as ‘still days’.
Dr Gross told The Guardian that his research shows that the cost of intermittency for wind power in the UK is less than £9 per megawatt hour as opposed to the £60/MWh claimed by Civitas.
I wonder why it works there and not here? Government support and long term planning?
The war over America’s coastal-energy future has officially begun, and the result could determine whether we see wind turbines or catastrophic oil spills along our coastlines in coming years.
The opening salvo came in early July, when everyone’s favorite climate-hating, fossil-fuel-loving industrialist villains, the Koch brothers, released a so-called “cost-benefit analysis” of New Jersey offshore-wind development plans through their front group Americans for Prosperity.
The focus on New Jersey is no big surprise. Fresh off their recent success in manipulating the state’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie into backing out of the Northeastern cap-and-trade system known as RGGI, the brothers grim are honing in on what they see as a weak spot in the clean-energy movement’s eastern front. Hoping to score a knockout blow, the duo have packed their offshore wind “analysis” with distortions.
New research has shown that it is possible and affordable for the world to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, if there is the political will to strive for this goal.
How do-it-yourself design
(1) gave a teenager from Malawi electricity, and
(2) can help transform Africa.
“In 2002, I built my first of several windmills to provide my family with electricity and irrigation. This was in Malawi, where a terrible drought and famine had destroyed our maize crops and killed thousands of people. The famine also forced me to drop out of secondary school because my father could no longer afford my fees. Determined to continue my education, I began visiting a local library, funded by the Americans, where I quickly fell in love with science. As the hunger clawed its way across our country, the library was where I escaped and became lost in discussions of electromagnetism, simple motors and electricity — my favorite topic, since only 2 percent of Malawi enjoyed such a luxury.
I didn’t read English well, so I mainly taught myself these things by studying the pictures and diagrams. By the time I saw my first windmill on the cover of an American textbook called Using Energy, I was able to apply all this previous knowledge and set out to build my own. Within six months, I’d constructed a windmill that provided my family with continuous electricity and completely transformed the way we lived. A later machine allowed us to irrigate a small garden to grow produce year-round. (You can read the whole story in my new book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which I wrote with Bryan Mealer.)”