A recent article from The Atlantic found its way into my inbox and I feel the need to comment. Simply titled "Blowback" it asks the question whether the robust expansion which wind power has seen in the United States (and indeed the world) of late may not be subject to the same sort of bust that has hit the ethanol market. In it author Matthew Quirk correctly identifies, if overstates, some of the genuine issues with wind power making further inroads into the US energy mix and the goes on to simplify the solution:Quirk Correctly Identifies Wind Power's Shortcomings...
In comparing growth in US wind power to the recent rise and fall of corn ethanol, Quirk has this to say about wind,
Though wind advocates say that we can reliably and economically use wind for 20 percent of our power needs, the experience of Texas, which leads the nation in wind power—2.9 percent of its electricity comes from wind—highlights two big problems: transmission and variability.
Pickens' windmills (like most of Texas's) will be in the west, where the wind blows the most. The big cities are in the east. This problem plagues wind power nationally: people typically don't live where the wind blows hardest, so you have to send power from, say, upstate to downstate New York, or from the Dakotas to the cities of the Midwest.
Texas expects to max out its east-west transmission lines by the end of the year. More wind power means new transmission lines, which will cost between $3 billion and $6.4 billion. Accommodating wind power on the scale foreseen nationally may require 12,000 to 19,000 miles of new high-power lines crisscrossing the country (by way of comparison, the interstate highway system runs 46,837 miles), plunging large parts of America into NIMBY hell.
Yes, variability and transmission capacity are genuine, and well acknowledged, problems not just with wind power but with other renewable energy sources as well. That is why any sound renewable energy policy does not advocate any one single source of energy. A diversified energy portfolio is the only way to get around the issue of variability and no one advocates otherwise. To suggest that variability is a fundamental problem with the energy source, one which will cripple growth in the wind industry, is grasping at straws.
Transmission capacity is probably a bigger issue than variability and is one which has been addressed in both the public and private sectors. If wind power growth outstrips new transmission capacity then there certainly is a problem. However, many of the new large wind farms—calling them 'windmills' paints an incorrectly quaint picture, whether intentional or not—including Pickens', have incorporated new transmission lines into the project costs. Transmission capacity must grow with wind power, but, again, to suggest that this is a crippling factor for wind power, or something which could create an industry bust, borders on fear-mongering.
...But Muddles The Rest
Quirk goes on talking about more issues with variability, and suggests that "less sexy" improvements in efficiency to existing electrical plants would be more cost effective. He then sums up with this,
Wind is indisputably a promising source of renewable energy—today, in fact, it looks like the most promising and practical source. But many kinks remain to be worked out. It would be a tragedy if wind power were killed in the cradle by overeager requirements that bring hidden costs, unreliable operations, and higher energy prices, inviting a backlash.
The way to address our greenhouse-gas problems is not to champion wind or any other "silver bullet." It's to pass a national carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, and let the market find the most efficient way to cut emissions and reduce our dependence on oil.
No One Says Wind Power Is A 'Silver Bullet'
Implying that any person in the renewable energy industry suggests that wind power is a "silver bullet" to meeting any nation's energy needs, or indeed suggesting that any current or proposed renewable energy legislation advocates this approach, is misleading. Even the most vocal boosters of a particular energy source will say (if more quietly) that a diversified approach is the correct way to go.
Efficiency Alone Not Enough
I admit that energy efficiency improvements have less of a whiz-bang factor than wind farms, many people would. But to suggest that simply improving efficiency of our existing electrical generation facilities will be enough either to contain ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions, to achieve greater levels of energy independence, and to develop lasting energy solutions that are environmentally friendly is equally misleading.
Carbon Taxes & The Market
Should we pass a national carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system? Undoubtedly, and as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom recently said at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, we shouldn't view these as either/or solutions.
Should we let the market decide what are the best ways to address our current energy and environment woes? If the playing field were truly level, with the full environmental costs of fossil fuels being incorporated into their prices, then I could have greater faith in the market to sort out things. However, until that time, without a proper incentive structure the market cannot be the efficient vehicle it is often claimed to be.
Once a carbon tax and cap-and-trade system is in place then the pricing disparities between fossil fuels and renewable energy will disappear, with renewable energy likely becoming a comparatively less expensive option as a result—if the cost of hidden subsidies which fossil fuels receive were internalized, a politically unlikely situation, perhaps that would eliminate the need for renewable energy incentives as well—but until such a system is in place we need incentives to correct for the externalized costs of pollution generated by fossil fuels.
Read the entire original article at :: The Atlantic.
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