Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tilting at windmills
Wind turbines: grudge match

[New and irregular readers may like to read the Heresiarch's original post  and my response]

Further to our discussion about wind turbines, the Heresriach has returned to the field of battle with this post. His previous railings against the "wastefulness and illogicality of investment in wind-power" aside, he now quotes from this article  in The Times.
"Europe should scrap its support for wind energy as soon as possible to focus on far more efficient emerging forms of clean power generation including solar thermal energy, one of the world’s most distinguished scientists said yesterday.
Professor Jack Steinberger, a Nobel prize-winning director of the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, said that wind represented an illusory technology — a cul-de-sac that would prove uneconomic and a waste of resources in the battle against climate change.
“Wind is not the future,” he told the symposium of Nobel laureates at the Royal Society. Instead, he said, technologies such as solar thermal power — for which parabolic mirrors reflect the Sun’s rays to generate heat and electricity — represent a more promising way of supplanting fossil fuels. “I am certain that the energy of the future is going to be thermal solar,” he told The Times. “There is nothing comparable. The sooner we focus on it the better.”"

It is worth examining this in detail, because it illustrates the ignorance and misinformation about energy generation in general and wind power in particular. 

Although Steinberger is best known for the discovery the muon neutrino, and got his Nobel for this achievement, he has a distinguished track record in particle physics. All the more disappointing, then, for him to come out with this sort of nonsense:

He said that intermittent energy sources, such as wind, required back-up power generation, which undermined their contribution to emissions reductions. In contrast, solar thermal power could generate heat energy that could reliably generate 24-hour electricity.

[To be fair, the lack of direct quotation demonstrates that this is a journalistic precis, as I can't see someone of Steinberger's stature saying anything so moronic. I suppose we should be greatful that it isn't Vitamin C , racism  or telepathy . Does funny things to people, winning the Nobel prize]

1. A note to all wind skeptics: intoning "of course, the wind doesn't blow all the time" does not make you look profound, it makes you look silly. All power stations have a less than 100% capacity load, and every informed wind advocate is well aware of it. Not also that a capacity load of 33% (for UK offshore generation) does not mean that the wind isn't blowing 67% of the time: it means the turbine isn't operating at maximum capacity, which is not the same thing.

2. Even if there is no power storage whatsoever, and the wind stopped blowing everywhere, there would still be carbon savings from using wind: back up power generation doesn't have to work all the time, so even intermittent power plants can reduce CO2 emissions (John Band made this point on the original thread)

3. These apply to solar power as well as wind: solar won't work at night, but no grown-up is going to offer that as a citisism of solar. 

From the article:

"Britain has made wind energy a priority in reducing carbon emissions by 34 per cent by 2020. The Government plans to build 33 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2020, which the professional services organisation Ernst & Young estimates will cost more than £100 billion."

The Times does not supply a citation for this statement, perhaps because to do so would show that it isn't true. You can read the Ernst and Young report ("Renewable energy country attractiveness indices", Quarter 1-2 2008) here , and I quote from page 13:

"The lions share of the 2020 of 20% of energy generated from renewables target will have to be generated from wind, anticipated to be around 33GW of additional capacity. The plans will see an additional 4,000 onshore and 3,000 offshore wind turbines. It is expected the plans will cost the country around GB£100bn" 

Right, so not all offshore and not more than £100 billion - isn't the Old Media fantastic? 
However, now we have the accurate figure we can calculate the cost/GW of the plants. Wind power offers an additional 33GW at £100billion pounds (including the cost of connection to the grid): £3 billion /GW. The 3-3.5GW solar thermal project, claims Steinberger, will cost £20 billion (not including connection to or construction of a continent spanning undersea grid from North Africa to the UK): £5.7-6.7 billion /GW. The solar thermal plan costs about twice as much per GW. 

As the Heresiarch is concerned about the amount of land covered by wind turbines, it seems odd he doesn't calculate the area covered by this proposed solution: let's have a quick go. Suppose the energy density that can be delivered by solar concentrators is 15 Wm-2, and the putative solar power station is to deliver 3GW. This implies it will cover an area of 200km2 ! To replace the 33GW from wind power requires a solar farm of 2200 km2 - rather bigger than London . That's quite a large power station to build in someone else's country, and I am unpersuaded that the solar concentrator farm is any more aesthetically appealing than a wind farm. In addition, wind farms don't occupy the entire area around them, which can be used for agriculture or tourism. 

Now, this seems I'm a bit down on desert based solar - this is far from the case. David MacKay, who has thought about energy a lot longer and harder than I have, envisages 50 GW from solar in deserts in Plans N, L, and G (MacKay, Without Hot Air, page 208-210). Lomberg relies heavily on solar in deserts. However, there are technical challenges to exporting electricity across a continent sized distances, and you don't have to be a Little Englander to be concerned about relying on other countries for too much of our energy (problems we can see now with fossil fuels). And so we come to the Heresiarch's final argument:

"Claiming that his favoured model, solar thermal generation, was on the brink of a great advance, he said "Governments need to focus on this area right now". Continued investment in wind generation, he strongly implies, will actually harm long-term prospects for carbon-neutral power by diverting resources from where it would best be spent. Which is more or less what I said."

It's an argument I'm quite sympathetic to - although of course as a researcher, I'm all in favour of money being spent on research. 
However, the flaw is that it's an argument that can be made at any time, and it is quite resilient to evidence - research always might through up something new, which always might be better than what has gone before. Any investment in alternative energy can be rejected on the grounds that spending the same amount on research will deliver a better solution at some unspecified point in the future.

As always, it's seldom an either-or choice: there is a great deal of alternative energy research, which is quite consistent with investing in wind power as well. As wind power is undoubtedly going to be part of the mix - MacKay's plans all include more than 4% wind power - it's sensible to get building now. 

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