Fourteen wind energy myths debunked
This article is cross-posted from the Australian blog REneweconomy, with permission of the author, Mike Barnard.
How many ways can you misinform, distort and spin in a single radio interview? On 9 May, 2011, Max Rheese, executive director of the organisation with the grossly misleading name Australian Environment Foundation, attempted to set a new record on Radio National’s conservative Counterpoint program in Australia. He managed 14 whoppers about wind energy in Australia in 17 short minutes.
Mr. Rheese’s role is to provide negative information about wind energy. He exceeds his mandate, heading straight into massive and consistent disinformation. Virtually every word out of his mouth about wind energy is provably wrong.
This article takes each point and provides the wind reality, Mr. Rheese’s counter-factual claim and the data that debunks him. At the end, there are brief outlines of both the misleadingly named Australian Environment Foundation and Mr. Rheese.
Wind Reality 1: Wind power is cheap and saving Australian consumers money
The claim: every megawatt of wind power costs between $120 and $130 to produce. If we compare that to the likes of natural gas, and again, he states $54 per megawatt hour, or coal which is around about $38…
The data: According to the Australian Energy Market Operator, coal generation cost is up to double the amount of 3.8 cents per kWh Mr. Rheese selected and applies only for the dirtiest brown coal generation with extremely low fuel costs. He didn’t even pick the average price, he picked the lowest price and the one with by far the worst negative externalities.
Given that the average negative externalities of coal are 17.8 cents USD per kWh, cheap coal power is extremely expensive. The range of prices, then, is from absolutely filthy 3.8 cents per kWh generation to extremely filthy 7.6 cents per kWh generation. (http://www.aemo.com.au)
What about wind? Well, according to the most recent study available, new wind generation is coming in at 5-7 cents per kWh full lifecycle cost of generation without subsidies, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the U.S. for 2012- 2013 new generation. As Australia’s wind resources are on average better than North America’s, Australia new wind farms and repowered wind farms will tend to be at the higher end of the capacity factors and lower end of the cost range, all else being equal. Australia doesn’t have quite the critical mass of domestic manufacturing and construction that the USA has built with its PTC, but is trending in that direction. (http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/ems/reports/wind-energy-costs-2-2012.pdf)
And in Australia, wind energy is actually saving consumers money as the way energy is bought, wind energy's extremely low marginal costs actually suppress prices at peaks. The Renewable Power Percentage for 2012 is 9.15%. This means that 9.15 LGCs must be retired for every 100 MWh delivered by retailers. At an average of $40 / LGC, consumers are seeing $366 added to every 100 MWh = $3.66 / MWh = $0.366 cents/kWh. i.e. the Renewable Energy Target is costing consumers around a third of a cent / kWh. This is massively offset by the way the market operates. Currently, they are saving consumers about $7 a year with relatively little wind penetration, but it’s adding up. (http://reneweconomy.com.au/2012/south-australias-big-win-with-wind-56374)
Verdict: WHOPPER x TWO
Wind Reality 2: Free wind for 20-25 years offsets initial capital costs
The claim: The reason for that is because of the expense of wind turbines, we are talking about…an industry benchmark of around $2.5 to $3 million per megawatt to construct a turbine.
The data: Claiming that wind turbines are too expensive by cherry-picking a single data point out of their full life-cycle costs is like claiming that coal is expensive because a Caterpillar dump truck in an open pit mine costs $2 million. It’s an irrelevant but catchy factoid. The energy industry and rational people actually pay attention to full life-cycle costs of electricity as the levelised baseline for comparison. Wind plants have extremely low costs of operation compared to every other from of generation, so the blip of capital costs is eliminated by the advantage of not having to pay for fuel, and the reality that decommissioning wind farms in preparation for repowering is often profitable through scrap and secondary markets for older wind turbines. Energy analysts in Australia who don’t have a bias know this, as do their counterparts in the California Energy Commission and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (which has a mere 13 Nobelists to its roster). That’s why new wind energy is at 5 – 7 cents per kWh, comparable with or better than new generating capacity that is acceptable on the grid today. (http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/ems/reports/wind-energy-costs-2-2012.pdf)
Wind Reality 3: Wind farms generate electricity 75%-85% of the time
The claim: But it’s also the erratic nature of wind that only produces power for a small portion of the time--therefore, there is not a good use of the capital that is being sunk into all these wind farms.
The data: Well, actually wind farms generate energy about 75-85% of the time, otherwise known as the vast majority of the time. Mr. Rheese undoubtedly knows better, but he’s playing ignorance of what capacity factors are to slip one by.
And to be clear, capital costs are spread across the life of the wind farms and are factored into the business cases. As many hydro dams have capacity factors of only 40% due to seasonal droughts and water management schemes, Mr. Rheese’s arguments would apply tenfold to them, as hydro dams are vastly more expensive than wind farms. Natural gas generation often have capacity factors of less than 10% as they are used solely for on-demand peak requirements; does this mean we should not build natural gas generation? Hence the use of levelised costs.
Wind Reality 4: Wind subsidies level a playing field that’s been tilted for decades
The claim: And then there is the renewable energy certificate which is granted for every megawatt hour that is put into the grid by the energy company, and currently they are around $40, $45.
The data: Like most jurisdictions, there are numerous very large and very long running subsidies for other forms of generation, subsidies that massively outweigh the subsidies for renewables. Dr. Chris Riedy, an Australian researcher into sustainability has assembled a complete picture of fossil fuel subsidies in Australia and it’s well into the billions. http://sydneypeakoil.com/downloads/CR_2003_paper.pdf
It should also be remembered that the large coal fired generators in Australia were built with government money. As were the powerlines dragged out into the middle of nowhere. Australia, like most other countries, heavily subsidised the construction of the fossil fuel generation system.
This is similar to North America, where renewables subsidies are dwarfed by fossil fuel, nuclear and hydro subsidies. It is interesting that these forms of generation have been around for 60 to 600 years and are still subsidised, yet people against wind turbines aren’t spending time attacking them.
Eliminating subsidies for other forms of generation, combined with the low 5-7 cents per kWh cost of modern wind energy, would immediately level the playing field.
Subsidies for wind power allow them to compete on a tilted playing field, and one that is tilted in favour of coal generation, with its 17.8 [U.S.] cents per kWh negative externalities.
Wind Reality 5: Wind power keeps getting more efficient and effective
The claim: Most commentators regard wind power as a mature technology. […] So one would not expect that there’s going to be a major change in the efficiency of turbines.
The data: Actually modern wind farms in every wind category from the lowest to the windiest have been getting more efficient and are continuing to. Here are a few of the innovations that are continuing today: wind turbine height, mechanical efficiency through the elimination of gearing, wind condition specialisation, aerodynamic improvements, optimised maintenance, robustness reducing failures, wind modeling advances, instrumentation and automation of wind turbines to spot problems early and adjust them more finely to the actual conditions, advanced materials and advanced coatings.
Wind Reality 6: Wind turbines consume very little electricity from the grid
The claim: Any wind farm in Australia is rated at around about 30% of capacity. So whatever the nameplate capacity of that turbine is, 2 MW, 2.5 MW, the expected capacity will be 30% of that just because of the erratic nature of wind. So a large portion of the time, turbines are operating but not producing any electricity. During this time they are drawing on the grid because they have air conditioning, they need to keep the machinery cool, other machinery…these are vast engineering feats, these enormous turbines, and they have a lot of machinery that needs to be kept cool and kept operating. Whenever the turbine is not producing electricity, it is drawing on the grid.
The data: We’ve already debunked the whopper over wind turbines not generating electricity the majority of the time, so this claim has already had most of the air let out of it. It got its start with Eric Rosenbloom, a long-time anti-wind advocate and current President of the U.S. National Wind Watch, on his collection of badly researched and argued pieces against wind that he maintains. In that material, he claimed that wind turbines consume more than 50% as much energy as they produce annually. The variant on the theme that Mr. Rheese uses is that Mr. Rosenbloom referenced blade heating systems to avoid icing, while Mr. Rheese references air conditioning.
According to Epuron spokesman Martin Poole, their wind turbines use simple radiators like those in cars to draw heat away from blades when they are operating and don’t air condition them at all. Consultation with several industry representatives confirmed that there are no known turbine designs in Australia that feature air conditioning.
Outside of short duration draws at startup--and remember, wind turbines generate electricity 75-85% of the time and will often continue generating for weeks, so startup doesn’t occur that often--wind turbines generate all of the electricity that they consume.
All power stations draw power from the grid when they are not operating, and all draw power from their own generation when operating (known as parasitic load).
Hepburn Wind has confirmed that over the first 11 months of operation, the wind farm generated 320 times as much energy as it consumed from the grid.
Full life-cycle energy costs are the industry standard mechanism for assessing the relative costs of different forms of generation. LCAs [life-cycle cost assessments] are performed to ISO standards, are published and are subject to external review, so accuracy tends to be very high, and distortions pointed out by competitors.
What is relevant from these LCAs is that every step of manufacturing, transport, construction, operation, maintenance and dis-assembly is captured and quantified. Consumption of electricity by wind turbines is not captured or referenced in the analysis and reviewers do not call this out as a concern.
These full-lifecycle analyses are done for every form of generation, which makes comparisons fruitful and interesting. Here’s a chart comparing European options across all forms of generation based on full life-cycle environmental impacts.
Mr. Rosenbloom, by the way, is a graphic artist and runs a small graphics arts business in Vermont, and his references were unlisted correspondence and an unnamed Swedish graduate student on a defunct discussion forum.
Wind Reality 7: Wind energy needs about 4% grid backup in penetrations up to 20% of generation, and that can come from hydro or other regions
The claim: Yes, and they are actually drawing that from the grid, but that is probably the minor part. What happens, because wind electricity or wind energy is so erratic, they need to be backed up in the grid by open cycle gas turbines which are running in spinning mode while wind electricity is being generated.
The data: This one falls apart in four different ways.
1. When required, gas turbines can be brought from cold to full power in under 10 minutes; and hydro in much shorter periods. Fossil fuel plants aren’t sitting there wasting gas backing up wind energy.
2. Grid management studies by professional organisations in the UK and Finland show that wind generation penetrations of up to 20% of the grid based on capacity factor would only require 4% backup on the grid. The amount of backup – which can be hydro or could be excess purchased from nearby jurisdictions – is a small portion of the capacity of wind generation.
3. Grid managers know something anti-wind advocates prefer to forget: that all forms of generation are intermittent and that failures of generation or transmission at major hydro and coal plants occur regularly and unpredictably. For example, a major coal plant in Australia was operating at 25% of its capacity recently as the coal pit was flooded--again--by unseasonably high water level. Grids have to maintain capacity to adapt to instant losses of up to a gigawatt of generating capacity. The ‘spinning reserve’ (known as ‘Ancilliary Services’ in Australia) is sized to accomodate the potential loss of the single largest generator.
4. Wind intermittency is very predictable, especially in Australia and Europe. which have implemented the ANEMOS wind generation prediction models. They get 5-minute predictions at a 1-2% margin of error and 24-hour predictions at usually less than an 8% margin of error. Wind doesn’t fail and surprise anyone and the levels of predictability are high. So while it is fair to say that wind energy is variable, it is highly predictable.
Wind Reality 8: Wind turbines don’t make people sick
The claim: But what we generally see in communities where wind farms start to operate is that a proportion of the population become affected by low frequency sounds and infra-sounds, and this affects them in numerous ways that mainly relate to headache, loss of balance, racing heart, high blood pressure, waking in fright in the middle of the night, waking up with nosebleeds, these sorts of things which generally make life very unpleasant for people who are living in the vicinity because they cannot escape it.
The data: 17 major health reviews have cleared wind turbines of any negative health impacts. They all agreed that some people living very close to wind turbines find the noise annoying. As dealing with environmental noise is a fact of life for rural and urban dwellers, its unclear why this is a significant concern. The list of symptoms and negative impacts of wind energy maintained by Simon Chapman has surpassed 125. http://tobacco.health.usyd.edu.au/assets/pdfs/publications/WindfarmDiseases.docx
The claim of infrasound as a mechanism for sickness was posited by Dr. Nina Pierpont, author of the self-published, non-peer-reviewed book Wind Turbine Syndrome. (Dr Pierpont and her activist husband, Calvin Luther Martin, oppose a proposed wind farm in their ‘backyard’. See Martin’s rave here (http://www.aweo.org/Martin.html) Dr. Pierpont’s methodology involved advertising on anti-wind websites for people who blamed their various ailments on wind turbines, interviewing by phone the 23 people in 10 families who responded, taking their reports on other family members symptoms and taking all of this at face value without additional medical followup. http://www.quora.com/Wind-Power/Is-Dr-Nina-Pierpoints-Wind-Turbine-Syndrome-a-real-medical-syndrome-caused-by-wind-turbines/answer/Mike-Barnard
Humans evolved with infrasound. Waves on a beach at 75 meters emit more infrasound than wind turbines. Running creates much louder infrasound inside the inner ear. Wind turbines emit too little infrasound to hear or feel, and far too little to cause harm. The very rare researchers claiming otherwise are not credible. http://www.quora.com/Wind-Power/Is-the-infrasound-emitted-by-wind-turbines-harmful-to-humans-or-animals/answer/Mike-Barnard
Wind Reality 9: A small subset of people very near to wind turbines find the noise annoying
The claim: And we have seen people with anything up to five kilometres away. Other people have claimed even further. But it is fairly well recorded that anything up to five kilometres away from wind turbines, people can be affected.
The data: There might be a geographical and meteorological quirk somewhere in the world every ten years that might allow someone to hear a wind turbine five kilometers way if they had really good hearing. Noise attenuation is by the cube of distance so wind turbines won’t be audible (infrasound does abate more slowly, but as it can’t be heard or felt next to wind turbines, it certainly isn’t detectable at five kilometers). Of course, Mr. Rheese is positively cautious compared to Sarah Laurie (an unregistered doctor and CEO of the anti-wind Waubra Foundation) who regularly asserts harm at 14 kilometers, further than the distance from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Sydney Airport. Since the evidence presented is that wind turbine noise only makes some people who live near them annoyed, especially when they can see the wind turbine and aren’t making any money from it themselves, this one falls over.
Wind Reality 10: There are hundreds of research papers showing no health impacts from wind turbines
The claim: No, and that’s a very interesting thing, that currently there is not a single credible research paper in the peer-reviewed literature stating that chronic wind turbine noise is harmless to health.
The data: The slippery slope here is the word ‘credible’. As there are hundreds of research papers that show very clearly that there are no health impacts from wind turbines and 17 major reviews that assessed them and determined that there are no negative health impacts, the only possible assessment is that Mr. Rheese finds all of this evidence to not be credible because it does not agree with what he believes. Stephen Colbert coined the world ‘truthiness’ for this kind of thinking. Mr. Rheese instead prefers to rely on non-peer-reviewed research from Drs. Pierpont and Laurie, presumably. http://www.quora.com/Wind-Power/What-might-cause-people-who-live-near-wind-turbines-to-get-sick/answer/Mike-Barnard
Wind Reality 11: Governments are studying wind turbine health impacts
The claim: Yes, there is not a single government around the world that has yet had completed scientific research to look at this problem.
The data: 16 of the 17 reviews were conducted by governmental agencies, for example the Public Health Officers of the Province of Ontario in Canada who have dealt with health concerns like the Walkerton e. Coli outbreak and the SARS epidemic, both of which killed people and permanently disabled others. They did what any organisation would do as a first step: they assembled the available literature and complaints to see if there were a credible basis for further investigation. They did assess Dr. Pierpont’s work as well as others. Unanimously, these governmental agencies agreed that there was no evidence for any health impacts outside of noise annoyance. Most of the peer-reviewed research papers that they assessed were funded by governmental grants as well. http://www.quora.com/Wind-Power/What-might-cause-people-who-live-near-wind-turbines-to-get-sick/answer/Mike-Barnard
Claiming that governments haven’t been investigating is obviously false, so what could Mr. Rheese mean? Obviously, that despite massive investigations and research, more research is needed until it says what he believes to be true. And of course, NHMRC in Australia is conducting another major review, after their earlier rapid review found no need for further study. http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/new0048
Wind Reality 12: Wind farms make property prices go up or have no impact
The claim: We would contest that and say there is evidence from around the world, and most of it, because of the recent nature…and this is, again, the same with the health issue, this is a very recent phenomena, particularly in Australia, we are only now becoming aware of it, but there is certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence to show that wind farms will have an effect on real estate values.
The data: There have been five major studies covering over 40,000 property transactions near wind turbines for periods before, during and after wind farm installation. The most credible two were by the UK Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the US Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories. Four of the five studies found no negative impacts of wind turbines on property values. Two of the studies found positive impacts on areas after wind turbines went in, which is logical as they bring with them jobs, additional tax revenue hence increased amenities and a distinctive feature for the region compared to other regions.
One study found a brief dip prior to wind farms being erected due to fear of the wind farms' impact, but this was rapidly corrected and home prices actually increased faster and higher after the wind farms went live. The outlier study had significant problems with its data and conclusions, and found what the author stated he expected to find. In fact, of the three counties he studied, the biggest one, with the most transactions, the most wind turbines and the longest history of wind energy had no property value impacts. For the two smallest counties with the fewest wind turbines he only had at most a year of property value information after the wind farms went into production, a major data quality issue.
In ignoring the major statistical studies that have been performed by highly credible organisations, Mr. Rheese is at best ignorant of what the data he claims to value shows. In using instead anecdotal information, he rests his arguments on nothing.
Wind Reality 13: People who support wind farms have science on their side
The claim: those supporting wind farms tended to base their submission on beliefs, they had no evidence or facts to support what they were saying in the broad sense.
The data: The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, referenced in the citations for three major studies associated with wind energy, have 13 Nobelists to their credit, as well as innumerable other scientific distinctions.
The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, referenced for their real-estate study, is a long-lasting and very accomplished professional organisation with deep breadth and experience. The 16 health reviews by governmental organisations have been staffed with doctors, PhDs, epidemiologists, acousticians and engineers. Grid management professional studies by UK and Finland were written by PhDs and engineers.
The list of qualified, deeply experienced, deeply educated and very professional people who have done studies and assessments of wind energy is virtually endless.
Anti-wind advocates live in an echo chamber, where the unregistered former family doctor, Sarah Laurie, who has no training in medical research or statistics can repeat the methodology errors of Dr. Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician again with no training in research methodology or statistics. They quote approvingly people like Eric Rosenbloom, whose credentials stop at being a graphic artist and anti-wind advocate.
They eagerly accept deeply flawed studies showing lack of benefits of wind from fossil-fuel analysis companies like Bentek in the US, whose CEO runs two fossil fuel lobbying organisations. Their material is an endless set of links to each other's websites, instead of to peer-reviewed, highly credible sources.
What is the Australian Environment Foundation? It sounds green
The AEF was established by the Institute of Public Affairs, “a conservative right wing think-tank”. Spokesperson
Kersten Gentle is Vic Manager for Timber Communities Australia. Their aim is to ‘”secure long term access to natural resources to generate employment and a future for regional communities’.
Director Leon Ashby was Convenor of Landholders for the Environment and is a dairy farmer in SA. He has stated that the grazing of cattle in national parks is a viable option for bushfire prevention. Another Director, Tom Bostock, is a climate change sceptic. They recently promoted the launch of their spin-off climate change denialist organisation, the Australian Climate Science Coalition. “[AEF] is of the firm view that there is no evidence to support a significant link betweenCO2 emissions and GW.”
According to their lodged Annual Return, the AEF had only 109 members and turned over less than $25,000 in 2011 (ASIC). The Australian Conservation Foundation, which actually works to protect the environment, was known to have 39,845 members in the 2008 financial year and turns over approximately $14m annually (ACF website). Readers may be amused to note that the AEF is listed on the Federal Government’s Register of Environmental Organisations, meaning that, as a guardian of our environment, you may donate to it tax free.
In addition to his directorship of AEF, Max Rheese is also the Executive Director of the climate-change denialist group Australian Climate Science Coalition. Rheese was secretary of the Victorian Lands Alliance and apparently the only name associated with it. The VLA includes the Australian Environment Foundation, Australian Motorcycle Trailriders Association, Australian Trail Horseriders Association, Mountain Cattlemen, Sporting Shooters Association of Australia, Victorian Association of Forest Industries, and the Victorian Game and Deerstalking Association. He has regularly written articles attacking environmentally concerned organisations and actions.
*The transcript of the interview in question is here.
Mike Barnard has been a deeply interested observer of energy systems for three decades. Following a lengthy discussion with Margaret Atwood and others related to siting of wind turbines in a major birding area on her blog, he became a blogger on energy concerns, focusing on debunking myths about wind energy. As a day job, Mike has had the good fortune to work on Smart Grid projects for IBM’s clients, in addition to many other interesting initiatives that IBM is uniquely positioned to undertake. More of Mike’s material on wind energy can be found at http://www.quora.com/Mike-