The legendary oil entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens and Nobel Laureate Al Gore have announced bold plans to radically reduce America's use of fossil fuels. Both Pickens and Gore want our country to rely much more on wind energy for electricity production. Pickens envisions wind generators across the Midwest, from the Texas Panhandle to the Canadian border. But despite the attraction of wind as a nearly pollution-free energy source, its performance is disappointing.
Even with heavy subsidies from ratepayers and taxpayers over the last two decades, wind supplies only about 1 percent of America's electricity and 2.3 percent in Kansas. A study by the National Center for Policy Analysis determined that wind energy and other renewables and conservation received between $30 billion and $50 billion over the last 20 years. This represents the largest governmental peacetime energy expenditure in U.S. history, outranking the Strategic Petroleum Reserve program as well as spending on the synthetic fuels program during the mid-1970s.
A short-term threat to the growth of wind energy is the looming expiration of federal tax credits at the end of this year. But the wind industry should not ask for more government support. It should be made to stand on its own.
The disadvantage of wind-generated electricity is poor reliability because the weather doesn't always cooperate. The most demanding need for energy is in the afternoons and during air-conditioned summers, but wind works best at night and during the other seasons, though intermittently. Even when the wind is blowing, it takes a 13 mph wind to power a large turbine.
Kansas has 364 megawatts of wind energy. But most of the year the wind is not blowing nearly hard enough to make 364 megawatts.
Last year wind generators nationally produced only 30 percent as much energy in a year as they would if they ran at full tilt, every hour of the year, a measure called "capacity factor." Unlike nuclear power plants such as Wolf Creek, which achieve capacity factors of 90 percent or more, the wind operator cannot decide when the wind generator will run.
Texas has more wind energy than any other state, and bigger problems as a result. Last year the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said that wind power could be counted on as being reliable only 8.7 percent of the time during periods of peak demand. The rest of the time electric utilities were forced to use backup power generation, usually high-priced natural gas.
During a summer heat spell two years ago in California, another state with a lot of wind energy, wind generators operated at only 5 percent of capacity or less, setting off a Level 1 emergency in which people were asked to conserve power by using less air conditioning. Blackouts were barely averted when utilities decided to use gas turbines to provide emergency power.
Another problem with wind farms is their location. Where the wind is best is often hundreds of miles from cities that most need the power, so high-cost transmission lines must be built to transmit the electricity.
Even if the wind industry could overcome some of the obstacles and survive without tax credits and government mandates, the capital cost of installing wind generators - now pushing $2.6 million per megawatt - is likely to continue to rise. What's more, there is a danger that failure of the bold plans of Pickens and Gore could be taken incorrectly as proof that the job of radically cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil cannot be done at all, when, in fact, a real commitment to nuclear power could help achieve both objectives.
No matter what happens, the end message will surely be that there's no real substitute for concerted national action to bring about a balanced mix of low-carbon, domestic energy sources. Simply put, though Pickens and Gore deserve praise for attacking the problems of climate change and oil addiction head on, they may be counting too much on wind.