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Does wind power reduce carbon emissions?

Update: Peter Lang, author of the wind study referred to below, responds here.

If renewable or nuclear energy is going to be successful in decarbonising our electricity supply (and, ultimately, all energy use), it needs to hit a couple of fundamental benchmarks:

(i) its life cycle energy inputs must be low compared to its ‘clean energy’ output; and

(ii) it must be able to displace fossil fuels — with elimination of carbon emissions from stationary energy being the first major objective.

Regarding life cycle emissions from nuclear power, I’ve already touched on the issue, but will be exploring this in more detail in the future. But this post is about wind.

To tackle this topic, I profile a recent analysis circulated by retired engineer Peter Lang, called “Cost and Quantity of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Avoided by Wind Generation“. Peter has 40 years experience on a wide range of energy projects throughout the world, including managing energy R&D and providing policy advice for government and opposition. His experience includes: coal, oil, gas, hydro, geothermal, nuclear power plants and nuclear waste disposal (6.5 years managing a component of the Canadian Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Program). Click on the title of the paper to download the 14 page PDF.

Okay, so what does he say? Let’s start with the bottom line and then work back:

1. Wind power does not avoid significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Wind power is a very high cost way to avoid greenhouse gas emissions.

3. Wind power, even with high capacity penetration, can not make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Strong statements, to be sure. Here’s the justification.

Peter looks at the issues of variability and back-up generation. Energy storage in the form of batteries is dismissed as uneconomic for the amount of energy required. For hydro, he says:

We have insufficient hydro resources to provide peak power let alone provide back-up for wind power. Hydro energy has high value for providing peak power and for providing rapid and controllable responses to changes in electricity demand across the network. So our very limited hydro resource is used to generate this high value power.”

Pumped hydro is obviously an alternative route, if you are willing to accept the energy conversion losses in going from electricity from wind turbines to mechanical energy (pumps) to potential energy (water stored in the dam) to kinetic energy (falling water to turn the turbines) and back to electrical energy. But let’s focus for now on the most touted (and widely used) form of back up for wind: natural gas (that is, fossil methane) using open cycle gas turbines (OCGT).

To calculate the true cost of wind back up, one must include the following sort of items (an incomplete list): cost of maintaining back-up plants, costs of holding large amounts of spinning reserve, costs of rapid power-ups and power-downs, use of high value hydro for balancing,  costs imposed on utilities in managing variable supply and meeting government mandated purchases, etc. In capturing some of these, Lang concludes that the total cost for wind with OCGT back up at a capacity factor of 45% is $121 per MWh (versus $60/MWh if back-up costs are ignored). See Option 2 on page 7 of his analysis.**

He then looks at the critical issue of emissions of CO2e avoided by installing wind with back up. The baseline comparison is made against combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT), for which the emissions intensity (EI) is 577 kg CO2e/MWh (for reference, it’s 750 to 1400 kg for various coal grades and non-CCS technologies).

The conclusion he reaches is rather startling (see pg 8-9). For wind power without back up, the EI is a mere 18 kg CO2e/MWh (mostly coming from materials and energy used to construct the steel and concrete turbines). Yet for wind with adequate OCGT back up, the EI is 519 kg CO2e/MWh.

Thus, the emissions avoided by wind amount to a grand total of 5.8 kg CO2e/MWe. This estimate seems ludicrious at first pass, but it turns out to be similar to one derived independently by the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, which put the figure of emissions avoided at an ever so slightly less trifling 9 kg CO2e/MWe.

From there, it’s straightforward to do the sums on the cost per tonne of CO2e avoided by installing wind power. It’s a whopping $830 to $1,149…

On the basis of the above, Lang concludes with the following:

These calculations suggest that wind generation saves little greenhouse gas emissions when the emissions from the back-up are taken into account.

Wind power, with emissions and cost of back-up generation properly attributed, avoids 0.058 to 0.09 t CO2-e/MWh compared with about 0.88 t CO2-e/MWh avoided by nuclear. The cost to avoid 1 tonne of CO2-e per MWh is $830 to $1149 with wind power compared with $22 with nuclear power. If the emissions and cost of back up generation are ignored then wind power avoids about 0.5 t CO2-e/MWh at a cost of about $134/t CO2-e avoided. Even if the costs of and emissions from back up generation are ignored, wind is still over six times more costly that nuclear as a way to avoid emissions.

A single 1000 MW nuclear plant (normally we would have four to eight reactors together in a single power station) would avoid 6.9 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. Five hundred 2 MW wind turbines (total 1000 MW) would avoid 0.15 to 1.3 million tonnes per year – just 2 to 20% as much as the same amount of nuclear capacity. When we take into account that we could have up to 80% of our electricity supplied by nuclear (as France has), but only a few percent can be supplied by wind, we can see that nuclear can make a major contribution to cutting greenhouse emissions, but wind a negligible contribution and at much higher cost.

So, do you believe that this analysis is all a load of old cobblers? Can you point to the obvious (or subtle) flaws in this assessment? I’ve tried, and I can’t fault the logic, but perhaps a savvier analyst than me is up for it. I look forward to the feedback in the comments.

** I had one question for Peter, which I asked him by email:

“In the wind study, on p7 you present a table under option 2. I’m having trouble following how the top 3 rows contribute to the bottom line. Could you explain this to me in a little more detail, as I think it’s critical for understanding, and indeed for interpreting the emissions table on the following page. Basically, why is the wind cost not just row 2+3 (and then how do you derive the 45% CF)? I know I’m probably being thick, but it just doesn’t click, despite re-reading this a dozen times.”

… to which Peter replied:

“The table you referred to is not well explained in the text. Here is the explanation.

First, the reason for the 45% capacity factor is that, that is the average capacity factor given in the ESAA paper for intermediate load (CCGT). I wanted to stay consistent with the ESAA figures so I could continue to include to use them for comparison with the other studies. Refer: Figure 2, p12 in

http://www.esaa.com.au/images/stories//energyandemissionsstudystage2.pdf

Let me know if you need more explanation in answer to this part of the question.

Second, what is the Option 2 about. We want 45% capacity factor for intermediate load. The output must be provided on demand, not just when the wind is blowing. Assuming the capacity factor for wind is 30%, we will get 2/3 of the required 45% of the energy from Wind with OCGT back up, and the other 1/3 of the required 45% of the energy from OCGT.

Row 1 – OCGT at 15%/45% CF x $105/MWh = $35/MWh

Row 2 – Wind at 30%/45% CF x $90/MWh = $60/MWh

Row 3 – OCGT operating in back up mode for wind at 30%/45% CF x $39/MWh = $26/MWh

I do need to find a better way to explain this in the paper. Any suggestions greatly appreciated.”

If you wish to ask Peter any questions yourself, perhaps he’ll be happy to reply in this thread — I’ll certainly alert him to the fact that it’s now posted.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

258 replies on “Does wind power reduce carbon emissions?”

http://tinyurl.com/24feplv

You can observe the impact of renewables on local economies all over the world. Regions that where doomed are wealthy now…because of renewables.
You could learn that in Güssing or learn something about co-ops from Mondragon.
There is no reason this would not work in many other places.
Its just not that convinient for the cartels to controle when energy becomes democratic.

In Germany also renewables have a positive effect. Just like in this video that eclipsenow posted in the open t. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ikDjh8tDx8

Why not put in some or much more substitutes in something that is good for us all.
We could just have extra taxes of 10-30€ and pay for all renewable built up.
Thats 3 (France) to 6 (Spain) beer a month…you can also count in bigmacs of you wish to.
Thats atop of heavy carbon tax.

Your out of of context % do not show the whole picture.
There is also no proof that a nuclear based szenario woul work out better. Just because something is cheaper does not say anything about the effects, it just shows that you do have a biased and very narrow view.

Theres also a new movie about renewables. “The 4th Revolution – Energy Autonomy”
http://www.energyautonomy.org/

I wonder how expensive NPPs could be community owned. They just extend the life off utilities that rip off consumers anyways. Like E-ON in Germany…the rais prices every year and extend profits every year. What do they do for us?
I buy non privatly traded windenergy stocks…that way my money is used to generate some 50MWh of clean wind energy every year.
Others are free to invest in nuclear energy…if you believe it got anywhere to go.

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It seems that it is necessary to stand on your head to evaluate renewables then.
Being more costly in manpower and materials is a good thing!
Presumably it is an even finer thing that ‘renewables’ build in fossil fuel burn which they in practice need to make up for their intermittency, and make it’s burning far less efficient as it has to be at the beck and call of this utterly fickle power source.
You are better off not bothering with the wind mills and using the gas or coal in combined heat and power units.
Still, I am done discussing this with you, as it is apparent that neither rationality nor numeracy inform your prejudices.

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There are much more problems that could be fixed cheaper than building new plants.
90 percent of nuclear power in the former Soviet Union could be saved by simply stopping up the leaks in gas pipelines in the former S.U.! And if this natural gas were put to efficient use, more than 100 percent of the current atomic power share could be covered! That shows that atomic power could easily be avoided altogether if this money were stuffed in the proper holes.
There is also Kitegen and other high altitude technologies.

Unlike the French they have more efficient gasplants in Germany. They can also run on biogas btw.
Thousands of small community owned biogas plants, windturbines, PV-farms, small hydro and everything is fine.

Renewables are not more costly in materials if you take EROIE for example.
The nuclear fuel cycle is also a dirty/expensive beast.
Here is some more information:
http://www.ratical.com/radiation/WorldUraniumHearing/PeterBossew.html

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Still, I am done discussing this with you, as it is apparent that neither rationality nor numeracy inform your prejudices.

Most people reach this point with Marcus before too long. His Bizzarro-World take on things, where paying more for less and doing more work for less, as well as the mystical transformation of the imposition on average consumers of having to manage their own local generating capacity for the grid and having to make do with power whenever it’s available into a positive (laughably referred to as ’empowerment’), has proven impervious to any and all rational critique.

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Get in contact with Güssing. They also offer seminars in their renewable academy. Thousands of cities could go the same route.
Most people do not show the will to learn and accept these realities.
I also don`t think that you would not have the finanzial power to come up with 10-30€ a month for a switch to distributed renewables.
All of the contributers here live in the richest countries but yet they are greedy as hell and unwilling to reduce their own use of power.
Everyboy could reduce use of energy by over 50% without losing any standard of living. With clean distributed (democratic) energy you can raise anybodys standard.

Did you see the movie?
http://www.energyautonomy.org/

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Finrod can not accept that there are other idiologies than his failing nuclear based turbo capitalism concept.
Fin…you never informed youself about Güssing or other renewable model regions. Keep on dreaming about Australien nukes…
Just because renewable solutions are possible does not mean that you have to fight them…
Whats your reason for hateing renewables that much?

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Are you frustrated by that?

No. My enemies in this matter are people. Yours is physics. The victory will ultimately be with the pro-nuclear side. The question is how swift that victory will be.

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Finrod,
There is no point responding to Marcus. It just clutters up the thread even more.
Hopefully the data and links I have provided are useful and I welcome any discussion by rational observers on them or their implications.

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There is no point responding to Marcus.

I occasionally do it for amusement.

By the way, have you heard about my new renewable power scheme? I’ve come up with a way of doubling the efficiency of hydroelectric dams. It’s so simple I fon’t understand why no-one ever thought of it before. You know how hydroelectric stations use water flowing downhill to spin a turbine to create electricity? Well, that water could create just as much electricity by flowing back through the system and spinning the turbine the other way. Hidebound conservative engineering types will no doubt bleat that water doesn’t flow uphill, but this just represents the kind of cloistered thinking which has held the advance of renewable power for so long. Water will flow uphill if you give it enough of a push. It will require a bit more involvement in the power production process from the local community than people are used to, but that’s all part of the consiousness-raising lifestyle revolution which renewables will bless us with. A great new social dynamic shall unfold as the land reverberates to a new cry for a new age: “Push it uphill!”

For more details on my plan and to find out how YOU can invest in this great opportunity, please visit my site at http://www.pushituphill.com.

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Fitted to every kitchen sink in the country, this should generate enough surplus power to run all homes.
The fitting of electricity generating shock absorbers in every shoe should enable industry to be powered.

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Finrod, that discussion properly belongs in the pumped hydro thread. Right below Mathew Wright’s comment.

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David Martin,

In terms of value added per employee, the energy technology sector over the period 1999-2006 underperformed by as much as 13% compared with the industrial average. This implies that the effect of the government subsidy has been to shift employment from more productive employment in other sectors to less productive employment in the wind industry. As a consequence, Danish GDP is approximately 1.8 billion DKK ($270 million) lower than it would have been if the wind sector work force was employed elsewhere.’

Interesting. I wonder what the cost of our electricity market distortions are in Australia. (RET, feed-in-tariffs, subsidies for renewables, government funding for RE research, extra transmission systems, extra grid stabilisation, and diversion of labor from viable industries to subsidised industries). What is the impact on our GDP and our future GDP growth. For the ordinary person, what does that translate into in terms of hospital waiting times, bus and train transit times and higher fares, etc.

In Spain, subsidising the renewables energy industry has caused 2.2 real jobs to be lost for every ‘green’ job created (and subsidised from taxes).

It seems that once someone has caught the RE bug, their ability to think rationally departs.

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Not bad Finrod … I quite like the idea of fitting people with tremblers. If they get cold, their shivering runs a tiny pumps attached to permanent magnets that wirelessly transmit power to an electric coil that heats them up …

You know it makes sense … ;-)

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Kent Hawkins has just posted the first article of a four part series:
http://www.masterresource.org/2010/10/denmark-part-i-intro/

This series is an extensive technical analysis of wind electricity in Denmark. The intent is to develop: (1) plausible conclusions without resorting to extensive mathematics (except that provided by others), and (2) a framework within which to evaluate other claims of emissions relating to wind backup from fossil plants.

According to wind proponents, Denmark is a model of wind energy use for electricity generation to be emulated. It is claimed or suggested that:

– Denmark gets about 20% of its electricity from wind. [Note: This number is generation, not usage, which is a crucial distinction with negative implications for the wind lobby’s argument.]

– Reduction in CO2 emissions is due in large part to increased wind electricity production.

These conclusions are superficial at best and invalid at worse. The analysis required to show this, however, is extensive and technical because the Denmark power market is very unique and wholly unlike the market in the U.S. or the UK.

The message in this post is that Denmark is a very unique situation. It is not one that can be reproduced virtually anywhere else. Further, as will be shown, Denmark does not enjoy, and should not be credited with, the benefits often claimed for it.

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I just posted a link to this discussion on my FB page and someone wants to know if Peter Lang’s work was peer-reviewed. I am guessing it was not but please put me right and any links to others doing research in this field of analysis would be helpful too. What has to be shown is that some vested interest has not been paying for this work and that it is recognized by other scientists, in addition to all/any professional researchers here. I am not the one who needs this reassurance in order to believe the work of Lang. Am simply passing along a skeptic’s initial response. Thanks!

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Caroline Webb, Peter Langs posts on Brave New Climate are the subject of an open science review, a process which is in some respects more exacting than a typical peer review for a professional journal. Scientists, engineers and other interested parties do offer criticisms of Peter’s work here. The questions your skeptical friend should ask are not about who, if anyone, paid for Peter’s work. Your friend should be interested in questions such as, “did Peter base his study on well attested facts?” “Was his account of the facts comprehensive?” “Was his reasoning about the facts based on the rules of logic?” Peter’s critics of BNC attempt to uncover flaws in Peters account of facts and in his logic, and peter as well as others offer revisions or counter defenses of his views. Your skeptical friend, in some respects appears to be asking the wrong questions. One of the advantages of an open science debate is that one gets to look at the evidence, the criticisms, and the responses and then make up his or her mind.

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Hi Caroline Webb,

No. The articles I have posted on BNC are not published in peer reviewed scientific literature.

The pdf article attached to this thread “Cost and Quantity of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Avoided by Wind Generation” is based on (mostly) authoritative reports and studies conducted under contract to government agencies and research institutions (Australian and overseas). The sources are cited in the text. The article was reviewed by a number of engineers in the Australian electricity supply industry and are senior and competent in the areas they reviewed. It has also been commented on by engineers with relevant expertise in the industry in Australia and overseas.

No vested interest is paying me. I receive nothing. I am retired. Note the contrast between my position and the position of the wind energy advocates most of whom do have a vested interest in promoting renewable energy – i.e. their careers and their livelihood and maintaining ongoing public funding to support their work!

My purpose is to help to educate intelligent, interested, non specialists and therby to assist Australia to make economically rational decisions about how to cut GHG emissions, increase energy security and improve health, safety and environmental effects of electricity generation.

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But, as Charles Barton quite correctly pointed out, one of the principal role for evidence-based open science blogs like BNC is to conduct ‘peer review’ out in the open, for all to see. Peter’s work has gone through multiple rigorous rounds of this. Open science is also the theme of my other website, oz-energy-analysis.org. In my humble view, this methodology is a major component of the future of science.

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Thank you Barry, Peter and Charles.

I would like to see every electricity utility that has built wind power provide a running summary of each week’s delivery of power to the grid on their websites for customers. This would aid public awareness a great deal. The data needs to be visible so a realistic evaluation of performance can be done and the public become more educated. At present it feels as though people are operating on a wish and a belief about wind power. I am referring to the sustainability movement in general. It is not enough.

With respect to the process of ‘reviewing’ science through such a website as this, I am all for it. I can see that this methodology is sound and I support it. I am aware that it will not be seen as enough for those who want to see the usual protocols of science practice with journal publication. The climate of thinking today is not an easy one for anyone to navigate, let alone non-scientists who are quite frankly floundering but hanging on like hell to particular positions. This is why I made the suggestion above that it is high time for full transparency about wind power being delivered by utility companies to hit the airwaves. I have no idea how much extra work that would entail however, and therefore extra costs.

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[…] If you do some modelling to work through the many contingencies, you find that a system which relies on wind and/or solar power, plus large-scale energy storage and a geographically dispersed electricity transmission network to channel power to load centres, would seem to be 10 to 40 times more expensive than an equivalent nuclear-powered system, and still less reliable. The cost to avoid 1 tonne of carbon dioxide would be >$800 with wind power compared with $22 with…. […]

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If you refer to page 8 of the Peter Lang paper on wind power costs, I think you will find that the avoided CO2 for wind power with OCGT backup is 58 kg/MWhr, not 5.8

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Wind Energy without storage, actually increase CO2 and GH significantly due to backup which for small penetration ratios 10%- 30% of wind power into a grid, each 1 kwh of wind power integrated in a grid incurs minimum fuel increase which is sufficient to generate 1.9, 1.9 and 1.93 kwh, (for PR 10%, 20% and 30% respectively), when generators run normally with no wind power integrated into the grid. This minimal fuel increase corresponds to ideal consumption model (Standard Deviation=0). However, fuel consumption increase becomes larger with when SD of the consumption model, increases. For example for SD = 0.71, required fuel for backup generators is sufficient to generate 2.25, 2.43 and 2.60 kwh, for PR 10%, 20% and 30 % respectively, of fossil fuels required to run generators normally without wind power in the grid. Moreover, the number above are for wind speeds ~ 12.5 m/sec, for smaller average wind speeds, the consumption of fossil fuel is little larger, ~ 10% than the numbers above. (That is a part of new pending research to published when an unbiased journal found.

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