Hot Air on Wind Energy
April 10, 2009
Don't expect wind power to replace coal as the nation's main source of electric power, whatever Obama's interior secretary said.
Interior Secretary Salazar said that the amount of "developable" wind power off the East Coast could produce more energy than all the coal-fired electric plants in the U.S., and that wind's potential to replace most of our coal power "is a very real possibility." We find his claims to be wildly optimistic, to say the least.
It's true that government studies show there's enough offshore wind to generate far more than coal plans currently do – in theory. But converting that wind to enough electricity to replace what's now produced by coal won't happen anytime in the foreseeable future. The Interior Department itself made clear its offshore wind estimate was a gross figure of potential resources only, saying in a report that there are several obstacles to achieving that.
We calculate that converting wind to enough electricity to replace all U.S. coal-fired plants would require building 3,540 offshore wind farms as big as the world's largest, which is off the coast of Denmark. So far the U.S. has built exactly zero offshore wind farms.
Another government study last year concluded that to supply just 20 percent of U.S. electricity with wind turbines would require land-based equipment taking up an area "slightly less than the area of Rhode Island," plus scores of offshore wind farms.
A Salazar spokesman says the secretary did not mean to say that replacing coal power with offshore wind power was a realistic goal, but was only trying to draw attention to its potential.
At a public hearing in Atlantic City, N.J., on Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that wind turbine installations off the East Coast could generate 1 million megawatts (1,000 gigawatts) of energy, enough to replace 3,000 coal plants. The Associated Press quoted Salazar claiming that wind power could replace most of the coal power in the United States. The AP account was syndicated in papers across the country. Salazar's department says that he never implied that wind power would be immediately or even eventually capable of replacing fossil fuels. What did Salazar actually say? And is replacing coal power with wind power really plausible?
What Salazar Said
Here's what Salazar said at the hearing, a public discussion of the offshore energy potential of the Outer Continental Shelf.
The AP also quoted Salazar as saying:
Salazar, April 6, 2009: The idea that wind energy has the potential to replace most of our coal-burning power today is a very real possibility. ... It is not technology that is pie-in-the sky; it is here and now.
According to the AP's reporter, Wayne Parry, Salazar made the "here and now" claim in remarks to reporters, not during his public remarks on camera.
But we find that Salazar's claim that a million megawatts of offshore wind power is "developable" and that replacing coal with wind power is "a very real possibility" are far-fetched propositions.
A Mighty Wind
The report to which Salazar refers in his remarks is a recently released Department of the Interior publication that reviewed the available research on resources from the Outer Continental Shelf. In contrast to Salazar's enthusiastic description, the report itself is sober about the challenges involved.
And in any case, a number of factors stand in the way of achieving the full 1,000-gigawatt potential. For one thing, Interior report shows that 75 percent of the wind energy is far offshore and would require development in waters of greater than 30 meters in depth, which the report finds too deep for economically and technologically feasible turbines. DOI shows only 253 gigawatts of energy resource potential from turbines off the East Coast in shallower water. And as the report points out, that still doesn't "account for other competing uses of the ocean that may conflict with offshore wind development."
So far no offshore wind farms have been built in U.S. waters, even in shallow water. Turning "potential” offshore wind energy into real electricity requires overcoming huge practical problems including the NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) factor. In a celebrated case, Cape Wind Associates is proposing to build 130 wind turbines on Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound, off Cape Cod. The project would occupy 25 square miles of ocean and come within 5.6 miles of Cotuit, near Hyannis. On a clear day, the 258-foot-tall towers (with blades reaching as high as 440 feet, taller than the 305-foot Statue of Liberty) would be visible on the horizon.
There Goes Rhode Island
Another way to look at the practical problem of locating wind turbines is given in a Department of Energy report from last May. It concluded that to produce enough wind power to satisfy only 20 percent of U.S. demand (less than half of what coal plants fulfill) would require land-based turbines and related infrastructure that would take up an area "slightly less than the area of Rhode Island."
DOE found that the goal of producing 20 percent of U.S. electric power from the wind – by the year 2030 – "could be feasible if the significant challenges identified in this report are overcome." Those challenges include limits on turbine performance and high initial costs of installation.
A Quarter-Million Turbines?
But what would it take to go beyond 20 percent, and replace all the coal-fired plants that now account for nearly half the nation's electricity? And to do that using only wind farms in waters off the U.S. East Coast?
Parry, Wayne. "Salazar: Eastern wind could replace coal for power." The Associated Press. 6 Apr. 2009.
Ebbert, Stephanie, "Cronkite urges full review of wind farm proposal." Boston Globe. 29 Aug 2003.
Energy Information Administration. "Electricity Net Generation Total: All Sectors." Mar. 2009.
U.S. Department of the Interior. "Survey of Available Data on OCS Resources and Identification of Data Gaps." Apr. 2009.
European Wind Energy Association. "Offshore Statistics January 2009." Jan. 2009.
Cassidy, Patrick. "Cape Wind Permit Considered Likely." Cape Cod Times. 13 Mar. 2009.
Alliance to Protect the Nantucket Sound. "National Organizations Call Upon Feds to Halt Review of Cape Wind." 10 Apr. 2009.
Daley, Beth. "Cape Wind Proposal Clears Big Obstacle." Boston Globe. 15 Jan. 2009.
United States Department of Energy. "20% Wind Energy by 2030." May 2008.
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