Obstacles Facing US Wind Energy

In the United States, we have been working on scaling up wind energy but not getting very far. In 2010, wind energy supplied only 2.3% of electricity purchased.

Wind energy

Figure 1. Wind energy (dark green) is barely visible in a graph of US energy consumption by source. Based on EIA data.

Such slow progress seems strange for a product that seems to have such great promise. It can reduce CO2 emissions. It doesn’t require fuel. It is at least partly US made. It seems to have promise for protecting against rising fossil fuel prices.

In this post, I discuss a few of the obstacles facing wind energy in the United States and their implications for the expansion of wind energy. 

Obstacle 1: Wind energy is dependent on large subsidies.

According to the EIA’s report, Direct Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy in Fiscal Year 2010, wind energy received subsidies of $4.986 billion from the federal government for Fiscal Year 2010. This amount is equal to approximately half the cost of new wind power installed during that period. State and local subsidies would be in addition. (The US Wind Energy Association shows that 6034 megawatts of new capacity was installed between October 1, 2009 and September 30, 2010, so the subsidy per megawatt was $826,318. This compares to an average cost per megawatt of about $1.4 million, excluding construction and connection costs.)

Wind energy’s largest subsidy, the Production Tax Credit, is set to expire on December 31, 2012, unless Congress acts to extend it, so there is now a big rush to get orders filled before that date. A study by Navigant Consulting forecasts a large drop in wind investment, if the Production Tax Credit is not extended (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Annual Investment in Wind Energy in $ Billion, according to Navigant Consulting.

Needless to say, the US Federal Government is not flush with money for subsidies, so there is the possibility that subsidies will not be renewed or will be cut back.

Obstacle 2: Wind energy is more variable than electricity produced by fossil fuels and by nuclear energy.

Wind blows when it chooses, which is often not when it is needed most. In theory, this problem could be resolved with robust long-distance transmission of electricity and with adequate electrical storage, but in the US, these are not available. Bill Richardson, energy secretary under Bill Clinton has said, “We’re a superpower with a Third World grid.”  This means that even in locations where wind energy makes up a relatively large share of the fuel mix, other types of generations must be available to supply almost the full level of demand, if the wind is not blowing.

As a result, the role of wind energy is fairly limited.  What wind energy does is permit electricity generating plants, particularly those fueled by natural gas, to use less fuel. Consequently, the price of wind energy tends to compete with the price of fuel, rather than with the wholesale price of electricity.

Chis Namoviz, who is in charge of renewable energy forecasting at the EIA, explained this to me in an e-mail in 2009:

Because of its relatively low “capacity value” (a result of usually not blowing very regularly during peak load hours), wind largely competes as a “fuel saver” resource, and can generally be compared against the fuel cost of what ever mix of fuel it is displacing (whether from existing capacity or from alternative investments in future capacity). In the U.S., this is typically some mix of relatively inexpensive coal and somewhat expensive natural gas, depending on the location of the wind plant, and the resulting seasonal/daily wind and load profiles . . .[Note from Gail: Natural gas is now cheaper than when this statement was made.]

We can see the result of this situation in Figure 3, from Annual Report on U. S. Wind Power Installation, Cost, and Performance Trends: 2007. The price of wind generation tends to trade a below the wholesale band for other types of wind generation, more at the price of the fuel that is saved (frequently natural gas) than at the usual wholesale price.

Figure 3. Comparison of prices of wind generated electricity with electricity generated by other means, from US Department of Energy report, "Annual Report on U. S. Wind Power Installation, Cost, and Performance Trends: 2007."

This lower price for wind-generated electricity helps explain some of the need for subsidies.

A related issue is the confusion caused by a comparison of the “levelized cost of wind” with the levelized cost of other types of generation, such as is shown in Figure 4 by the US Energy Information Administration.

Figure 4. EIA's exhibit showing Estimated Levelized Cost of New Electricity Generation Resources, from Annual Energy Outlook 2011.

Because wind acts as a fuel-saver, Figure 4 represents an “apples to oranges” comparison, if one makes the standard comparison of amounts in the last column. Instead, since wind energy only replaces fuel, what needs to be compared is

  • “Total System Levelized Cost” for wind relative to
  • “Variable O&M (including fuel)” for other sources of production

In Figure 4,  the Total System Levelized Cost of Wind is 97.0, and of Wind-Offshore is 243.2. These might be compared with the Variable O&M (including fuel) of coal (Advanced coal is 25.7) or of natural gas (Conventional Combined Cycle is 45.6), for example. On this basis, wind energy comes out badly, and is one reason it requires such high subsides.

Another related issue is that a person would normally want to substitute a less-scarce fuel for a more scarce fuel, but to some extent this works in reverse for wind power. At least some petroleum is used in manufacturing, transporting, installing, and maintaining wind turbines, but the energy that is provided as an output is mostly replacing natural gas, and perhaps some coal. Coal and natural gas are much cheaper (and more abundant) than oil, so even a small input/output substitution in this direction can quickly hurt the economics of the process.

While one intent of wind energy was to protect against rising fossil fuel prices, in the US  those prices are not rising evenly. Oil is particularly high priced, but it is not oil that is being saved, it is other fuels.

Obstacle 3: Natural gas is now very cheap in the US, and there is a huge amount of natural gas generating capacity already built.

Since wind energy tends to compete with the cost of fossil fuels used to produce electricity (mostly natural gas and coal in the US), a low price for natural gas is a problem because even greater subsidies will be required for wind energy to be competitive.

Furthermore, natural gas generating capacity is no issue, because a great deal of natural gas generating capacity has been added in recent years.

Figure 5: US Generation Capacity by Year and Source, based on EIA Data. (The amount of electricity generated is not proportional to capacity, however. Nuclear is used at over 90% of capacity, coal a little below 70%, and wind at a little under 30% of capacity.)

Obstacle 4: In the US, we do not have an electrical grid that can provide very much long distance transport of electricity, and there are several reasons why changing this situation is very difficult.

Growth in wind energy requires very good long distance transmission capability, partly because wind resources are often located a long way from prospective users, and partly because the variable nature of wind can be “evened out” if wind energy is shared over a large area. Unfortunately, the US electrical system has grown up under a system where each locality has been expected to generate its own electricity. Under such a system, electrical transmission from city to city was originally designed to handle only occasional emergencies, and thus is very limited. I have written more about US electrical grid issues in The US Electrical Grid: Will it Be Our Undoing? and Upgrading the Grid – Many Pluses but Some Minuses Too.

The way the US electric transmission system was set up produces many anomalies. Electrical rates vary greatly from state to state. We needlessly burn large amounts of oil transporting coal to where it will be burned for electricity, rather than burning it near where the coal is mined, and then transporting the electric power over transmission lines.  Nuclear-fueled power plants are sometimes located near large cities.

The problem is very difficult to fix for many reasons. Any improvement in electric transmission would tend to even out electricity rates, but this would be to the detriment of customers who currently have low electric rates. To the extent that new transmission costs more, and these higher costs are charged back in electric rates, such a change could result in higher electricity costs for more than half of the population–something most politicians would find unacceptable.

If better transmission were readily available and free, no one would want to build a power plant in their back yard, making it even harder to site new power plants than it is now.

Another issue is that a good mechanism for paying for the installation and maintenance of new long distance transmission lines has not been established. Under current procedures, a determination must be made as to which electric generating companies will benefit from new transmission lines, and the costs allocated among the beneficiaries. The government in the past has not funded long distance electrical transmission. No one really “owns” the long distance lines.

The only partial fix I can see would be to create a separate organization to build and maintain a few new long-distance transmission lines. Wind energy and other users seeking to use these lines would be charged for the use of these lines, similar to a toll road. It might be possible that more coal fired-power plants would be built near these lines, because wind usage by itself could not support these lines. Even this arrangement would likely require a change to current laws. The net effect might be more CO2, rather than less.

The cost of long distance electric transmission is likely to be fairly high–at least several cents per kWh, for wind energy transported over long distances. Over time, the price can be expected to rise as the price of oil rises. Some maintenance may become very difficult, such as that currently done by helicopters in remote locations.

Obstacle 5: A high proportion of funding for wind energy is up front.

Oil, coal, and gas all started out as fairly high EROEI investments, and much of the investment took place as the fuel was extracted. In such a situation, the investments threw off a high level of profit which could be used to fund further investment.

Fossil fuels are gradually shifting away from this model, with higher up front investment, and lower profit available to fund further investment. Wind turbines represent the extreme end of this continuum with most of the investment up front, and the return trailing many years behind.

As a result of this shift in timing, it is becoming more difficult to fund projects with huge up-front investment. In the “good old days,” we had the low price of fossil fuels which made other investments easier to afford. We also could count on a being always able to add more debt, but we are reaching limits on sustainable debt. I wrote two posts on The Link Between Peak Oil and Peak Debt (Part 1 and Part 2). More recently, I talked about how Net Savings is dropping dramatically in the US, so that non-debt sources of funding are also disappearing.

Figure 6. US Savings and Investment Ratios, based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis Data.

The net of all of this is that if we are reaching limits with respect to finite resources, it is going to be increasingly difficult to fund projects that require large up-front investment and provide a return later. We will likely have to give up some investments we really need (such as replacing worn out roads, pipelines, and school buildings) in order to ramp up investments in projects that require large front-end funding, like wind turbines.

Obstacle 6: Adding wind energy to the electric grid adds complexity which may be difficult to manage with declining resources.

The job of balancing supply with electrical demand and keeping all sources of electricity “in synch” becomes more difficult, as more variable sources of supply come on line. While it is theoretically possible to find technical solutions to these issues, it is not clear that we will in practice.

Furthermore, one approach that is being tried in order to avoid the cost of adding new electricity generating capacity and new electric transmission is to use the Smart Grid to help limit demand when at times when demand would normally be high, such as when temperatures are high or low.  In the words of Smart Grid R & D: 2010-2014 Draft 2, “Smart grid can improve asset utilization and thereby avoid the need for new capacity.

The expected effect of avoiding new capacity is that components are operated at closer to maximum capacity. Since adding new capacity is avoided, assets will over time tend to be older as well.  While theoretically everything should go well, operating older units at closer to their theoretical capacity adds stresses to the system. Because of these factors, Smart Grid enhancements add efficiency to the system, but may reduce resilience.

According to the same report, the Smart Grid is being built as it is being planned. The amount of funding is not clear; costs must be recovered from customers based on cost recovery laws which vary by state. There are a huge number of details that need to worked out, such as necessary cyber security measures. It would be easier to rest easy if the Smart Grid had all been planned out in advance, tested on a small scale and pre-funded.

The grid with the new enhancements will work until at some point it doesn’t work–for example, an unplanned event causes a major failure within the system, or a needed system upgrade is too expensive to afford, or a replacement part from overseas is unavailable. Hopefully, failures of this type will be temporary and local, but if resources are limited, the time may come when the high cost of maintaining the system becomes unsustainable.

Further Thoughts about Wind Energy

I have not been able to touch on more than a few issues in this post.

One of the big issues with wind is that hopes have been raised for its widespread use, without really working through feasibility issues. If we are already having trouble with the electrical grid not being able to accept more wind energy in popular wind-generating areas when wind energy constitutes only 2.3% of total electricity supply, then wind energy is going to be difficult to scale up quickly. The issues I point out in this article suggest that the cost problem is still large, and the fixes needed to add long-distance transmission are likely to make the cost problem even worse.

The government needs to be able to show it is “doing something” about our energy problem, so it makes statements such as “Wind generation added 30% of all US generating capacity in 2007.” (See Figure 5 above.) Few people are energy literate enough to realize that even this progress is very slow, because relatively little new capacity is added in a year, and because wind, with its low-capacity factor, requires a disproportionate share of total new generation capacity, to make much progress. If wind turbines have an average life of 20-30 years, and other types of generation last for 40+ years, this will also affect the amount of new generation needed for wind, compared to other units.

It is easy for readers to become confused, when confronted with the many technology possibilities available, when they don’t understand the time, cost, and scale involved. Dr. Robert Hirsch, in the January 9, 2012, issue of the ASPO-USA Peak Oil Review writes:

The foregoing are realities that many people fail to understand, which means that they can be trapped into advocating energy changes that are not practical in the short term. Examples of some of the current common traps: 1) Assuming that wind and solar systems – electricity producers – can be a near-term solution to high gasoline prices; 2) Assuming that natural gas from shale is a near-term solution to our dependence on foreign oil; 3) Assuming that wind and solar can be a near-term means to lower the emissions from vehicles now powered by oil products; etc.

If transitions to new energy sources and new technologies could be made cheaply and quickly, then many options that appear to be feasible in fact would have a reasonable chance of working out. But there is another issue as well. Based on technology today, we need fossil fuels to make wind energy, and we need fossil fuels to transport wind turbines to the locations where they are to be installed. We also need fossil fuels to repair wind turbines and to maintain transmission lines. So wind energy and other proposed replacements for fossil fuels are deeply imbedded in the fossil fuel system, and dependent on it.

I expect that at some point grid problems will become overwhelming, so at least the long-distance portion of the grid will be lost. It is possible that adding more wind energy to the grid will make that date come sooner, rather than later, because of the complexity issues I mentioned. Unless the limiting factor on the life of the electric grid is the amount of coal and natural gas available, and wind energy somehow delays running out of these, I have a hard time seeing how wind energy will make the electric grid last longer.

There are so many obstacles for wind to overcome in the US that I am not sure that we should even try to push for higher wind penetration levels. The only exception might be in areas where wind energy is cheap to produce and the grid can readily accept the electricity.

Since the world is finite, there is a good chance that at some point we are going to have to get along with less electricity as well as less oil. Instead of focusing on delaying the inevitable, perhaps we should start thinking about preparing people for simpler lives that use less energy of all types. Such an approach might solve multiple problems at once–too much CO2, too little oil, and too little capital to tackle all the problems that need to be tackled at once.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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81 Responses to Obstacles Facing US Wind Energy

  1. Pingback: Commodities Broker | Obstacles Facing US Wind Energy | Commodities Options | Commodities Futures | Commodities Prices

  2. Peter Staudt-Fischbach says:

    Just for those who are interested in more information:

    • When I read that report, one thing that disturbs me is the low percentage of gearboxes made in the United States. Gearboxes have a history of poor reliability.

      I wouldn’t think that gearboxes would be too interchangeable. If we run into foreign trade problems, it seems like getting replacement gearboxes in a reasonable length of time could be a problem.

  3. Hi.

    My name is Salvador Ferreiro from Spain

    I think that you will remember this work, that one day I sent you as a comment:


    I’ve been in the last month working on an idea that can “wake up” to many people who don’t visit these sites on energy.

    The Mission Statement of theoildrum.com say:

    Most people are not aware of society’s profound dependency on energy and the magnitude of the problems we may face if energy becomes either too expensive or scarce. Politicians and the traditional media have tended to overlook the these issues, out of ignorance or due to conflicts of interest. We seek to fill this information gap, disseminating under-reported facts and analysis and providing an educational forum for those interested and engaged in energy’s role in society.

    Film scripts, even it been imagined, have great power to reach everyone.

    My idea is that the next video be an entry with a single text theoildrum.com “Send this to your friends”

    Watch it and tell me your opinion as editor of theoildrum.com

    I don’t want publicity. The video can be copied at servers of theoildrum.com

    Thanks, and best regards

    • Regardless of what the Mission Statement of theoildrum.com says, it has found a need to limit its scope, in part because it can’t do everything. One thing that they are not doing now is posting movies, because people can’t take out time from work to watch them. (A lot of people read theoildrum.com at work.) So I am afraid they won’t be one who posts it.

      I think that different people respond better in one approach to telling the story than others. Your movie is good, and I am sure that it will appeal to some people. How about checking with EnergyBulletin.net about posting it? There is a form to fill out, I believe, requesting posting.

  4. In H.T. Odum’s systems ecology class way back in 1973, he explained how the “capital investment’ for establishing the down-low leaves on a tree is subsidized by the energy collecting power of the leaves at the top of the canopy where the solar intensity is much higher. The objective of the tree being to maximize its TOTAL POWER , or more correctly, to maximize the power of the ecosystem of which it is a part – so as to assure the survival of not only itself , but the entire ecosystem.

    Without those high power leaves at the top of the tree, there would be no subsidized leaves at the bottom of the tree. Now if a tree grows tall enough, the tree will cut off the energy subsidy to the lowest part of the tree since it will not generate net energy for the tree and no new leaves will be generated there.

    Does this lesson from the natural world foretell the outlook for low yielding alternative energy sources? As long as there is plenty of high yielding fossil fuel, we can probably maximize our power by subsidizing (to some extent) these alternatives. When the “good stuff” gets to hard to produce, the sources needing subsidy are likely to rapidly disappear.

    Gail, in being exposed to your systematic analysis of energy subjects, I often think that you have been a “student” of Howard Odum’s energy systems concepts. No one publishing on the energy blogs comes as close as you to understanding that energy involves systems.

    • Joe Clarkson says:

      Aloha Tom,

      You don’t extend your “tree as energy system” metaphor quite far enough. When the high-producing “fossil fuel leaves” at the top of the tree gradually disappear, the previously subsidized “renewable energy leaves” lower down will be the only ones left. Whether they will be enough to keep the tree alive is open to question.

      But if the tree somehow knew that it was destined to lose most of its upper, high producing leaves, it would certainly put as much subsidy into those lower leaves as it could, just to maximize its chance of survival.

      In this case, rather than maximizing energy production to grow higher as fast as possible (to out-compete other trees), it would be better off reducing its “standard of living height” and pouring all its energy into the only thing that can save it in the long run, those poor performing “subsidized” lower leaves.

    • Thanks for pointing out that analogy. It is a good one.

      I am not a student of Howard Odum’s, although I have encountered some of his work. I have also seen quite a bit of Charlie Hall’s work, and that of his students. I seem to naturally think in systems.

      This coming week, I will be attending the 7th Biennial Emergy Conference at the University of Florida. I may learn more about H. T. Odum’s work there.

  5. Stu Kautsch says:

    One general comment about “scaling-up”. The economics can be very different when you scale-down instead:
    The utilities are always harping about nuclear or coal-generated electricity costing 3 cents kwh, and solar costing 12 cents (or whatever). Makes it look very uncompetititve.
    EXCEPT that the utility *charges* me 12 cents kwh for the juice, and if I install the PV panels on my house it still comes out to 12 cents kwh.
    It’s not the cost that counts, it’s the **price**. I.e., I’m paying the same, I’m just not throwing on an additional pile so some rich sharedholder can send his kid to a college that my kid can’t attend.

    Generally: Energy discussions have to focus on work getting done in peoples’ lives, and not maintaining modern financial institutions.

    • Regarding not maintaining modern financial institutions, it is my understanding that the way purchases of solar PV panels are currently being financed is doing precisely this–giving modern financial institutions profits, thanks to the subsidies involved, and the way the arrangements are structured. I don’t have a link of this–I probably could find one if I looked for it. The real winners in the setup are the financial institutions, not the solar panel makers or the homeowners.

      One of the concerns on scaling up is the amount of instability to the electrical grid system all of the small feed in devices like your solar panels will add. The electric utility may be able to counter this instability by adding more capability on its end. This is a cost you don’t see. I don’t know how this added complexity will affect the system over the long run. It is my fear that the added complexity will bring the system down before other limits are reached (like running short of coal, natural gas, and uranium).

      The fact that the juice you are paying for still cost you 12 cents is another form of subsidy, by the way. The utility’s costs don’t go down proportionately when you start using electricity from your solar panels. 12 cents is a lot more than what they are paying for wholesale power elsewhere. The utility can keep this arrangement up if there are a small number of users, but not if there are a large number of users.

      • Joe Clarkson says:

        Aloha Gail,

        I think you underestimate the ability of the grid to accommodate intermittent renewables. Here on the Big Island, there are times when wind generation can approach 50% of the total generation of the grid (at minimum grid load in the early morning). The existing fossil generation backs off and load-follows the variations in wind output. All that is required is that the ramp rate of the fossil generator be equal or better than the variation in aggregate wind output and also of equal gross capacity. Combustion turbines easily do that job here.

        Sometimes we even have renewables comprising the majority of all power output. In this case some of the renewables are base-load, such as our geo-thermal and hydro plants.

        You are correct in saying that wind does not add much, if any, capacity to the grid and is mostly a fuel saving source of energy, but at present grid penetrations “the amount of instability” from intermittent renewables is minimal. Don’t worry about it.

        If that happy day ever comes when a significant fraction of generation is from wind and PV (say 25-40%, depending on the other generators), then dispatchable renewables will be required if fossil plants are to be avoided. These can be hydro, CSP, OTEC, geothermal, and biomass. Of these, I believe CSP has the greatest potential for the long term.

  6. Arthur Robey says:

    Metaphorical time.
    My ex and her girlfriend were out in rough weather in a small sailboat. They could not get back to the lee shore because they were sailing too close to the wind. My friend had to swim out to them and take the boat right out and then tack back in.
    We are in the same position. We have to be brave and sail right out into the void in order to survive. Clinging desperately to the Known will be our undoing.
    I have ordered my first eCat. It will be 5 to 10kW. (http://ecat.com/ecat-questions/where-can-i-get-an-ecat)
    Do you remember Dr. Gerrard K O’Neil? He and his team showed that the colonisation of L3 and 4 are not only do-able but lucrative.
    Ossified thought patterns will lead us like moths to a flame.

    • The way the world has evolved is through a network of small decisions. I offer my view of the future. It may or may not be right. You have your view, and it may or may not be right.

      It is important that we try different things, based on these different views of the world. I am not convinced the eCat is the right thing, but it seems like Tom Whipple has been rooting for it too. At any rate, some of the things we try have the possibility of working; others will fail. It is only through trying multiple things that we will discover for certain whether anything at all will work.

      So go ahead with your plan. Perhaps it will work.

  7. Ikonoclast says:

    I am probably posting too late to get read but here goes. It is not really valid to look individually and piecemeal at the obtstacles facing one kind of renewable energy. One has to look at the possible renewable energy mix in toto. These forms of energy will complement each other. Wind energy will have a role but so will solar, tidal, hydro, geothermal and biomass. No single one of these (with the possible exception of solar) has the potential to provide all our energy needs.

    A combination of distributed systems, centralised systems and stand-alone systems comripising a mix of all these sources will make up our energy mix in the post-fossil future. This is if (a big if admittedly) civilization survives at all. Each of these forms of energy will have strengths and weaknesses and will be able to “cover” for each other’s weaknesses in the overall mix. Theoretically, if we captured just 1/7000th approximately of the solar energy hitting earth we would meet ALL modern day energy needs, not just electricity needs.

    Theoretically, the above is do-able as solar does provide a signficant postive EROEI, the payback time (both financially and energetically) is workable and the raw materials needed are mostly superabundant (silicon, steel or carbon fibre, cement, sand, gravel and clay.

    Our main enemies are runaway climate change, overpopulation, species extinctions, wars, resource misallocations, neoclassical economics and possibly non-ferrous mineral shortages along with soil erosion and water shortages; not the lack of energy sources per se.

    • You are right, the mix of renewables helps, but it is still a mix with a very small base. Most of the mix is hydroelectric, and it is already being used for balancing. The amount of hydroelectric has actually been going down, as old dams are taken out of service.

      Also, none of the renewalbes, with current technology, is able to do the major things we need done today, like manufacturing new supposedly renewable energy generating equipment, moving it to the proper location, and installing it. None of the renewables will build electric transmission lines either, or trucks for repairing electric transmission lines. So we have a very long way to go, in this regard.

      Solar PV is very tiny compared to wind. Burning biomass for fuel is a bigger share, but it is hard to scale up without cutting down our forests. It is hard to see any of these becoming very large in the next 20 years, partly because of the cost of new generation. In Figure 1 at the top of the post, you can see the change in hydro, other renewables, and wind since 1999. Wind is the one that has done best, so far, in making measurable progress.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        I need to reply point by point.

        Hydroelectric is limited as you say. It is very good where it can be harnassed without too much ecological disruption. However, the world has probably reached its hydroelectric potential already (without more major dams causing more major ecological disruption.

        Biomass is also limited. I agree with that. If we are to produce enough food then biomass energy will be largely trash burning eg. cane and grain baggase (fibrous stalks left over from cultivation) and scrub trees.

        Wind has a place as you say but is far from the whole answer.

        Solar PV might be tiny now but can be scaled up I believe. You have not responded to the fact that harnessing 1/7000th of the incident solar energy on earth would supply all our energy needs. This seems feasible and the infrastructure seems feasible too as most of the required materials are superabundant.

        I see a role for creating artifical CNG (comprssed natural gas or methane) from H2O + CO2 using solar energy. This CNG can then power our converted IC (internal combustion) engined fleet and all the things that you think can’t be done without oil can actually be done.

        At the same time, I agree we will have to become more energy efficient and even energy watching in future. Private automobiles will be a thing of the past. Walking, bicycles, mass transit and some electrical vehicles will be the order of the day.

        We will need energy efficient buildings, naturally ventilated and climate controlled on termite engineering principles, greater use of heat pumps, re-use of of waste heat throughout domestic, residential and industrial sites and many other micro-climate tricks to deal with the future needs.

        • I think the amount of the things that you are talking about that will be possible depends on how soon and how hard the downturn arrives. If we are severely resource constrained, and the downturn hits very soon (say this year or next) then very little will be possible. If we can put of the downturn for, say, 20 years, then no doubt much more is possible. I have a hard time seeing that we will be possible to put off the downturn for 20 years, but some people may think that is true.

          The idea of harvesting vastly more of the incident solar energy depends very much on maintaining a fossil fuel structure to do the things that are needed–pulling out the required minerals from the earth, processing them properly, transporting them to the right location, and then servicing them once (plus the transmission lines they require) once they get put in place. None of this process can be done with electricity alone, and it won’t be able to be done with electricity alone without a whole lot more research, and a without a huge amount of investment in the new technology. Unless we have a good supply of fossil fuels for the next 20 years, we won’t be able to continue ramping this up, and if we cannot perfect and invest in new technologies and approaches, we won’t be able to maintain it either.

          There are a lot of technological things that can be done like CNG, if we have a lot of time and capital for investment. I just don’t see the time and capital for investment as being there.

          The question is what kind of future should we prepare for–one in which technology/renewables will partially save us, or one in which we have to make do with technologies that are available with local materials, without the high-tech devices we have today, such as computers. My view is that there may be a few solar panels that will help us for a few years (or arguably, more than a few years, if we have devices that can use them directly), but today’s high-tech wind turbines, long distance transmission lines, and practically all other high-tech solutions will disappear quite soon. If we want to plan for the future, we really need to “shoot low,” using technology more like low tech windmills and labor-saving devices our ancestors used.

          • Joe Clarkson says:

            Take a look at images of Frank Shuman’s CSP generator constructed in Egypt in 1912 (yikes, a century ago). It looks remarkably similar to “modern” parabolic trough projects, and all done without semiconductors, radio, TV, airplanes, computers or just-in-time inventory control. Definitely has to be “low tech”.

            And I plan to keep my high tech PV modules working as long as possible with the help of another 150 year old “low tech” appliance, the lead-acid battery. If necessary the lead-acid battery can probably be produced on a craft basis with no more technical sophistication than found in a smithy or machine shop, the tools of which have been around for well over a century.

            So the lifestyle enabled by the low-technology of 1900 could be fairly comfortable. Unfortunately, such a transition will be impossible for all but a small minority, since it is likely that our high tech world will crumble from lack of fossil energy before adequate substitutes can be built. We also have another really big problem; circa-1900 agriculture cannot feed 7 billion people.

            • Thanks for pointing out Frank Shuman’s CSP generator. This is one link with a picture. We may very well be able to make some of these.

              It is the crumbling of fossil fuel infrastructure, and how these things work together that really make a difference. I think we will be seeing a lot of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.

  8. Michael Cain says:

    A remark and a question.

    I disagree with you on the “coal plants follow the transmission lines” thought. Unless those lines closely parallel rail lines and reliable water supplies for cooling, it’s unlikely that new coal plants will be built there. Keep in mind that almost 40% of the coal burned for electricity in the US comes from three counties in Wyoming. And the largest of the coal reserves are in just three states — Illinois, Wyoming, and Montana each have reserves double or more those of the fourth-place state.

    How do your ideas about transmission lines change if you consider the three largely independent grids in the US — Eastern, Western, and Texas Interconnects? The best of the wind resources in the West are significantly closer to one or more major consumer sinks for the power, and there are already transmission projects in various stages of planning. Texas is, I believe, well along in planning a wind-power-collection network to bring West Texas wind power to its consumption sinks farther east. At least to my eye, the transmission problems look significantly more difficult in the Eastern Interconnect than the other two — especially when you consider the amount of power consumed there.

    • I appreciate your comments. I am sure there are some details (or major points) I don’t understand.

      I was thinking that if we were just bringing a transmission line or two across (probably direct current lines), transferring from one grid (Western, Eastern, Texas) to another wouldn’t be a problem (except for the cost of the long transmission lines, and line-losses involved). Electricity would have to be transformed to the proper alternating current at the end, but the grid origin wouldn’t make a difference, since it would be DC current that is being transferred.

      Part of the question is exactly how much wind energy needs to be transferred from place to place. If we are just talking about our current 2.3% wind penetration level, it would seem like it wouldn’t take too much transferring of electricity from place to place, and it could mostly be done within grids, and you might be right that current planned transmission lines would handle the load. If we are talking about 10 times as much, then it seems like we would might be thinking about transferring among grids. Also, moving among grids might be helpful for balancing.

      So my comment on coal was assuming that someone was trying to bring wind from the mountain states or Montana east. Then coal might work to help fill the DC transmission lines, if one could find enough water to generate electricity in place. I know that there is some water-sparing coal-generation technology available.

      One of the references someone else linked to talked about wind transmission lines costing 2 or 3 times as much as other long distance transmission lines. I presume this reference expected that the wind transmission lines would be kept fairly “empty” so that they could accommodate the higher transmission capacity needed when the wind was blowing. This would be a consideration also.

      It seems like there would be details to be worked out, whatever was done. What would be the cost involved? Who would pay for it? Would the new transmission line be sufficiently “full” that the whole project makes economic sense?

      • Michael Cain says:

        The biggest problem — to my mind — is in the relative sizes of the the three interconnect regions. Using EIA by-state-by-source data on electricity generation for the 48 contiguous states, you get a split between the three of Texas 5% of total US generation, West 9%, and East 86% (these are approximate, as interconnect boundaries don’t follow state borders precisely). When you look at the population figures for comparison, you get roughly Texas 8% of US total, West 23%, and East 69%. At least to me, two things jump out: it would take *enormous* amounts of “surplus” generating capacity in the West and Texas to make any dent in the Eastern supply problem; and the East generates significantly more electricity per-capita (and given the very limited connections between the three, must also use more) than either Texas or the West. There are a number of factors that contribute to the latter — more moderate overall climate (particularly when population concentrations are taken into account), differences in the age (hence efficiency) of infrastructure, and differences in the nature of produced goods and services probably being the three most important. Well, it doesn’t hurt that California made some major conservation efforts to reduce usage following the reregulation fiasco of 10-12 years ago.

        Consider also the situation if coal and existing nuclear are considered the bad guys that should be eliminated soon. In the East, they account for about 71% of generation; in Texas, 46%; in the West, 40%. So not only is the Eastern problem much larger in an absolute sense, it’s also much worse in a relative sense. When someone says, “The US can’t replace its coal and nuclear with renewables,” that’s actually a statement about the Eastern Interconnect. The East can’t generate enough with renewables on its own; and I would also argue that it can’t possibly extract enough renewables from the West and Texas to meet Eastern needs. OTOH, the West already gets about 25% of its electricity from renewables (lots of conventional hydro *relative to Western demand*), and combined with its potential for more hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, and pumped hydro storage, plus the much smaller absolute size of the problem, has a reasonable chance of converting. Texas is somewhere in between.

        • Thanks for your insights. What you say makes sense. I live in the Atlanta area (in the East, in the area with no wind), so you can guess that the amount of renewables we use here is pretty small.

          I don’t know if it could ever possibly make sense to share renewables across interconnect boundaries, using direct current transmission. There clearly isn’t enough renewable capacity for everyone to have today’s level of electricity. But the cost of long distance infrastructure and maintenance as well as line losses may make sharing impractical.

  9. Isaac says:

    Wow! A lot of weird data and conclussions over here, let’s go point by point:

    “Obstacle 1: Wind energy is dependent on large subsidies.”

    Yes, and fossil fuels aren’t receiving subsidies, are they?

    From the same EIA’s report and the same table data (year 2010):

    – Coal: 1,358 million $
    – NG & Oil: 2,820 million $

    Not bad at all, but wait a minute… let’s scroll down to the next page of the report (year 2007):

    – Coal (total): 3,981 million $
    – NG & Oil: 2,010 million $
    – Wind: 476 million $

    And that’s a key factor, all fast energy development needs from helps/subsidies, but while wind and other renewables are starting now to get big money, fossil fuels have been received them FOR DECADES.

    Also your estimation of the subsidies per MW of wind is just plain wrong. The main subsidy is the PRODUCTION Tax Credit, that’s not a subsidy for MW installed, but for MWh generated, so it affects the total of wind power installed (2010 end = 40,180 MW) not the last year new capacity. So instead of $826,318 per MW, the real subsidy is about $124,092 per MW. Big difference.

    “Obstacle 2: Wind energy is of a lower quality than electricity produced by fossil fuels and by nuclear energy.”

    Define “quality”. If you’re thinking of the lack of follow load capacity of wind power, that’s weak. Some of these technologies (big coal plants and nuclear) have very big thermal inertias and operation complexities that make them as bad as wind power for follow load operation, and still they’re used massively.

    “Consequently, without mandated feed-in tariffs, the sales price of wind-generated electricity tends to fall below the wholesale price of other types of electricity (Figure 3). This lower price for wind generated electricity helps explain some of the need for subsidies.”

    You put this as it was a problem, when it is an advantage. Since wind power must be dispatched when the wind is blowing, wind power operators sell the electricity at minimum price to avoid a cut-off in the pool price market (they left the others to put the final price of the pool), what causes a fall on the price of the electricity as a whole. Here in Spain, that was translated to a fall of 3.4€/MWh on the electricity market in 2009 (and 776 million € that act as a trade-off on the premiums/subsidies):


    “Because of the lower quality of wind, Figure 4 represents an “apples to oranges” comparison, if one makes the standard comparison of amounts in the last column. Instead, since wind energy only replaces fuel, what needs to be compared is

    “Total System Levelized Cost” for wind relative to
    “Variable O&M (including fuel)” for other sources of production

    In Figure 4, the Total System Levelized Cost of Wind is 97.0, and of Wind-Offshore is 243.2. These might be compared with the Variable O&M (including fuel) of coal (Advanced coal is 25.7) or of natural gas (Conventional Combined Cycle is 45.6), for example. On this basis, wind energy comes out badly, and is one reason it requires such high subsides.”

    This is totally arbitrary. The costs of electricity production must include all costs (capital, fixed and variable O&M). And wind power hasn’t created the concept of “backup power”, this has existed since… well since electric grids were created. There is a reason for a 28% load factor on CCGT and it’s not wind power. (By the way, is EIA serius about a 87% CF from 28% today in 5 years?, what are they going to do close all coal power plants?)

    “Another related issue is that differences in fuel quality can lead to misleading EROEI indications. At least some petroleum is used in manufacturing, transporting, installing, and maintaining wind turbines, but the energy that is provided as an output is mostly replacing natural gas, and perhaps some coal. Coal and natural gas are much cheaper (and more abundant) than oil, so even a small input/output substitution in this direction can quickly hurt the economics of the process.”

    Even if wind power needs some oil to be produced and mantained, this is a very small quantity and doesn’t reflects a lot on the costs (they’re more related to the steel price, i.e.). Also there are possible oil susbtitutes that can be made from coal or NG, or even the use of CNG in vehicles. The savings of wind power of these fuels can help them to have these resources in the future.

    “Obstacle 3: Natural gas is now very cheap in the US, and there is a huge amount of natural gas generating capacity already built.”

    This is the most credible obstacle, but if you start to demand a lot of gas for electricity and transport, the price would skyrocket like happened a few years ago. So beware.

    “Obstacle 4: In the US, we do not have an electrical grid that can provide very much long distance transport of electricity, and there are several reasons why changing this situation is very difficult.

    Growth in wind energy requires very good long distance transmission capability, partly because wind resources are often located a long way from prospective users, and partly because the variable nature of wind can be “evened out” if wind energy is shared over a large area. Unfortunately, the US electrical system has grown up under a system where each locality has been expected to generate its own electricity. Under such a system, electrical transmission from city to city was originally designed to handle only occasional emergencies, and thus is very limited.”

    Well Spain has a similar problem, is an “electricity island” with little conettions to other countries (except perhaps Portugal). Yet, wind power provides now more than 15% of the electricity on mainland Spain (with peaks of over 50% managed). This without Smartgrids, HVDC lines and storage other than conventional pumping dams.

    How it was done? Simply making forecast of wind production in days in advance (not hard nowadays with weather forecasting available), tele-metering the production of the wind farms in real time (telecom resources already in place), and having a control system in real time of all electric sources (a little more advanced control that a conventional grid, but feasible):


    With this many people here thinks that getting a 25-30% wind power in grid is possible, which is a very large amount.

    “Obstacle 5: A high proportion of funding for wind energy is up front.

    Oil, coal, and gas all started out as fairly high EROEI investments, and much of the investment took place as the fuel was extracted. In such a situation, the investments threw off a high level of profit which could be used to fund further investment.

    Fossil fuels are gradually shifting away from this model, with higher up front investment, and lower profit available to fund further investment. Wind turbines represent the extreme end of this continuum with most of the investment up front, and the return trailing many years behind.”

    People tend to think that oil has a high EROEI at the beggining and that’s why the industrial society developed so fast at the ealy of the last century. The problem is that the society doesn’t use crude oil to work, it uses products derived from oil that are expensive to produce in energy. A typical refinery consumes 10% in energy of the oil it processes, so it’s not possible to make gasoline or diesel with an EROEI bigger than 10:1. CAS Hall made a calculation and obtained an EROEI of 4.14:1 for oil fuels nowadays:


    On the other hand, EROEI of wind is about 19.8:1 making an average of several studies:


    So the energy upfront for wind power it’s actually less costly than oil is now.

    “Obstacle 6: Adding wind energy to the electric grid adds complexity which may be difficult to manage with declining resources.”

    As I explained before, it’s possible to get a way better share of wind power in the US that the mere 2.3% right now, 15-20% shares are being proved in other countries.

    And let’s not forget that the long term goal is not getting a 100% wind grid, but a 100% renewables grid. Mixing renewables technologies is not only a way to overcome their single obstacles to get a better share, but also a way to improve robustness because they tend to complement each other (many times when wind isn’t blowing, sun is shinning, i.e.). A German village has achieved this using a combination of wind, solar PV and biogas:


    Best regards,

    • Regarding the amount of subsidies for fossil fuels vs wind, they are much lower as a percentage. Wind has been around a long time now, to need such high percentage subsidies. The time has come that someone should start asking some pretty hard questions, IMO.

      Regarding comparing the Production Tax Credit to Wind Turbines installed in FY 2010, rather than MWh generated in FY 2010, the comparison comes out even worse, in my view. The MWh generated in FY 2010 were approximately 89,460,500, (taking the weighted average of 2009 and 2010 calendar year amounts). This saved approximately 731,454 Thousand MCF of natural gas, at a cost of $3,745,000,000. The cost of wind subsidies was $4,986,000,000, so the wind subsidies amounted to 133% of the amount of natural gas saved. The subsidy per MWh was approximately $55.73. The average retail sales price for electricity for FY 2010 $98.30, so Federal Subsidies were equal to 57% of the sales price of electricity on average. (Of course, if the price of wind was higher, the subsidy % might be lower.) I thought I was being generous when I made the comparison the way I did.

      Regarding “quality,” this is a word that gets used in academic papers relating to energy and EROEI. Electricity is supposedly high quality; coal is low quality. There is discussion in various academic papers about adjusting for “energy quality”. So I used the word quality for a reason. Intermittent electricity, that is non-dispatchable, is low-quality fuel, especially if there is not adequate electricity storage or long-distance transmission. The low purchase price of wind-generated electricity helps keep the price of electricity to the user low, but it is a problem, if wind generated electricity cannot really be generated for that price, and needs subsidies to fix the situation.

      Regarding the comparison, I am explaining what wind energy should be compared to, if it only substitutes for fuel. By the way, this view that wind energy substitutes only for fuel (and not for actual electricity generated) is based on a discussion with Chris Namovitz, head of EIA renewable energy forecasting, when I wrote an earlier post on the subject. In an e-mail he told me:

      Because of its relatively low “capacity value” (a result of usually not blowing very regularly during peak load hours), wind largely competes as a “fuel saver” resource, and can generally be compared against the fuel cost of what ever mix of fuel it is displacing (whether from existing capacity or from alternative investments in future capacity). In the U.S., this is typically some mix of relatively inexpensive coal and somewhat expensive natural gas, depending on the location of the wind plant, and the resulting seasonal/daily wind and load profiles.

      With respect to substitution of other fuels of oil, this requires both time and investment. When we are resource-constrained, there are limits as to what one can do.

      Spain is doing more with respect to renewables, but they are also running into huge financial problems. Wind and solar are part of the huge financial problems.

      You cannot compare the EROEI of wind and gasoline in my view. The wind EROEI has the costs mostly up front, and EROEI does not measure timing. The wind EROEI is mostly based on what wind turbine manufacturers claim their performance will be, not on real world performance. The EROEI does not include long distance transmission of wind. It does not adjust for steps downward in quality. Wind is also a very different product than gasoline–not substitutable.

      Re adding more electricity to the grid, the grid in Europe is different than in the US. That is why I wrote about the US situation. As Bill Richardson (energy secretary under Clinton) said,”We’re a superpower with a Third World grid.”

      Getting to a 100% renewables grid will not be easy either. If takes fossil fuels to make all of the so-called renewables we use today, as well as the electrical transmission. It is possible to build dams without fossil fuels, but by the time you start fixing dams so that they will provide electric transmission, you start needing fossil fuels. (You can probably grind grain and do other things without fossil fuels.)

      • Isaac says:

        Wind hasn’t been significant until last decade. Oil & gas has been for decades and yet they are receiving subsidies that some actually say could be $41 billion:


        The hard questions should go to Oil & Gas guys, they’re the ones who have a mature industry. Also one of the reasons to subsidize wind & renewables is the learning curve and economies of scale will make them cheaper over time, as is happening.

        What would be the average retail sales price for electricity for FY 2010 if wind wasn’t present? Sure would be slightly higher than the $98.30 per MWh, but this is important because a single buck increase equals to 4 billion $ in payment (that’s what people looked here in Spain). And it’s the same with NG, a bigger comsumption in CCGT would mean by simple demand/supply laws more than the 3.745 billion $ estimated.

        “Spain is doing more with respect to renewables, but they are also running into huge financial problems. Wind and solar are part of the huge financial problems.”

        This is a cause/effect fallacy. If renewables were affecting negatively the economy of the countries that are promoting them, why is Germany doing so well with even way more renewables than Spain?


        The real cause/effect is, did your country have a real state bubble?

        And the EROEI number for wind power of 19.8:1 came from 60 different OPERATIONAL studies, that I doubt all made by manufacturers.

        Best regards,

  10. EnergyExpert says:

    Thank you for trying to have a balanced discussion.

    You did include a major unsupported assumption “It can reduce CO2 emissions.” I am not aware of any scientific proof that wind energy can consequentially reduce CO2 emissions.

    That is the gist if the issue here, that you would do well to focus on: wind energy is a political idea that has not been scientifically vetted. In other words, we are putting the cart before the horse.

    At this point we have no genuine scientific assessment that wind energy is a cost-beneficial alternative — yet it is enormously subsidized, and in many states actually mandated.

    This is what happens when our energy and environmental policies are lobbyist driven, rather than being based on science.

    For a scientific perspective on wind energy see EnergyPresentation.Info

    • I looked at the CO2 issue, and was satisfied that there would be at least a small benefit, as long as wind generation is replacing natural gas or coal generation. This seemed to be true, even taking into account the fact that wind turbines are built early on, and the benefit comes later. I didn’t look into whether other approaches would give a better cost/benefit ratio, though. I also didn’t take into account CO2 associated with building new transmission.

      Because of the all of the subsidies at the federal level, the higher cost of wind is not generally charged back to electricity consumers. This means that it does nothing to discourage electrical use, even though its cost of production is higher. So wind is not helpful in that regard.

      One thing I noted from the presentation you linked to is that, according to the author, wind transmission is disproportionately expensive, costing two to three times as much as conventional transmission. There is also the issue of long-distance electrical line losses, which I did not consider. Both of these would tend to make wind a less-good source than I indicated.

      There is so much almost religious belief that wind will save us, that it is hard to get people to think rationally about the subject. I am doubtful that The Oil Drum will run this post, for example.

      • EnergyExpert says:


        Again thank you for your reasoned reply.

        It’s a common misunderstanding that most people do not realize that there is no such thing as wind by itself. It simply does not exist. Although it is not acknowledged by wind lobbyists, wind (unlike any conventional source of power) MUST be augmented with a fast-responding power source, which is usually gas.

        Therefore, ALL conclusions (cost, performance, environmental impact, etc) must be about the Wind+Gas package.

        Well there are actually two types of Gas facilities: the low cost, faster responding, inefficient version (Gas1 — which is the type usually used to augment wind), and the high cost, slower responding, more efficient version (Gas2).

        So back to CO2. The question is: how much does Wind+Gas save over just Gas?
        The more accurate phrasing of it is: “how much does Wind+Gas1 save over just Gas2?

        The answer is little, if any. The wind element is superfluous, and just adds unnecessary cost and environmental damage.

  11. Typical Liberal says:

    How DARE you challenge the efficacy of wind power? Do you have any idea what powerful and deceptive people you are challenging? My Marin County friends will not stand for this!

    • Andrew in the Bay says:

      This is pretty much how these people in Marin County think. They and the L.A. elitist leftists run CA. As a lifelong Californian it is really sad that our State is controlled by a bunch of hypocritical, anti-science “intellectuals” who refuse to even entertain the concept that they might be wrong (about anything). It seems that you have die hard know-nothing of all political persuasions…science always takes a back seat. Texas, for example, has the right wing version. All of these people are disgusting.

  12. Pingback: Obstacles Facing US Wind Energy »

  13. Pingback: About Wind Energy | Eolic Energy

  14. Bicycle Dave says:

    Hi Gail,

    Great Article and good comments. Your analysis seems to be centered around the utility company based system we have today – as it should be (as this is how the great majority of us get our daily juice). What I’m wondering about is the role of wind for very small-scale, community or private systems in future years when the big utility companies become unreliable.

    Are there reasonably sustainable technologies to generate, store, and utilize wind/PV electricity for running water pumps, powering small tools/motors, LED lighting, etc? Not to continue BAU but simply to capitalize on hundreds of years of accumulated scientific knowledge to help a transition to a standard of living and longevity that is better than the middle ages. For discussion purposes, let assume (wish?) a humane transition to a dramatically smaller global human population that does not stress resources into a Mad Max world.

    I understand the issues with many scarce materials and machining/manufacturing capabilities. I also suspect that we have a pretty large supply of materials-motors-tools-etc that could be salvaged/recycled into lower tech uses. In theory, it seems that human/animal powered vehicles, passive building designs, local food growing, etc could provide for most of our necessities (forget cars, big TVs, A/C, air travel vacations, high rise buildings, etc).

    What I see as the major impediment (besides a general ignorance of the problem) is the hordes of millions of people streaming out of the metro areas if we can’t get human population under control. All kinds of potential solutions for maintaining a semi-comfortable/safe lifestyle rely upon every individual having access to some amount of livable land space – I don’t think a Chicago or NY high-rise qualifies.

    • I am not optimistic about high tech solutions of any kind lasting, because we are not going to be able to keep them up with local materials. I think old-fashioned windmills that can be made with local materials will last. I think printed books that are properly stored will last for at least a little while. (Maybe we need storage of some in an area similar to that of the dead sea scrolls.)

      We need to be relearning the technology used in the past. Some of it was very good. Kris De Decker has done a good job of researching some of this in Low-Tech Magazine.

      I suppose a few things, like solar panels and batteries will last for a short time. The lasting-time a person often hears quoted for batteries is eight years.(If the battery is already in use, it would be less than this.) A short time is perhaps better than nothing, but can distract us from the need to find longer-term solutions.

  15. Don Stewart says:

    After listening to all the problems with any technological solution which will permit us to continue to live the way wealthy Americans live now, I have concluded that it is hopeless. For example, see this post over on Carolyn Baker’s web site:

    Even if we were to find a supergiant oil field located conveniently to refineries, it would not solve our problems. We are also running out of dozens of critical metals. The discussion of wind power has talked about some of these.

    We also have the intractable problems posed by Climate Change. And social cohesion seems sure to fail. And Money and Finance are giant ponzi schemes–whether sovreign debts, insurance company promises to pay, or all the funny money circulating in the ether. We have lost a lot of topsoil with no real ideas how to repair the damage. And so on and so forth.

    So it seems to me that we are simply trying to do the wrong thing. Instead, I think we should be trying to create a satisfying life that is as simple as possible. The champions here are clearly the bacteria–which should be an inspiration to us. Single celled bacteria solved major extinction problems three different times. To overcome the limitations of fermentation, they invented photosynthesis–solar power. But the bacteria were using carbon dioxide, and they took so much out of the air that the planet froze. Bacteria learned to separate hydrogen from the oxygen in water and use the oxygen as fuel. This eventually precipitated a pollution crisis. The bacteria invented respiration, and have remained in stable equilibrium now for billions of years. All this while remaining single celled creatures with no brains and nothing we would recognize as technology. If one steps back 10 yards and looks at our activities, the contrast between something like off-shore wind or nuclear power plants and the activities of the bacteria are astonishing. We humans are putting our faith in every more complexity dependent on ever scarcer resources. The bacteria learned to live with the resources they had in a system of total recycling powered by the sun.

    I don’t know exactly what humans should be doing, but I am pretty sure it isn’t what we are doing. I think we begin by asking some very basic questions about what we really need, and how we might go about it in a very much simpler world. It’s easy to tick off a lot of things we don’t need. We need simple food, water, shelter, and clothing if we live in the temperate zone. Beyond that, the real challenge is to build a satisfying social life. It will be necessary to get along and enjoy the company of people one is physically close to. Today, we tend to group into sympathetic societies facilitated by electronic means such as this blog. In the future, it will be very much more important to get along with family and neighbors. That has never been easy.

    We also, I think, need to be storing up some good ideas about descent technologies. Kris DeDecker has a wonderful piece on Chinese wheelbarrows:

    Note that these wheelbarrows were a response to a collapse of the good road system of the early Chinese Empire. I can visualize a descent from big automobiles to small automobiles to bicycles to a combination of walking, riding mules, and using Chinese wheelbarrows for transport. That’s not so scary.

    Don Stewart

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Don, enjoyed your comment. Re what we don’t need: we don’t need more humans.

    • David F Collins says:

      Agreed, Mr Stewart. Visualize a livable descent. And not all of our technological «progress» is going to disappear as energy becomes scarce and dear. The internet was started as a way to keep communications going under really adverse circumstances. And it can, even if not at ever-increasing speeds! During Hurricane Mitch in 1998, my family kept in touch with extended family back in Honduras (my wife is a native of that country) by email, which somehow always got through, although we could never get a decent telephone connection. True enough, the internet could take time; one email took six hours to get through. And let us not forget how to make Kevlar; that 19th Century Irish dentist’s invention, the pneumatic tire, is wonderful, but bicycles and Chinese wheelbarrows work far better with pneumatic tires reinforced with Kevlar, especially as rubber becomes scarce and dear and roads get worse.

    • Thanks for your comment Don. I had read Kris DeDecker’s post before I saw your link–he always brings together wonderful insights about what worked previously.

      We are told that people quickly adapt to a change in status, whether it is a handicap or a change in income level, or something else. I know I was about as happy as a graduate student living on next to nothing as I was later on, with a fairly high salary. As long as people’s basic needs are met, they get along surprisingly well.

  16. sponia says:

    To my mind, it is Obstacle #2 that is the kicker; wind is of lesser value per kilowatt than other forms of energy. This skews the numbers even further into the red. Wind requires the support of an energy storage system, as well as a transmission system. Just how much Lithium is there in the crust of this planet anyway? Can we build enough batteries to provide the storage that Wind requires? Now we need three complex systems to solve just one problem. Engineers will tell you that this will triple the likelyhood of failure in the electricity delivery system. Not what I’d call a ‘robust’ solution, anyway.

    • If we had enough energy storage, then wind would be worth more. But trying to get enough storage would take a long time and be expensive. I think that some analyses assume we will get enough storage, or enough long distance transmission, so everything will work out quickly.

      There are storage ideas besides lithium batteries, so that doesn’t have to be the deal killer. It just gets complicated and expensive, and perhaps ultimately not do-able.

    • Stu Kautsch says:

      Again, let’s watch the assumptions.
      The underlying assumptions here are:
      (1) That electricity is the only useful form of energy (i.e., that the mechanical energy that can be harnessed from simple turbines is not worth having, even if it substitutes for a lot of electricity); and
      (2) That the only milieu in which electricity is useful is on-demand, 24/7. That having occasional electricity is not better than having none at all.

      I don’t agree with either assumption, so it’s difficult to follow all of the arguments. And, as I said in another comment, wind turbines existed for centuries prior to the industrial age, so manufacturing them is not the stopper, either, particularly when contrasted with having no power of any kind.

      • sponia says:

        I believe wind is an extremely useful source of energy; but it is just a much more complicated way of achieving the same goals, as it is being envisioned today (i.e. the Cape Cod wind project). This is generally not a desirable feature in a long term solution.
        As a ‘parachute’ technology, extending the usefulness of our largely electrical society, it is probably the only reasonable option. Built as a decentralized system, the transmission becomes more simplified and you are back to only two complex systems to deliver electricity – generation and storage. The problem comes when spare batteries and parts for the turbines are no longer available. Then, the choice becomes either learn to manufacture them yourself, or shift to a simpler technology that you can manufacture locally. 18th Century model windmills do produce power; just not enough to power ‘the lifestyle we have become accustomed to.’

        • sponia says:

          One thing I am looking forward to; I expect resurgence, even a renaissance, in wind powered shipping. For some obscure reason, I find that idea very satisfying.

          • Stu Kautsch says:

            Agreed. Since it substitutes for fossil fuel usage, wind-powered shipping is part of a “solution”.
            As far as ‘the lifestyle we have become accustomed to’, I think most commenters on PO sites kissed that goodbye some years ago.

            • sponia says:

              That’s the real problem – the space between those who are paying attention and those who seem to be ignoring reality. The disparity stems from a difference in time scales; virtually everyone is willing to do almost anything to address the issues – but just not today.
              That’s why, in the face of incontrovertible evidence of impending change, so many of our leaders and other public figures continue to follow behavior patterns that are looking increasingly – I’ll call it ‘out of touch’.
              There are very few ‘wealthy’ people left in the world who know how to survive outside of their existing context. Without catastrophe like Fukushima, or total collapse like Argentina at the Millennium to push them out these people will not leave their island of stability for any reason. You can’t really blame them; theirs is a survival strategy developed over several generations and there is A) no obvious alternative and ii) no pressing need to find one anyway. I call this the Ronald Reagan outlook on life; ’After I’m dead, what do I care anyway?’
              Which is true, you can’t argue with him. He’s dead.
              A fundamental reorientation of core values has to take place before industrial society will voluntarily start looking for its own replacement. Current views on the Energy predicament go only so far – they hesitate to talking about changing other people’s values – some brave individuals have started talking about changing their own, which is a start. The thing is, system dysfunction cannot be addressed one person at a time. It doesn’t work like that.
              Which is why [the ship is still headed for the iceberg insert favorite metaphor here]. But I’m OK with that. My view is, nature is the penultimate self regulating system. Balance will be restored. Of course, it may be the cockroaches are the only ones left to see it, but that’s OK with me too.
              After I’m dead, what do I care anyway?

  17. Further down the road (many years from now), if there are enough electric vehicles, their batteries could form a large battery cloud that would store electricity generated by wind and solar. http://www.wwindea.org/technology/ch04/en/4_3_4.html

    In the US, natural gas powered cars would seem to make more sense than electric cars however. This is different in the rest of the world, as natural gas is rather expensive (2 to 3 times more expensive than US natgas).

    As the cost of fossil fuels goes up (and it will), wind will become increasingly attractive even without subsidies.

    • It depends on what fossil fuel you are substituting for. If you are substituting for oil or high priced natural gas (say from LNG, or piped in from Russia), wind might make economic sense right now, if you have the transmission lines to support it, and the capital to finance it. That wouldn’t be in the US (except perhaps Hawaii), but it might be in Europe or Japan.

      In the US, we would need a lot higher price for natural gas and coal for the economics to work out. I am wondering if we would not get to a circular situation–the cost of everything would go us so much simultaneously (oil, natural gas, coal, steel for the turbines, maintenance for roads and turbines), that we really couldn’t afford to invest in wind turbines. It would be basically the “receding horizons” problem we run into with oil quite often.

      • Joe Clarkson says:

        The reason we are stuck with “receding horizons” now is that we did not insist on changing the playing field early on. Virtually every energy source has been compared with the cost of fossil fuels and found wanting. Gail is making that same comparison with this post, with the same conclusion. Nothing can compete with fossil fuels until they become so rare and hard to extract that their price skyrockets. By then it is far too late to make the switch. Now is “then” and it is indeed far too late.

        If we had only taxed fossil fuels so that their price was equal to or greater than renewable sources of energy we would be in far better shape. Such taxation surely would have slowed exponential growth, but there would have been far less chance of energy overshoot. Even better would have been to ban the burning of petroleum. It is far too valuable as a petro-chemical feed-stock to burn.

        But we didn’t do anything, so now we are stuck with our horrible predicament. Many people saw it coming and sounded the alarm, but to no avail. And such a simple concept..finite means finite. Even with such a simple concept I wonder how many people will fail to understand what is happening even as our civilization crumbles around us.

  18. David F Collins says:

    I have a quibble concerning the need for long distance electric power transmission. Back in the 1930’s and a few decades thereafter, back when hydroelectric power was so new-and-all, nuclear enrichment facilities (e.g. Hanford, Oak Ridge) were sited near major hydroelectric generation installations (e.g. dams). Likewise, aluminum production installations. Before that, iron production installations were located where Mother Nature had installed iron ore and fuel, or where transportation to bring them together was most economical. Note: there is little in way of steel mills at the east end of Lake Superior (although there was plenty of iron ore there) or in southern Illinois (although there was plenty of coal there). Even less in way of steel mills in Nebraska or Saskatchewan, which nobody felt like subsidizing back when steel mills were being handed out. Kinda like there is little in way of citrus groves in Scotland, where the high prices of citric fruits inspired the frugal folk there to invent marmalade, so they could make use of the rind. Examples abound.

    The more one looks at the alternative sources of energy (there was a magazine by that name, back in the 1970’s – I remember seeing it in the GM Tech Center libraries back then), the more it becomes clear they cannot replace present current sources of energy. But for a wide range of reasons, we cannot continue much if any longer with our current suite of sources of energy. Kinda like the Church summer camp song, «Oh, You Can’t Get to Heaven, with a _____» (fill in the blank), with «Heaven» being a future with copious cheap energy. Gail your last option, the null option of severely curtailed energy consumption, is the only one available.

  19. Pingback: Obstacles Facing US Wind Energy | Our Finite World | Secularity (under construction)

  20. Brian Cohen says:

    To add to the discussion about Wind Energy requiring fossil fuels, I have read that over 1,000 tons of steel is required to build just one 5 MW wind turbine.For wind to generate far more electricity than it currently does, would therefore require an insane amount of iron ore and energy just to produce the steel.

    • Agreed! If we are at 2.3% of total electricity now, we would theoretically need to get to almost 50 times that level to cover all electrical energy. To get to all energy in total (including liquid fuels and natural gas not used for electricity), we would probably have to do something like double that amount. But we can’t make and maintain wind turbines without fossil fuels, so it really wouldn’t work.

  21. There was initially interesting discussion of the potential for wind energy at the Pickens Plan web site during 2008 and 2009. Boone was unsuccessful attempting to develop wind energy. It is true that there is lots of wind (and sand) in the Texas Panhandle. One of my earliest childhood memories was of a black duster. For good reason Amarillo High School teams – where Boone played basketball from 1945 to 1947 – were known as the Amarillo Sandies.

  22. Jerry McManus says:

    Good post, Gail. Thanks for your insights. In your conclusion:

    “We need fossil fuels to make wind energy, and we need fossil fuels to transport wind turbines to the locations where they are to be installed. We also need fossil fuels to repair wind turbines and to maintain transmission lines.”

    To my mind this trumps all of the other difficulties, it is the elephant in the room that advocates of so-called “renewables” don’t want to talk about. Solar panels and wind turbines are completely dependent on our vast fossil fueled industrial infrastructure for their very existence, and they will most certainly not be getting any cheaper or more abundant as fossil fuels (and other critical resources) become ever more scarce and costly in the years to come.

    Nor will the large amount of capital required to build them out magically materialize as we find ourselves devoting an ever larger share of global capital to extracting those depleting non-renewable resources, especially as we desperately try to return to “growth”. And that, lest we forget, is in addition to the costs of mitigating the global climate catastrophe already triggered by our decades of carbon emissions.

    Those facts alone are enough to answer the other question you touched on at the beginning, the one really paramount and painfully obvious question that “renewable” advocates never seem to have a good answer for, which is:

    Solar PV and wind turbines are not new technologies, after all, so If they are as cheap/easy/practical/efficient as claimed, then why are we not doing it now?

    • Peter Staudt-Fischbach says:

      OK, let’s start fighting against the old myths:
      In this case read point 3, energy pay back time. By the way, US scientists and engineers are able to develop various ways to make wind and solar energy usable for transportation (found e.g. in “Scientific American”) of course this is not supported by the oil and gas companies.

      • The energy payback calculations leave out long distance transmission lines and they leave out a lot of indirect costs that result in other people buying energy products of various types. They leave out employee salaries and financing costs, both of which go to someone, and result in payments for energy products. And as I mentioned in the post, the substitution doesn’t necessarily go the right way–to some extent we are using oil to replace natural gas and coal.

        My article relates to the US only. The UK seriously needs additional energy supply because its natural gas supply is declining. On shore wind is a whole lot less expensive than offshore, so it might be worthwhile trying, if land is available, and the grid is up to it.

        • Peter Staudt-Fischbach says:

          You should not mix up arguments which describe a broken economic system with technical boundary conditions. Of course the US electrical grid is currently on a level short after stone age. But this is not a fault of renewable energy but of short term Harvard Business Manager thinking. MBA’s will not solve the problems, they are causing them.

      • Jerry McManus says:

        Peter has graciously provided us with a textbook example of precisely the behavior I described. He utterly and completely fails to answer, even in the most superficial way, the points I raised. One wonders if he even bothered to read my comment at all.

        He also beautifully illustrates another serious impediment to progress on these issues, namely the fact that most people are either unable or unwilling to see past their own limited world views. If Peter is representative of the general population, and I believe he is, then sadly we are doomed to, in his words, “fight” each other even as we collectively sail off the edge of the cliff.

        Pity, that.

        • Peter Staudt-Fischbach says:

          Said a member of the former super power … So obviously the Chinese are completely dumb to invest their bucks (and I mean bucks, not Renminbi) into renewables.

        • I have written very little about wind energy, partly because it seems to be such an emotional topic. One wind post I wrote at The Oil Drum set a record with 753 comments. I get the impression that somehow wind energy is seen as the source of salvation by some. I agree that it works in some situations, but as a fossil fuel extender, not as a way of preserving BAU.

    • I didn’t say that wind turbines are part of the fossil fuel system, but that is pretty much the case. If we lose fossil fuels–perhaps because they are too high priced–we lose wind turbines as well.

      • Peter Staudt-Fischbach says:

        This statement is simply wrong. You could say that the energy system of the industrialized countries is based so heavily on fossile fuels currently that you will find a significant portion of it in every product’s LCA.
        However, this system has been developed from a non-fossile fuel based economy and obviously the next step (from fossile to renewable) is not only possible but will happen sooner or later anyhow. If we could make this paradigm shift in our minds earlier it would be better for us, our children and the world as a whole.
        The fossile guys may listen to W. Edwards Deming again: “You don’t need to change, survival is not mandatory.”

      • Jerry McManus says:

        Gail, not sure what you took as a misquote, I certainly didn’t put words in your mouth, just copy and pasted a snippet directly from your post.

        No matter, you are exactly right, without the massive energy subsides represented by fossil fuels we will lose wind turbines along with all the other so-called “renewable” techno fantasies. Especially on the industrial scale generally being proposed.

        Can anyone demonstrate even one wind turbine or solar panel that can be mined, refined, fabricated, transported, assembled, and maintained using “renewable” energy alone? No, not even close, quite in spite of all hand waving and wishful thinking to the contrary.

        • Sorry I wasn’t clear in what I was saying. I didn’t mean what you said was a misquote. I was meaning to agree with you, and extend what I said a bit. In other posts, I have talked about wind turbines being part of the fossil fuel system.

        • Stu Kautsch says:

          With wind turbines, that’s extremely simple – the windmills that appeared in many places in Europe before coal was in widespread use.
          They did very useful work. They did not generate electricity, but it was in a pre-electric age. Besides, one does not always need electricity for tasks like pumping water or grinding grain.

  23. Peter Staudt-Fischbach says:

    I think the biggest obstacle is the ignorance of “Joe Average” (likewise in the US and in Europe, except Denmark perhaps) and as a consequence the ignorance of politicians (in the US often called “leaders” funnily enough) who are elected through a system of nepotism, greed and ignorance (called Fox TV in the US, to many different names in Europe). By the way, isn’t Fox TV owned by a european guy (Rupert Murdoch)?
    The solution to break this vicious circle is also known since decades. You might refer to W. Edwards Deming and other bright US guys.

  24. Wind power is already cheaper than nuclear power with or without the subsidies; at least, this is what I’ve just read here: http://goo.gl/2SC8a (use google translator if you can’t read Spanish). It is also cleaner. It is not necessary to import fossil fuels which are not cheap at all and they are getting more and more expensive an scarce.

    Clean energy has some (or plenty of) disadvantages, but we have no choice in the long term.

    • One disadvantage of clean energy is that it doesn’t work by itself, though. You need fossil fuels to make new ones, and to maintain them.

      • You are absolutely right and that makes me worry about our future, but more and more research is being done so I hope we will be able to get rid of fossil fuels to transport wind turbines (and anything else) from one place to another.

        That is just a hope, not a fact; at least, not yet.

  25. phil harris says:

    I am writing from Europe, which currently has a different perspective on wind, and somewhat better results so far. (Wind energy currently meets 5.3% of the EU’s electricity consumption from an installed capacity of 84.3 GW.). However, problems are very much as you describe, esecially the need for long-distance bulk transmission and finding the higher ‘upfront’ investment. (A similar problem is I believe seen in the nuclear industry). I also agree that advanced industrial countries will not be able to substitute ‘renewable’ electricity for energetic fossil fuels especially oil and will not be able to maintain current levels of energy uses. Similarly, I agree that ‘nega-watts’ are much quicker and cheaper to achieve. I am an admiring follower of the arguments of both Mr Greer and Paul from Halifax (Nova Scotia).
    Given a longer perspective, however, and given, dare I say it, the extravagant present use of fossil fuel in the USA, now could be the time, while you still have it, when ‘you’ might be able to put in place infrastructure that can keep some semblance of modern life going when the pipelines and transport system become difficult to justify. Similarly I follow the arguments of Alan Drake in favour of greatly enhanced investment in rail infrastructure. If it is already too late for wind, then so be it, but the usefulness of all those existing long distance pipelines and road systems must inevitably decline, and in due course raise their own issues of priority investment. (BTW the 1700km HVDC bulk electricity connector from Great Inga to Katanga in Congo had a controversial and costly start illustrating some of the investment problems you raise, but has continued from 1982 to date and been maintained under very inauspicious conditions. An upgrade is expected to be delivered in 2013.)

    thanks for a thoughtful start to 2012

    • phil harris says:

      Small addition – I have been thinking overnight.
      There are differences between USA and EU and I guess investment patterns will still differ 5-10 years from now.
      There are grid interconnectors already in the EU and signs of a strategic super grid. Like the USA, the EU must get most of its energy elasewhere, but unlike USA must import very significant proportions of NG and coal. My guess is that EU investment in wind power will continue and that perhaps 20% of EU’s electricity will be from wind in 10 or 15 years. Existing European existing gas-fired electricity generation plant will provide sufficient back-up for that degree of wind supply. In the USA, while you can still rely on coal, investment incentives could look very different?

      • I agree that the situation is very different in Europe, with their higher cost of fuel and possible decline in supply in future years as the North Sea declines, and also the better state of their grid.

        I am wondering, though, whether the financial system in Europe is really robust enough to stand even Europe’s current problems. The high cost of fuels of all types is no doubt a major contributor to Europe’s current problems, although the Euro problems make most of the headlines. The US at least has cheap natural gas and coal to help offset their high oil prices.

        We will have to wait and see what the outcome is. It may be that Europe starts a very major contraction in the not too distant future, as the Euro falls apart, and as debt defaults become more of a problem. Actually, these problems may spread to Britain and the US, too. In such a situation, the ability to pay for new generation of any kind will drop greatly, and no one will be buying much wind.

        • phil harris says:

          Thanks Gail
          As you say, we will have to wait and see.
          I said, wrongly, that USA like Europe must get most of its energy from abroad. Looking more carefully at http://mazamascience.com/OilExport/ , I see that though indeed the majority of US crude oil must be imported, in terms of energy, imports make up only about 25% of US total energy usage (exajoules). Nevertheless that uniquely massive consumption of oil derived petroleum, must be considered a threat to the future USA (and world) economy. Over here, despite the consumption of both energy and oil in Europe being less, (total and per capita) than in the USA, Europe must get most of all fuels from outside its borders. Which economy proves more vulnerable going forward, and what the world does about us, is a nice point!

          • Yes, the US is in a much better position energy-wise than Europe. I am fairly certain that this is the reason that that Europe has been the leader in taxing gasoline use, and in cap and trade programs. The issue is trying to spare Europe from the many issues involved, from rising balance of payments problems to vulnerability to collapse when imports become less available. It seems like global warming has been emphasized more in Europe, at least partly because it is less scary and farther off than talking about oil declines, and the response can be somewhat similar. If the US were in the same energy position as Europe, we would probably be emphasizing the same things.

  26. russell1200 says:

    There are large air conditioning plants that (essentially) make big blocks of ice to be used in cooling off the buildings later. They are not “efficient” in the normal sense but ar usefull for utility load management. They would seem to be particularly ideal for intermittant sources like wind.

  27. Thomas Larsson says:

    Two other problems with wind power:

    1. Oil, coal and nuclear power plants can be rather shielded from the forces of nature – with the obvious exception of Fukushima kind of earthquakes, which only happen every 300 years or so. In contrast, wind power plants are, by their very nature, exposed to wind and weather. Therefore, they will break down, due to material fatigue etc., and repair teams must be sent out in diesel-fuelled vehicles. How sustainable is that after peak oil? And how much does it affect eroei?

    2. Good generators are made from permanent magnets using neodymium. Alas, neodymium is a quite nasty material, and although it is abundant in the earth’s crust, it is basically only mined in China, presumably because Chinese miners are expendable. Apart from the moral problems – wind plants are to some extent built on the bones of Chinese miners – there is also an economic risk. Last year China imposed export restriction on neodymium, which increased the market price sevenfold.

    It is possible to construct generators which do not use permanent magnets, but they will be much bigger for the same output power. Size is really important here, because a bigger generator requires a bigger supporting tower. Alternatively, a wind plant of the same size will generate considerably less power.

    The neodymium problem also applies to electric vehicles, since a generator and an electric motor are the same thing – a gadget that transforms between electric energy and mechanical rotation energy.

    • Thanks for the additions.

      I figure I have to start winding things up when I hit 2000 words, whether I have covered all of the issues or not.

      Wind turbines have to be serviced more than once a year. In some places, particularly offshore, helicopters are used for this. Offshore wind stations a full time service staff offshore, because of the frequent service needs.

      We are going to have to keep replacing gear boxes, and many of them are made in China. Let us hope foreign trade keeps up well, or that we have good substitutes that are made in this country.

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