Rethinking Wind Power: A Response Letter to John Droz

Dear Mr. Droz,

I recently came across an article on that lead me to your presentation critiquing wind power. The decree that wind power is “an insult to science and mankind” seems a bit alarmist and wrought with exaggeration. I understand that you have labeled wind power as a deficient source of power generation and based this conclusion on seven points of criteria that you claim reasonable power sources should strive to meet. These points include:

  1. Can it provide large amounts of electricity?
  2. Can it provide reliable and predictable electricity?
  3. Can it provide dispatchable energy?
  4. Can it serve as more than one grid element?
  5. Can its facility be compact?
  6. Can it provide economical energy?
  7. Can it make a consequential reduction in carbon dioxide?

According to you, wind energy has failed all but the first point, after which you claim it to be an overly expensive, intermittent and restrictive form of energy production–something the world should stop devoting time and money towards. Instead, we should focus on improving our existing technologies so that they can be improved and better utilized to achieve environmental progress.

Though your individual assessments cannot be labeled as “incorrect”, I think you are unfairly painting a grim picture of wind energy while denying it both its accolades and opportunities for further improvement. Wind energy is a great industry and one of a number of technologies that will eventually allow us to reduce our environmental impact and reach a more balanced, sustainable society. I think a full critique of wind should include not only the shortcomings (which we all know exist) but the possibilities.

Can wind power provide reliable and predictable electricity? – It is true, wind is an intermittent resource that we cannot fully control. However, we have come to realize that creating renewable energy sources alone is an incomplete endeavor. To become marketable and truly helpful they must be paired with energy storage. Numerous companies around the world are exploring and perfecting various means of storing large quantities of power from heated salt solutions to pumped water to compressed air. When a “complete system” is made  then levels can be set for production that would average out power released to the grid and yield a steady source. In the meantime, various sources of renewable energy can be paired in order to minimize their respective ebb and flow of supply (such as the European renewable energy grid planned for the North Sea.)

Can it provide dispatchable energy? – Like you, I will refer to my preceding answer. Stored power can be released to better meet the needs of the grid on a demand basis. Eventually, all renewable energy can be utilized in this way and meet that need. Neither Hydro-electric nor nuclear are posterchilds for dispatchability which is why we use them for baseload power and turn to natural gas, biomass and coal for the swift changes of peak power loads.

Can it serve as more than one grid element? – Renewables may never be prime for peak power generation, but I do not think that excludes them from being helpful. Again, nuclear power is best for baseload applications. It seems rare to have nuclear peaker plants. Likewise, a system of wind + storage can provide a more steady stream of power that can be offset by other sources like biomass and natural gas.

Can its facility be compact? – It is true that wind farms require large tracts of space, but a better comparison would be the amount of space that the total supply chain of energy takes up. Natural gas requires the construction and maintenance of thousands of miles of pipeline not to mention the mining process that continues to use large amounts of energy and water. Coal mining requires land (and treats it rather poorly) as well as the miles of roads and railroads necessary to transport it. Nuclear has that amazing problem that no one is able to solve: what to do with the waste that comprises some of the most harmful substances known to mankind. Whatever the eventual answer is, it will take up space. At least one can still farm land beneath wind turbines or provide homes to reefs of aquatic life.

Can wind power provide economical energy? – First of all, our country has spent generations making other forms of power generation affordable. These technologies have already had decades, generations of time to be perfected and rely on infrastructure systems that we have already spent billions of dollars creating. Secondly, the cost of a power source should include all of its externalities–including costs that no one is paying right now, but should be. The full cost of coal includes the destruction of mountaintops, the effort needed to remove the vast amounts of pollution it puts into water sheds and the health bills from all of the people that suffer from water poisoning and asthma due to proximity to coal fired power plants. It is no wonder coal seems cheap; coal power producers let other people write most of their checks. If nuclear was so cheap we would be building more of it. Nuclear waste is currently amazingly expensive given it must be guarded.

Can wind power make a consequential reduction of CO2? – One of the main reasons that current wind installations are not registering large net drops in carbon dioxide is due to their incomplete and intermittent nature. Given that wind is unpredictable, without storage power companies are forced to rely on small percentages of capacity for meeting peak demand loads. As a result, wind power is backed up by other sources, often natural gas. This means that even if the wind is blowing strong, a natural gas plant is probably running as well in reserve. Power storage that flattened the crests and troughs of supply from wind power would help lessen (and perhaps eventually negate) the need for back-up generation and thus result in a much larger net decrease in greenhouse gases.

Ultimately, wind power generation is a young industry with its share of short comings, but it is far from incapable of eventually providing a large portion of our power. New generations of turbines and storage facilities will only continue to become more efficient and, in turn, decrease in cost. I am always a proponent of thorough analysis and refraining from sugar-coating solutions that are in fact scarcely as beneficial as they claim. On the other hand, not giving options their full degree of credence could afford us a mistake of supporting industries that do not deserve it and missing out on true opportunities for progressive change in achieving a sustainable society.


Tyler Caine