Friday, November 03, 2006

Wind, Wind, Go Away

Earlier this week one of my readers sent me a link to a long, interesting article describing Denmark's experience with wind power. The Danes are leaders in both wind power technology and its application, so hearing about the practical concerns and problems of this highly wind-power-intensive country is valuable, as we expand our own use of this renewable resource. However, the more I contemplated the surprisingly skeptical tone of this piece, published in New York Newsday, Long Island's largest daily paper, the more I wondered about its subtext.

The Long Island shoreline off Jones Beach is slated for one of the largest offshore wind power projects in the US, so it's natural for Newsday to think its readers might want to know how this has worked elsewhere. There's also no question that, while providing a growing source of clean electricity, wind power has some unique problems. Intermittency of supply is the main concern, along with the visual and noise signature of the turbines, to which many people react negatively. But of the numerous issues raised by the Newsday article, many only apply at a much higher concentration and market penetration than we will see here for many years. Others, such as the worry that accommodating wind power may require backing down other forms of carbon-free electricity, are peculiar to Scandinavia's heavy mix of hydro-electric power, and just not relevant to Long Island.

At 13,300 Megawatts of capacity, the entire Danish electricity system is roughly the size of the New York City/Long Island system, but it consumes only a fraction of the total demand managed by the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO,) which hit a peak of nearly 34,000 MW this summer. Even Newsday admits that the 40-turbine, 140 MW capacity wind farm proposed for Jones Beach is tiny, when compared to Denmark's thousands of wind turbines. The intermittent output of the Jones Beach project would represent less than 1% of what NYISO handles, compared to the roughly 20% of Denmark's power that comes from wind. And the modest amounts of power backed out by Jones Beach would come chiefly at the expense of natural gas, coal, or even a bit of oil--depending on the time of day--rather than hydro or nuclear. That means that every kW-hour the wind turbines produced would indeed reduce the region's greenhouse gas emissions.

Wind power remains a bit more expensive than many conventional sources of electricity--a comparison that has improved steadily for two decades--and some people regard it as unsightly. It's important to have a balanced view of it, as we look at expanding its use in this country. However, turning inapplicable comparisons into implied obstacles, and presenting interference with air-traffic control and defense radars as a potentially insurmountable problem, don't constitute genuine balance in my book. In light of New York's existing "renewable portfolio standard" (RPS), which commits the state to obtaining 25% of its electricity from clean sources such as wind by 2013, one might think that Newsday would prefer that all that power be generated in the Adirondacks or on the shores of Lakes Ontario and Erie, rather than from the outstanding wind resources adjacent to its reader's homes. That kind of upstate/downstate rivalry could put the state's wind assets on the wrong side of a transmission bottleneck and create real obstacles to meeting the state's RPS goal.

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