Tuesday, July 20, 2004

A Contrary Wind
Niall Ferguson isn't known for commentary on energy policy, but rather as a historian who has written perceptive and well-received books. His op-ed on wind power was published in Britain's Daily Telegraph paper last Friday. As he admits, it might easily be written off as a NIMBY-ism, but the issues he raises are ones that the proponents of wind power can't afford to ignore. They fall into three main categories:

First, that wind power is still expensive, compared with conventional power, and must rely on heavy government subsidies, though this was also true for other forms of power generation in their early days, notably the nuclear power industry.

Secondly, he complains that they are unreliable, and as such cannot replace other forms of power generation in supporting a stable electric grid. Wind is by its nature intermittent, and one of the biggest challenges wind developers face is either integrating it smoothly with the grid, or providing sufficient energy storage to smooth its peaks and valleys for remote, off-grid applications. This can run up the total cost of a wind project significantly. None of these problems is insurmountable, but they do add complexity that conventional power plants avoid.

Mr. Ferguson goes on to suggest that, because of these shortcomings, wind power's contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be much less than has been suggested and far less than the unpopular nuclear power plants that are being phased out in Britain and elsewhere. Others have made the same connection (see my blog of May 13, 2004), but I think in practice it's not a fair criticism. No developer is sitting down to choose between putting in a wind farm or building a nuclear power plant. The real-world choice is between wind power and fossil fuels, and on that basis, it reduces emissions.

Finally, the argument comes back to aesthetics, and in the long run I think this poses the most serious threat to really large-scale wind power development. Are there enough first class wind resources (see my blog of May 6, 2004 for a better explanation) in places close enough to where the demand is, but where few will object to their visual signature? The wind industry faces an uphill battle on this, and it would be wise to tackle it head on, with a well-designed public relations campaign. Not all of wind's critics are as articulate as Professor Ferguson, but they share his concerns.

By the way, without much fanfare, today is the 35th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's "small step for man". Coverage on the NASA website and on Space.com.

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