I just finished The Great Texas Wind Rush: How George Bush, Ann Richards, and a Bunch of Tinkerers Helped the Oil and Gas State Win the Race to Wind Power. The book is interesting because it shows what has to happen for wind power to work at all, e.g., someone needs to spend billions of dollars on transmission lines from where it is windy and people will tolerate noisy ugly windmills to where electricity consumers are most likely to live.
The author has a “nothing can happen without the government” attitude, which is substantially justified by the challenges of implementing wind power, e.g., forcing property owners to accept transmission lines across their land. The ability of consumers to respond to price signals is zero, in the author’s mind:
Americans, the most energy-guzzling people on earth, had finally figured out how to cut back. They bought more-fuel-efficient cars, under the government’s exhortations, and drove more slowly. They learned to turn off unnecessary lights. Some began buying more-energy-saving refrigerators, thanks to national appliance-efficiency requirements that came into effect in the 1980s.
The author suggests that the federal government is almost as useless as an individual American:
“The Department of Energy has a multibillion-dollar budget, in excess of $10 billion,” Reagan said in a debate with Carter in late October 1980. “It hasn’t produced a quart of oil or a lump of coal or anything else in the line of energy.” It certainly hadn’t produced much by way of wind energy, either. One of the oddities of the wind business is that the modern turbines of today are not descendants of the enormous experimental turbines that heavyweights like General Electric and Boeing and Alcoa and Westinghouse produced in the late 1970s, using millions of federal dollars. Those had experienced major technical problems and flopped.
Boeing struggled with dirt getting into hydraulic fluid. Alcoa, the aluminum giant, pulled out of the wind business soon after its solitary 500-kilowatt test turbine, shaped like a kitchen beater and erected in California’s San Gorgonio Pass, slung a blade at one of the wires holding it in place just a few hours after being turned on. Making matters worse, this occurred just before a high-profile wind conference featuring California governor Jerry Brown was due to convene. “I have some good news and some bad news,” Paul Vogsburgh of Alcoa announced to those assembled. “The bad news is that our wind turbine destroyed itself. The good news is that we did not have to evacuate Los Angeles.”
“It’s kind of strange,” says Vaughn Nelson, the retired director of the Alternative Energy Institute in Canyon. “The tract of development that led to the large megawatt machines today came from what we’d call the ground up of the small machines getting bigger [with] economies of scale, rather than starting with great big machines funded by government.
State governments, on the other hand, especially Texas, have managed to make things happen. Offshore wind in Texas has a much better chance of succeeding than in other states: “In a convenient quirk, Texas waters extend up to ten miles offshore, considerably farther than most states, due to historical reasons relating to how Texas joined the union. This means that developers like Schellstede had plenty of room to plant turbines without hitting federal waters and triggering a cascade of new rules. “
Investment in wind power has been extremely risky. The author chronicles the IPO of Kenetech, a California wind turbine company: “Merrill Lynch foretold a hundredfold rise in Kenetech’s sales over three years.” They went bust a few years later. T. Boone Pickens plans the world’s largest wind farm:
A woman asked whether the giant windmills would make noise. “I’ve been a quail hunter since I was twelve, so my hearing isn’t worth a hoot,” Pickens told her. “If you’re getting royalties from it, it might have a real pleasant sound.” But the turbines have made no sound at all. Despite Pickens’s grand pronouncements, the Pampa wind project never got built, and in the corridors of wind conferences the mention of Pickens’s name soon brought snorts of irritation. A few months after his appearance at the Pampa auditorium, the price of natural gas began to plunge as the extent of the enormous new shale supplies became clear. As the price of gas fell it pulled the price of all forms of electricity down with it, and wind became less competitive. “When natural gas is $4.50 [per thousand cubic feet], it’s hard to finance a wind deal,” Pickens told the Texas Tribune in 2010, the same year he gave up the last of the leases on the Pampa land. “Natural gas has got to be $6.”
Do we really want this?
“Never in the history of the world have we put up 400-foot-tall blinking behemoths everywhere,” West Texas landowner Dale Rankin, who sued to stop the march of wind turbines over hillsides near his Abilene-area home, told the Austin-American Statesman in 2007. Living close to hundreds of turbines, Rankin said, is like being “next to an airport where the jets are running their engines all he time.” But in a state that welcomes development, Rankin’s lawsuit, the first significant one of its kind in Texas, failed in 2006.
And once we get it, will it free us from digging up fossil fuels and setting them on fire?
Indeed, on some windy nights when the blades are turning but electricity use is low, or when the grid is congested with lots of different plants offering power, parts of West Texas see “negative pricing,” in which wind plants pay a modest amount to offload their power (the federal production tax credit ensures it’s still worthwhile for them to do this).
When the wind does blow, it’s not necessarily at the most useful times, which makes Texas grid operators, even armed with constantly improving forecasting tools, wonder how much more wind they can handle without unbalancing their system. Sometimes things work out. In February 2011 wind farms all across Texas got praise for pumping large amounts of power into the electric grid during a deep freeze that managed to knock out a quarter of the state’s coal and gas power-plant units and caused rolling blackouts throughout the grid, even though a few turbines did go offline due to dangerously high winds and hydraulic-equipment freezes. But three years earlier, when a cold front moved through Texas and the winds died, the Texas grid operator, ERCOT, barely averted blackouts. (The wind industry says the cold front was predicted and the grid should have been prepared for it.) And on at least one scorching August afternoon in 2011, wind farms produced only about 1.3 percent of the grid’s electricty, prompting the National Review to run a piece headlined “Texas Wind Energy Fails Again,”
I recommend this book for software engineers. It shows just how much money and patience you need to achieve an impact in the world of energy.