Stop dumping billions into unreliable wind power

By Randy T Simmons and Jordan Lofthouse
March 7, 2015

Salt Lake Tribune

During George W. Bush’s administration, the Department of Energy set a wildly unrealistic goal to have 20 percent of the nation’s electricity come from wind by 2030. Now, the Obama Administration wishes to fulfill that goal by passing permanent subsidies for wind power.

Wind power has gained a reputation as the future of energy generation, but few wind power advocates seem willing to answer the pertinent question, “What happens when the wind doesn’t blow?” Honestly answering that question means we must acknowledge how undeniably unreliable wind power is. The next logical step should be to stop dumping tens of billions of taxpayer dollars into such a fickle energy source.

In 2014, wind energy only supplied 1.6 percent of total U.S. energy consumption. But, with the growing list of tax incentives, subsidies, federal goals and mandates for wind, we must consider all the implications of boosting wind’s market share.

The first problem with wind is inconsistency. Wind’s inability to supply electricity on a consistent basis renders it dependent on more reliable sources of energy for backup, such as nuclear, coal and natural gas. Wind energy can supplement these conventional sources, but it’s not capable of supplying the base load of power that the country needs.

The inconsistency of wind power also forces us to “cycle” coal, natural gas and hydropower generators in the background so that we can kick them into high gear when the wind stops blowing. Cycling presents its own set of economic and environmental problems, but this is the only way grid operators can drastically increase electricity output whenever demand increases unexpectedly.

The second problem with wind is its low productivity. The amount of energy a wind farm actually produces on average pales in comparison to the energy that it could at full capacity. Wind power only produces its full capacity 20 to 40 percent of the time, as opposed to 70 to 90 percent for coal-fired power, or 60 to 100 percent for nuclear power.

The third problem with wind is the inordinate amount of space required to produce a reasonable amount of energy. Consistent wind blowing at the right speed would require an area about the size of Texas to meet 2005 U.S. electricity demands. However, because wind rarely blows at an optimal speed, much more space would be needed. Are Americans willing to give up the same land area as entire states to reach the DOE’s goal of 20 percent wind power by 2030?

Traditional sources of energy like coal, nuclear and hydro have a huge advantages. We know the amount of available fuel precisely, and we know when we can use that fuel. Wind power may be a nice supplement to our energy portfolio, but we should stop pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into a system that is not predictable, efficient, or reliable. Let the market decide if wind power is worth the investment, not government bureaucrats.

Randy T. Simmons, Ph.D., is director of the Institute for Political Economy and professor of political economy at Utah State University. He also serves as president of Strata Policy, a public policy think tank in Logan. Jordan Lofthouse is a policy analyst at Strata Policy.

At Strata, we understand the power of ideas and encourage individual development through writing and creative expression. The ideas, stories, and opinions expressed in this op-ed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Strata.