Wind energy is infinite, clean, a friend of climate, and the future of our energy sector. That is the green gospel we hear from renewable-obsessed environmentalists and politicians every day.
If wind energy is what they claim it is, why are the economic powerhouses of the world increasingly turning toward fossil fuels and nuclear, not toward wind? If wind is affordable and efficient, as they claim, why does it need subsidies to flourish?
The answers to these questions reveal that wind energy is not what it is portrayed to be.
Intermittent Generation and Hyper-Sensitiveness to Weather
It is a well known fact that wind energy is intermittent — i.e., it can generate stable electricity only when the wind speed is at an optimum level. This is known as rated wind speed, which is around 26–30 miles per hour, or 12–14 meters per second. A little slower, and the generation is inefficient. A little faster, and turbines risk getting damaged.
Unfortunately, average wind speeds are not stable, so neither is the energy generated. Wind changes direction and speed minute by minute for various reasons. Furthermore, geographical regions have different wind-generating capabilities during different seasons. Some turbines remain non-operational for months when average wind speeds are lower than 10 miles per hour.
Energy generation can also be affected by cold weather and storms. This was the case earlier this year when the cold weather from a polar vortex affected wind operation in America’s Midwest, impacting the only season when wind energy generation is optimum there. Besides rendering them incapable of generating electricity, the cold weather also damages the turbines and other parts.
Canada, a country familiar with cold weather limitations of wind, estimates that cold weather accounts for a loss of $85 million USD annually. The loss is attributed to three main factors: accumulation of ice on wind turbine blades, resulting in reduced power output and increased rotor loads; cold weather shutdown to prevent equipment failure; and limited or reduced access for maintenance activities.
The Cost: Loss of Money, Increased Power Prices, and Blackouts
Despite the seasonal variation and no assurance of a stable wind speed, the wind industry has managed to grow rapidly, thanks to the restrictive climate change policies that favor renewables against fossil fuels.
As a result of this blind love for wind energy, countries have lost a lot of money invested into the wind sector. The U.S. Energy Information Agency’s annual energy outlook states that wind (and solar) energy contributed a mere 3 percent of total energy consumption in the U.S. last year, despite consuming a cumulative $50 billion in subsidizes.
Moreover, some territories like Scotland compensate wind energy companies if electricity generated exceeds the demand. The government makes up for the financial loss by increasing the electricity bills of consumers.
Furthermore, the increased cost of generation and transmission has resulted in increased power prices. Environmental commentator Michael Shellenberger noticed that electricity prices have risen dramatically in countries that rely heavily on wind: “Electricity prices increased by 51 percent in Germany between 2006 and 2016 (wind and solar) and over 100 percent in Denmark since 1995 (mostly wind).”
This renewable-driven sharp rise in electricity prices is also observed in numerous states in the U.S. (especially California) that made heavy investments in wind and solar.
The highly seasonal and intermittent nature of renewable electricity means that some countries also run the risk of a complete energy blackout when wind fails. The 2016 blackout in Australia caused by wind energy failure is a classic example.
Hazardous to Birds, Humans, and the Environment
Besides being inefficient and expensive, wind energy has also been found to be hazardous during its manufacturing phase and operational phase.
A generator for a high-end wind turbine requires as much as 4,400 pounds of neodymium-based permanent magnet material. When neodymium is produced, the carcinogenic and radioactive waste is dumped into lakes, making both the water and the surrounding air toxic. It is estimated that seven million tons of waste a year are dumped into a single lake in China, which is the largest producer of neodymium.
Wind turbines are the largest killers of birdlife globally. They have a special liking for raptors and are infamous for adversely affecting many endangered species. An operational wind turbine is a certified bird-killer.
Wind turbine accidents are also becoming increasingly common. In the U.K. alone, hundreds of accidents are reported every year. Globally, thousands of wind structural collapses and related accidents occur annually.
All these factors make wind energy untenable. Even in the best operating seasons, wind has no competitive edge over conventional energy sources.
Some countries are already moving away from wind. Poland aims to scrap all its operational wind factories by 2035. (They’re not farms, by the way. Farms grow plants and animals.) China has refused to approve further wind projects due to their inefficiency and higher costs.
Aside from isolated local applications not yet served by major electric grids, wind has little future in a world moving toward technological finesse in energy generation technologies. Wind makes us rely on a resource that is highly volatile and not under our control, thereby making it unsustainable no matter our advances in turbine technology.
Any hopes of a wind energy–powered utopian future are gone with the wind, literally. The wind sector functions solely to feed the pride of renewable crusaders, at taxpayers’ and ratepayers’ expense, and has been a burden to the world that is pushing toward energy development.
Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., environmental science, University of East Anglia, England), research associate for developing countries for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, lives in Bangalore, India.