Cool Misses the Mark

I'm a strong supporter of offshore wind power and I've written in support of it countless times.  I have, however, been much more circumspect in the discussion of on-shore wind.  At first, I dismissed the concerns of Mark Cool and company regarding the Falmouth turbine.  After awhile, however, I came to realize that something real is going on there.  So I've been generally supportive, or at least accepting of Mr. Cool's writings.  I must, however, respond to his Letter to the Editor entitled "The wind grid brain freeze".  I'm sorry Mark:  This one is full of mistakes.

First Mark errs when he talks about turbines operating at 25% of "name plate capacity".  Mark is correct when he says that, to produce a certain average output (say 25 MW to keep the numbers simple), a wind farm must have enough turbines to produce 100 MW when they're all working at maximum capacity.  This extra capacity makes up for the times when the wind isn't blowing or is blowing lightly.  First, the accepted number for offshore wind is between 30% and 40%; Cape Wind's is 37%.  But that's not the important point.  The important question is:  Who cares?  To explain let me ask:  Does anybody care about the inner workings of any other kind of privately owned power plant, say a natural gas plant?  Of course not.  All we care about is how much power a plant can produce and at what price.  How a power plant works internally is irrelevant.  With wind farms, the fact that the private owners must build and maintain extra turbines to produce a certain amount of power on average is irrelevant too.  Who cares? 

Mark uses the term "growing over-reliance on wind power".  Over-reliance?  I think that readers will agree that it's a huge stretch to suggest that building our very first offshore wind farm represents "over-reliance" upon wind power.  Mark may have a point if he restricts his discussion to on-shore wind but he doesn't:  He specifically criticizes Cape Wind.  Let's hold back on this one Mark, at least until we've built our very first offshore wind farm.

When Mark says "We're being forced to depend on wind turbines for 20-30 percent of our power" he's referring to the 2030 (almost 20 years from now) renewable energy targets in the MA Green Communities Act (GCA).  First, he's exaggerating a bit again:  It's not 20 to 30%, it's 20%.  But again that's not the important point.  What's important is that Mark has fallen prey to a typical trap set by the anti-wind crowd.  For his scenario to work, one must assume 3 things:

  • 20% renewable energy will cause major problems.
  • Technological advances over the next 20 years, including battery technology, will not come to our aid.
  • Most importantly: As this dangerous over-reliance upon renewable energy develops, our experts at ISO-New England will be stricken with feet of clay. That is, they will sit silently on the sidelines while a flawed bill written in 2008 drives us over a renewable energy cliff.

Folks, that's a long list of assumptions.  Frankly it's a doomsday scenario concocted to scare us away from using renewable energy.  I'm not saying Mark concocted this scenario, but he's repeating it.

Mark is on thicker ice when he questions the cost of renewable energy subsidies.  As I've said repeatedly, those may be too high.  But as wind power opponents always do, Mark conveniently leaves the future cost of fossil fuel power out of his analysis.  Nobody has a crystal ball to predict fossil fuel prices which are very low today because of the recession, but that needs to be part of any balanced discussion.

As I said above, we should listen carefully to Mark when it comes to the impact of the Falmouth turbine.  There's something real going on there.  I'm afraid, however, that he's missed the mark on the larger points in his letter.

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