"A slew of recent studies," energy writer Robert Bryce wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal essay, "show that wind-generated electricity likely won't result in any reduction in carbon emissions -- or that they'll be so small as to be almost meaningless."
Bryce acknowledged in an interview that this claim is "counterintuitive." It is also, on closer examination, dubious.
For his "slew" of studies, Bryce offered three, all from the United States Association for Energy Economics. Bryce identified Wind and Energy Markets, by Ross Baldick of the University of Texas, as the most recent and most significant. The study does not, however, argue that wind cannot reduce climate change-inducing carbon dioxide emissions. It argues there is a significant cost to building up the wind infrastructure that will be required to do so.
Asked directly if the studies show wind won't reduce emissions, Bryce quoted Baldick's conclusion that "even assuming wind does displace fossil emissions, it is not worthwhile to reduce greenhouse emissions."
Bryce obviously did not want to say his references actually question the economics of wind, not its effectiveness at reducing emissions. Whether building wind is "worthwhile" therefore depends on a "slew" of economic factors.
Bryce said he believes nuclear energy and natural gas, not renewables, are the energies of the future because they are scalable and available 24/7. Economic studies and recent investment patterns demonstrate that new nuclear is much more costly than wind. The volatility of natural gas prices makes its value uncertain against wind's pre-contracted long-term price.
In the WSJ piece and in the interview, Bryce relied heavily on "How Less Became More; Wind, Power and Unintended Consequences in the Colorado Energy Market," a study carried out by Bentek Energy LLC that was funded by the Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States (IPAMS). But Xcel Energy, a major utility in Colorado that has launched 1,300 megawatts of wind and is planning 700 megawatts more in the next five years, completely dismissed the IPAMS study.
"Wind is not perfect," Frank Prager, Xcel's Environmental Policy Vice President, wrote in the Denver Post. "Wind turbines generate electricity only when wind blows," he went on, explaining how utilities manage wind's variability. "Generally, we prefer to ramp gas-fired plants. If we ramp coal-fired units, the plant's efficiency may decline, causing its emission rate to increase for short periods."
But, Prager wrote, the Bentek study "implies that small, short-term emission increases associated with ramping result in significant increases in the total emissions. This is simply wrong. Since 2007, we have added hundreds of megawatts of wind generation, and our overall emissions have declined."
Asked about Prager's statement, Bryce pointed out that recent studies show U.S. energy consumption and emissions decreasing and ignored the fact that Prager specifically cited declining emissions as far back as 2007, when energy consumption was rising.
"There are about a thousand ways to interpret emissions data," Bryce asserted. "That may be true that overall emissions for Xcel or for any utility may have fallen," Bryce went on contentiously. "The Xcel guy has his opinion, the Bentek study arrives at a different conclusion. I honestly don't know who's right. The purpose of writing the Journal piece ... [was to point out] that you have to be careful with the assumption."
The Department of Energy, typically careful with assumptions, concluded that "achieving 20% wind would cut electric sector carbon dioxide emissions by 25%," pointed out American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) CEO Denise Bode. "As Bryce's own book shows on page 111," Bode went on, "Denmark has cut their CO2 emissions nearly in half since 1991 in large part because 20% of their electricity now comes from wind. Any claim that adding wind energy to the electricity grid would not reduce carbon dioxide emissions violates the laws of physics."
The only substantial reference in Bryce's Journal piece was the Eastern Wind Integration and Transmission Study (EWITS) from the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). It modeled the impact of building 20 percent to 30 percent wind power capacity by 2030.
"If you look at the EWITS study, under their scenarios, this massive investment in transmission and massive investment in wind in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. will result in a reduction of CO2 of about 200 million tons," Bryce said. "I stand behind the Journal piece; that's the bottom line." Bryce then quoted his thesis statement from the piece's opening paragraph. "Wind-generated electricity likely won't result in any reduction in carbon emissions -- or they'll be so small as to be almost meaningless."
The 200-million-ton emissions reduction, he said, "in the grand scheme of things is almost meaningless."
The NREL study actually projected five different scenarios. A chart from the study specifically referenced by Bryce shows the least aggressive developments of wind would, by 2020, see eastern U.S. emissions reduced four percent to five percent.
Other EWITS scenarios found that more aggressive development of wind and new transmission would reduce emissions by 18 percent to 33 percent. And it is, of course, what a nation would logically do if climate change was a threat, nuclear power was prohibitively expensive, reliance on ecologically devastating fossil fuels was a threat to national security, its antiquated grid was unreliable and renewable energy development held the key to economic rejuvenation and international competitiveness.
Bryce repeatedly referenced the high cost of building wind capacity, yet made no mention of the even higher costs of building other new sources of electricity generation. He also made no reference to the returns on such investment. Other studies -- a "slew" of studies, in fact -- have shown that renewable energies provide more jobs and more economic returns than the natural gas and nuclear sources Bryce touts.
But Bryce's attack on wind has to do with the subject of emissions and the only really credible reference he offered was the NREL study. Dave Corbus is an NREL senior engineer and the project manager/technical monitor for that study's ten-author team. "The electrical grid is one of the most complex systems there is," Corbus explained. "Complex systems take a lot of study and a lot of education" to understand.
Asked if he knew of anybody who fully understands transmission and would argue that wind doesn't reduce emissions, he simply said: " No." After a pause, he went on. "I think there's room for people to say it reduces emissions 60% versus 80%. There's certainly room for disagreement and uncertainty because it's such a complex system. But nobody that I know that understands the grid is going to say that it doesn't reduce emissions."