The True Benefits of Wind Power
James D. Marston for Newsweek, April 21, 2015. Image credit: HardyS
Texas prides itself on being a national leader, whether it be in barbecue, football or wind energy. That’s why when someone misguidedly attacks one of our strengths—as Randy Simmons did in an opinion article republished by Newsweek last week—as a Texan, I can’t remain silent.
Simmons’ op-ed on the “true cost of wind power” is the same tired slant we have heard from fossil fuel interests time and time again, which should come as no surprise when you learn who’s really behind the piece. Simmons lists his title as professor of political economy at Utah State University, but he doesn’t mention he is the Charles G. Koch professor of political economy. He’s also a senior fellow at the Koch– and ExxonMobil-funded Property and Environment Research Center. In other words, he works for oil companies.
So let’s expose this op-ed for what it really is: a fraudulent attempt to discredit clean, affordable wind energy and protect polluting coal plants.
Study after study has shown that subsidies for conventional energy sources, such as coal and oil, historically have been much larger than those for renewables, but Simmons ignores this information. The Nuclear Energy Institute’s own tally indicates all renewable resources made up less than 10 percent of federal energy incentives between 1950 and 2010. Unsurprisingly, fossil resources received the bulk, at more than 70 percent. In Texas, state support for all renewables (including solar and wind) is less than $40 million a year, but the state tax breaks for natural gas production alone topped $1 billion.
Adding to his list of errors, Simmons also gets grid integration costs wrong. In fact, the cost of integrating large, conventional power plants onto the power system in Texas is more than 17 times larger than the cost of reliably integrating wind energy. When large fossil and nuclear plants fail, they do so instantaneously and without warning—and the impacts can be catastrophic. Changes in wind output, on the other hand, are gradual and predictable, meaning they can be accommodated by using low-cost, non-spin reserves, which cost about one-third as much as the expensive fast-acting reserves used during conventional power plant failures.
Moreover, last month, independent DBL Investors found states with the greatest use of renewable energy experience lower electricity prices, and states with pro-renewable policies have seen lower electricity price increases than those without. So when Simmons asserts renewable energy leads to higher electricity prices—well, he’s wrong on that count, too.
There are logical gaps in Simmons’ argument. In one breath, wind prices are too high. In the next, Simmons implies wind energy is reducing electricity prices so much that other energy sources cannot compete. This claim that wind energy is having an undue impact on other energy sources has been thoroughly debunked by a number of experts, including former Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner John Norris. Plus, if Simmons actually supports free markets, shouldn’t a little competition be welcomed?
Then Simmons says wind specifically requires backup generation when the reality is all power plants are backed up by other plants. “Because a coal-fired or natural gas power plant must be kept online in case there’s no wind, two plants are running to do the job of one,” he wrote.
Coal is rarely if ever used to back up wind. Actually, if there is an increase in reserve need as a result of less available wind, it is often met by demand response (a people-powered solution that pays electricity customers to conserve energy when the grid is stressed) or natural gas power plants that arenot online but can start up quickly in the rare event they are needed. Regardless, two plants cannot be “doing the job of one,” as the electrons from any power plant would have to go somewhere.