Imagine a company proposed to construct a bridge in Minneapolis, or some other major city, that would cost, say, $250 million. The road would be designed to carry thousands of cars per day. But there's a catch: During rush hour, the thoroughfare would effectively be closed, with only 5 percent, or maybe 10 percent, of its capacity available to motorists. Were this scenario to actually occur, the public outrage would be quick and ferocious.
That's exactly the issue we are facing with wind energy. The reality is that towering wind turbines—for all their allure to certain political groups—are simply supernumeraries in our sprawling electricity delivery system. They do not, cannot, replace coal-fired, gas-fired, or (my personal favorite) nuclear power plants.
Despite these facts, wind-energy lobbyists have been wildly successful at convincing the public and—more importantly—politicians, that wind energy is the way of the future. More than 30 states now have rules that will require dramatic increases in renewable electricity production over the coming years. And wind must provide most of that production, since it's the only renewable source that can rapidly scale up to meet the requirements of the mandate.
The problems posed by the intermittency of wind could quickly be cured if only we had an ultra-cheap method of storing large quantities of energy. If only. The problem of large-scale energy storage has bedeviled inventors for centuries. Even the best modern batteries are too bulky, too expensive, and too finicky. Other solutions for energy storage like compressed-air energy storage and pumped water storage are viable, but like batteries, those technologies are expensive. And even if the cost of energy storage falls dramatically—thereby making wind energy truly viable—who will pay for it?
An unbiased analysis of wind energy's high costs and flaccid contribution to our electricity needs is essential in this time of economic constraint. Despite the dismal economic news, despite the fact that the wind-energy sector, through the $0.022 per-kilowatt-hour production tax credit, gets subsidies of about $6.40 per million Btu of energy produced—an amount that, according to the Energy Information Administration, is about 200 times the subsidy received by the oil and gas sector —wind-energy lobbyists are calling for yet more mandates. On July 27, the American Wind Energy Association issued a press release urging a federal mandate for renewable electricity and lamenting the fact that new wind-energy installations had fallen dramatically during the second quarter compared to 2008 and 2009. The lobby group's CEO, Denise Bode, declared that the "U.S. wind industry is in distress."
Good. Glad to hear it. It's high time we quit blowing so much money on the wind.