Taking the wind out of the baseloaders

12th November 2010 By: Saliem Fakir

What is disturbing is not the debate about baseload power versus intermittent power. This debate is always useful as we grapple with the question of what our energy mix should be going into the future.

What is worrying is how some professionals are advancing arguments against intermittent power on the basis of spurious evidence, which is often based on hearsay or is presented with a degree of imaginative hyperbole. Because of their professional expertise in one or other field, those arguing against intermittent power have sort of built a reputation for serving our need for knowledge and interpretation in fields outside their own expertise.

The poet Allen Ginsberg once made an unforgettable remark about himself: if you become famous in one thing you are good at, you can easily get away with being a hopeless painter or anything else by riding the wave of fame on the back of what you are famous for.

One supposes the same analogy is applicable to other professions. You may be great at nuclear physics, but does that make you an expert in wind turbines?

Wind turbines are a favourite hobby horse for attack by some nuclear proponents. What is happening is a case of throwing anything at the devil in the hope that the rocks would hurt. The critics become disingenuous and often sloppy. In fact, there are several contradictions, and one of the big ironies is that major players in the nuclear business, like Areva, are also getting into the wind turbine business. Areva has just expanded its business by buying key renewable technologies like concentrating solar and offshore wind turbines. I wonder what the nuclear proponents have to say to that, given that some of them rely on good relations for continued contracts with the nuclear industry. It is not a case of ‘either or’ for Areva.

It is true that connecting a large number of wind turbines onto the grid requires grid reinforcement; however, this depends on the location and state of the grid in that location. But this is as true for renewables as it is for nonrenewable sources of embedded or distributed generation.

It is true that, if wind power is suddenly cut off, we have to be able to draw power from somewhere else, but the problem with this argument is that it assumes that, if we have 3 000 MW of wind power, for example, we must also have 3 000 MW of baseload in support of that capacity.

The baseload logic is applied to wind energy on completely spurious grounds. The reason is simple – it is unlikely that 3 000 MW of wind energy must be supported by 3 000 MW of baseload. There is a need for a certain reserve margin. The reserve margin may be sourced from baseload as well as from other sources of power, including wind. Compensation for sudden losses can come from conventional and nonconventional sources. What matters is the flexibility of the reserve margin.

If you plan your wind turbines well and distribute them across the country, building them where they strengthen the grid, you are unlikely to need equivalent generated capacity from conventional sources to support a sudden loss of 3 000 MW of wind-generated power. Wind blows at different times and in different places. Technology exists to predict wind patterns 48 hours in advance. It is unlikely that there will be a 100% sudden loss of wind. There will be some losses and this has to be compensated. But to suggest a 100% loss, which necessitates equivalent baseload support, has no basis.

Then there is that famous argument about wind turbines killing birds. Yes, that is true, but we also know that people now better understand the relationship between flight paths, bird habitats and wind turbine locations. Cats kill more birds, by the way, and cars kill more people than turbines do. About two- million people die each year in car accidents, let alone the birds and other animals that are hit by cars. We do not see anybody executing cats or banning motor vehicles from the roads. A 2005 study showed that cats killed 100-million birds, cars 80-million and buildings/ windows (the worst of the lot) about 550-million, compared with a paltry 28 500 for wind turbines, according to present estimates.

It is clear that this is an issue, but it is solvable – not entirely, but it is possible to reduce the risk significantly. It is not as if people are sitting around, gleefully watching birds and bats being slaughtered.

Another pet heckle heard most recently is that turbines have magnets made of a rare-earth element called neodymium, which is said to be radioactive (it is only moderately so). The magnets have neodymium and they also have other rare earths, but so do laptops, aeroplanes, electronic devices and many magnets needed for nuclear reactors. What is more, fuel is refined using a rare earth.

Rare earths are going to be an issue more from a scarcity point of view than anything else. But the fact that they are also used in other fancy gadgets we use every day shows up the absurdity of the logic and the real stretch of imagination that goes into the argument against wind turbines.

The claims against wind energy are becoming sillier because the opponents are desperate. The claims are colourful, but are they based on science and are they expert opinions?

One is reminded of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, of La Mancha, who, in total lunacy, chases windmills, thinking they are ferocious monsters. Opponents of wind turbines are like mad people chasing after modern-day wind turbines as if they were tall monsters waving swordlike long arms at them, only to make them more incensed.