The Wild Wild Wind

July 16, 2013

About a year ago Chris Townsend wrote a defence of his opposition to wind farms in the wilderness, a defence notable for its lack of venom and the mindless shrieking about imagined technical issues that infects too much of the opposition to wind power. I unfortunately did not read the article at the time, but came to it late via a tweet last week.

It is so different from much of the bile that pumps from the spout of the Telegraph and the like that it deserves a proper response, even now. To summarise, Townsend argues from a position that has a long history within the environmental movement, dating back to Thoreau and the Transcendalists: that of wilderness being essential for human flourishing. By imposing our own practicalities on the wild – to whit, by concreting it over – we conceal something potentially grander and hence impoverish ourselves. The viewpoint of man is necessarily limited, and by assuming our needs are primary we miss out on manifold other forms of interpretation. An example that Thoreau uses is that of squirrels, which around here are frequently dismissed as tree rats, but from another perspective can be seen as the ‘planters of forests’.

The wilderness allows man to have access to this manifold of interpretation and in contemplating it we are free to grow both intellectually and aesthetically. This approach could be seen as having much in common with Kantian aesthetics, albeit on a much broader scale. By introducing symbols of man’s practicality within the demesne of the wild we break this manifold: an interpretation is forced upon us and shocks us out of our contemplation. Townsend claims that wind turbines play this role, and are an intrusion into the wild.

I wish to argue the opposite, but before I do so we must better understand why the wild is able to play the role that it does. Firstly, it is ostensibly impractical. The wild has no easily perceived use, and only through contemplation and investigation can we see the role it can play. Secondly, it is chaotic. It is not constructed according to a single coherent design, but rather the complex interaction of many forms of life, and forces much larger than life itself. Thirdly, this impractical chaos lends it beauty. The aesthetic of the wild as outlined above is an aesthetic of happenstance and of engagement: beauty lies in the capability of the wild to open new ways of seeing the world.

With the above in tow, it is not clear that man made objects are necessarily excluded from the wild if it can be shown they can manifest the features given above. I claim that wind turbines can. It is frequently claimed by opponents of wind power that they are impractical, being less controllable than the huge coal furnaces they’re more used to getting electricity from. This is true: compared to fossil fuels, wind turbines represent a surrender to nature. But in that surrender there is mystery: they force the user to consider new ways of powering civilisation, ones which are more in line with the forces that determine the shape of the wild. They are chaotic – certainly in output – but in interaction across the country bring a unity of output not of a single design, but of many. In the contemplation of this new world in which the wild moves into civilisation, rather than the other way round, they are certainly beautiful.

The train journey between Carlisle and Edinburgh now goes through what can only be described as a wind farm landscape. It is beautiful. When passing through it, one cannot help but contemplate how our world is changing, and how our very understanding of the previously hermetic worlds of the Wild and the Civilised are changing with it. Thoreau believed that man, through art and literature, could create the wild itself. In placing more of our civilisation in the hands of natural forces, we are bringing the wild home.


Timmy doesn’t like wind turbines, or, indeed, anything of the other solutions to climate change which are subsidised. This is fair enough; it’s entirely coherent for any classical liberal to dislike any prospect of rent-seeking that appears to impose costs on the rest of society. In a post on Forbes yesterday, he endorsed a letter from an engineering professor to the Telegraph which criticises ‘premature’ technology deployment – i.e. the deployment of technology before it reaches a level at which it can compete successfully with established tech.

Solar panels, he points out, are frequently described by their advocates as likely to be cost-competitive with coal plant in at most ten years’ time. If this is the case, he argues, then why do we need to spend money subsidising their production? Surely we could just wait ten years and reap all the benefits of clean energy without having to shell out millions of pounds of bill-payers’ money? In fact:

“Another way of making the same point is that instead of deploying subsidy requiring energy production systems now we should be, assuming we are going to do anything about climate change, be putting those resources into the R&D of renewable systems so as to get them to economic efficiency that much the faster.”

On the same day as this post went up, Timmy put the following up on a post about the NHS:

“For there’s something we learned in the short 20 th century, that period betweem 1917 and 1991. Market based systems improve total factor productivity better than centrally planned systems.”

Put simply, markets are the best tool we have for procuring something that we want more cheaply. If we want good quality healthcare that’s free at the point of use, then the cheapest way of ensuring that is by permitting competition within the NHS. If we want cheaper wind turbines and solar panels, we need a market. We need a bunch of people who want to buy these things, and people who compete to sell them to them.

I feel confident enough in this to make the following prediction: solar panels will be cheaper in ten years’ time if we fund a market in them than if we spend the same money throwing boffins at the problem. This is because the market will pay people to spend money on boffins too, boffins with stronger incentives to make the solar panels better.

Now, you can argue whether the current market we have in green energy is the correct shape to properly incentivise  increasing productivity. What you can’t do is say that we should have a thing and then say that the best way to get that thing is to fund experts to think really hard about the problem, and then say the exact opposite about another thing. I’m quite frankly shocked that Timmy has decided to eschew his own economic knowledge for that of engineer on this point.

Anatomy of a Wind Myth

August 23, 2010

Crossposted from my work blog at EmbraceMyPlanet, this is lengthy examination of the bizarre world of the anti-wind industry. This article is written in my professional capacity.

There are plenty of myths around wind power – variability, noise, costs and so on. But where do they come from? We’re going to analyse one particular myth to find out.

The myth we’re going to look at is one that’s been hanging around anti-wind sites for some time – we’ll call it the No Displacement myth. It’s the belief that because the variability of wind power results in fossil fuel power plants needing to raise and lower their output rapidly to compensate for the variations in wind power, the extra carbon emissions caused by this actually outweigh the emissions displaced by using wind power.

A key current advocate of this myth is the website MasterResource. MasterResource is a free-market energy blog with a range of high-profile contributors, including Robert Bradley Jr., an adjunct scholar of the libertarian think-tank The Cato Institute and a former Director of Public Policy Analysis at Enron. The ideological underpinnings of this site can be demonstrated in Bradley’s belief in the economic doctrine of ‘resourceship’, which claims that resources are not limited by the quantity present in the Earth but rather the ingenuity of man to extract them. This means, in essence, that if peak oil becomes a reality it’ll be because we weren’t intelligent enough to find more – not that there was no more to find. We’ll leave it to the reader to decide on the merits of this doctrine.

MasterResource has published a series of posts by former management consultant Kent Hawkins on the No Displacement myth. They deal with two studies which ostensibly show that the emissions caused by power plant ‘cycling’ (i.e. raising or lowering output to match wind generation) are greater than the emissions that would’ve been caused if the plant was left to generate that amount itself.

The first study is from the Netherlands, and is by C. le Pair and K. De Groot. It’s hosted Dr. le Pair’s personal website, which bears an anti-wind logo at the top, and doesn’t appear to be peer-reviewed. The study raises the valid point that inefficiencies are caused by cycling power plants, which isn’t under dispute. The study claims that these inefficiencies outweigh carbon savings from wind when they rise over 2.5% if wind power makes up more than 5% of the amount of electricity that’s used to meet demand. Their maths, in this regard, seems correct – but the problem arises when they try to prove that these inefficiencies actually happen in practice. They admit that they were unable to find data on this subject, but that doesn’t stop them trying to estimate what the efficiency drop required to make using wind turbines to generate electricity result in more carbon emissions would be.

Their discussion section goes through a series of complex-looking equations to find that the drop in efficiency necessary is exactly equivalent to the amount of electricity the wind turbines actually produce. This seems rather obvious. They then produce a table which purports to demonstrate that a relatively small drop in efficiency for the overall system would result in a significant drop in efficiency for the power plant that the wind turbines displace. This table was compiled with help from… Kent Hawkins.

How to make your own Wind Myth #1: Think Ouroboros – Refer to articles that you helped to write as evidence for your myth!

We’ll go into the roots of Hawkin’s calculator that the Dutch study relied on in a moment. The second study in Hawkin’s series of blog posts is one carried out by Bentek Energy, on behalf of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. The third page of the report bears the disclaimer: “BENTEK DOES NOT WARRANT THE ACCURACY OR CORRECTNESS OF THE REPORT OR THE INFORMATION CONTAINED THEREIN.”

Bentek focus on the experience of the PCSO company in Colorado, which has added significant amounts of wind power capacity to its electricity grid since 2007. Since that time, the heat rate (the amount of fuel used per unit of electricity generated) has increased by around 1% across the entire set of PCSO’s coal plants. Bentek claim that this disguises the situation at individual plants, and presents two graphs of heat rate from Cherokee Plant in 2006 and 2008. They claim that these graphs indicate increased variability in heat rate – but this would be more convincing if both graphs used the same scale. As it is, the 2008 one looks a little stretched.

The next part of the report focuses on two scenarios from a PCSO training presentation. Both show a rapid variation in wind power over the course of a few hours, leading to coal electricity production being quickly ramped up and ramped down. Why these particular scenarios were picked from the presentation is unclear; there are four scenarios given in the presentation, but the other two show much less dramatic shifts in wind power.

Older coal plants like Cherokee have difficulty coping with their emissions following cycling – their emissions control systems are predicated on maintaining a constant boiler temperature. Every coal generator in Colorado is over 30 years old – Cherokee is over 50. This means that following cycling, emissions control systems can frequently fail and lead to a significant increase in emissions of various pollutants – and this is what Bentek claims happens on the two days it examines. Using the amount of pollution emitted by Cherokee over the full day (rather than just the pollution emitted during the wind variation event), Bentek claims that the extra emissions released by the plant as a consequence of cycling are more than are displaced by using wind. They then claim that this is a strong justification for replacing the coal plant with a new gas plant. This is what the plant’s owners are actually doing, which must come as welcome news to the gas companies who commissioned the report.

This implies that adding wind to an electricity grid that contains lots of old coal plant would not result in many emissions savings. Unfortunately for Bentek’s analysis, the emissions from Colorado’s electricity generating plant have been decreasing since wind came onto the system, by nearly the same amount as the added wind capacity. Wind events of the magnitude used by Bentek’s report are rare – far more common sources of cycling are daily changes in demand levels, which you can see in Figure II-7 in Bentek’s report. Indeed, Bentek did not present us with the changes in generation for the days they analysed beyond the times of the wind event, making it very difficult to claim that only that event caused the rise in emissions. It’s therefore not clear at all that cycling caused by wind leads to a net rise in emissions even from old coal plants. However, this doesn’t stop Kent Hawkins from claiming that using gas to balance wind leads to a net increase emissions.

How to make your own Wind Myth #2: Refer to articles that disagree with you as evidence for your myth and hope no-one checks your references

Hawkins uses a methodology similar to that used by Warren Katzenstein and Jay Apt in their article ‘Air Emissions Due To Wind And Solar Power’. Somehow he neglects to mention that Katzenstein and Apt find that renewable energy does result in a net carbon emission decrease – although not as much as has been previously claimed. Katzenstein and Apt’s article relies on a model containing four wind farms, a solar plant and a single gas turbine generator. For comparison’s sake, there are 51 gas plants in the UK, many containing multiple generators, and 264 operational wind farms.

Using data from a very small sample of wind farms presents a problem for their model – wind power variability from a small geographic model is very different from wind power variability from widely distributed wind farms, as this report for Greenpeace shows. Hawkin’s response to this issue as raised by Michael Milligan in ‘Wind Power Myths Debunked‘ fails to get to grips with the reasons why this has an impact on emissions rising as a consequence of variability. He claims that more wind on the system results in more absolute variability from wind – which is trivially obvious, as there’s more scope for the power output to go up and down. However, what’s relevant in calculating the increased emissions from cycling plant is the speed and the intensity with which wind events happen – as the Bentek report showed. Ramping up fossil fuel plants more quickly results in increased emissions, whereas being able to increase or decrease generation more slowly reduces the heat rate of plant. That’s why a small-scale model won’t properly capture the real impact of wind on cycling emissions.

How to make your own Wind Myth #3: Imply that small-scale models are the same as the real world

To demonstrate how wind power works in the UK, consider this wind speed map. It is immediately obvious that not only is the wind always blowing somewhere, but also that it is not the same everywhere at the same time – which Hawkin’s assertion that wind power is stochastic implies. Rather, wind is a series of flows of varying intensity. To illustrate how this affects the variability of wind generation, imagine you’re throwing tennis balls at a small-scale turbine, causing it to turn round. The frequency by which you throw tennis balls will cause different amounts of generation from the turbine. If you suddenly start throwing them at a faster rate, then the turbine will produce a generation ‘spike’.

Now imagine you’re throwing tennis balls at a series of turbines, one behind the other. Each ball hits the blade of each turbine in turn. If you suddenly increase the speed at which you’re throwing, it won’t cause an instantaneous increase in all the turbine – rather, it’ll cause generation to increase on a slower curve. It’s this system-wide slower increase that gas turbines will have to compensate for – not the sudden spike of generation from an individual turbine. That’s one of reasons why a wide geographic spread of wind farms is so important, as the Danish experience shows.

Given that no real-world data appears to support Kent Hawkin’s contention, what inspired him to take this approach to wind power? According to a piece he put up on MasterResource in February, his derived the information supporting his work from a document put out by the Renewable Energy Foundation called ‘Reduction in Carbon Dioxide Emissions: Estimating the Potential Contribution from Wind-Power’, by former senior Esso manager David White. The article makes the same claims – and same mistakes – as the above, by raising the power plant cycling issue but making no quantitative assessment of its impact. It fails to do so because it claims insufficient research has been carried out into this field – although a UKERC report on the same subject identifies a wide variety of papers available when REF’s 2004 report was originally released.

REF is an odd organisation. Despite its name, the majority of its activity involves disseminating anti-wind propaganda. Its funding comes from a variety of wealthy anonymous donors, only a few of whom have been publicly identified. Those we know about include the property magnate Vincent Tchenguiz, whose Consensus Business Group is the major supporter of the core funding of REF. Mr Tchenguiz has previously publicly discussed the likelihood of increased arms spending by Western governments to guard against the enormous floods of people fleeing countries rendered uninhabitable by global warming. He aims to make himself indispensable to arms companies that will be recipients of this increase in spending by functioning as a co-investor on ‘flow-back’ investments these companies are compelled to make with countries who purchase their products.

Curtailing the development of the most mature renewable technology – wind – will result in higher carbon emissions, increasing the likelihood of dangerous climate change.

How to make your own Wind Myth #4: It never hurts to find a rich businessman who stands to benefit from your myth

Mr Tchenguiz isn’t the only public figure associated with REF. The organisation’s first chairman – who only stepped down in February of this year – was Noel Edmonds. He joined REF following a prospective development near his home in Devon when the organisation was formed in 2004. We can therefore pinpoint the origin of the No Displacement wind myth quite accurately – it comes from Crinkley Bottom. I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere…