Wind farms increase emissions: debunking a zombie claim

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“Wind farms do not reduce emissions.” A commonly used talking point by those opposed to wind farms. This talking point is evidently enjoyed so much by some that this week the Global Warming Policy Foundation reposted a story from Natural News on the subject. Natural News is at a level nutbaggery that one would have thought that even the GWPF would be sensible enough not to use it as a news source. But one thing is clear, most of the people who claim that wind farms don’t reduce emissions first don’t care about emissions in the first place, and second don’t care if wind farms don’t reduce emissions. They just don’t want them built.

So, do wind farms reduce emissions?

Let’s first get out of the way that some don’t. Building wind farms on certain types of peat bog is probably not a good idea. There are of course plenty of onshore sites without peat bogs, and offshore wind farms quite obviously don’t suffer from this problem at all. What we are looking at is something that can be solved through regulation, or carbon pricing. As an anti-wind talking point it is quite limited.

This tweet by the United Kingdom Independence Party’s MEP Roger Helmer leads me to the other claim: “wind farms increase emissions.”

The gist of this argument is that wind farms have an average capacity factor of 25%. So, if wind farms have a total capacity of say 10 GW, on average 2.5 GW will come from wind farms and 7.5 GW needs to come from something else. The problem for wind power proponents is that when the wind farms aren’t running it will be less efficient gas power that provides the electricity. A CCGT gas plant running efficiently will produce 0.4 tonnes of CO2 per MWh, whereas a less efficient OCGT plant, or CCGT plant running inefficiently, will produce 0.6 tonnes of CO2 per MWh. Add in 10 GW of wind to the electricity grid, and you go from 10 GW of electricity supply from efficient CCGT gas plants at 0.4 tonnes of CO2 per MWh being replaced by 7.5 GW of inefficient gas and 2.5 GW of wind, which comes to 0.75*0.6 = 0.45 tonnes of CO2 per MWh. An increase, not a decrease in emissions. A major blow for wind proponents, and total nonsense.

Consider electricity demand on a typical day. I’ll show Spain’s, but you can easily find it for other countries at the data sources page on my blog.

spain

These swings in demand are far greater than anything that can be expected for wind power less than between 20 and 30% of electricity demand. The impacts of wind on the need to run less efficient gas plants is currently negligible, and likely will be for the next decade in the UK. Just ask the UK’s National Grid, who using actual grid data found that wind farms currently have a close to zero impact on how often inefficient gas plants are run.

I can also refute the argument in the “excellent” analysis linked to by Roger Helmer above with one simple graph: wind power output in Germany today.

Germany

The total wind capacity in Germany is about 33 GW, but I believe only about 30 GW is represented by the graph above. Let’s think about what the “wind farms don’t reduce emissions” claim requires. Essentially between 12 am and 12 pm this morning German wind farms must have forced about 17 GW of electricity to come from inefficient gas plants. But, wind farm output is essentially flat all morning. So, the claim that wind farms increase emissions is blatant nonsense, which requires us to assume wind farms have magical powers.

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23 thoughts on “Wind farms increase emissions: debunking a zombie claim

    Grid said:
    March 18, 2013 at 8:52 am

    The only problem is that China & India etc, do not give a shit about any of the detail in your article. The will continue building coal stations so that their economies can continue to grow. Your article is a load of crap becaus it fails to mention that wind power will bankrupt any country tat fully embraces it.

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      Shailesh said:
      March 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm

      Any country choose the best financially and technically feasible option for the power generation. If wind energy is financially lucrative; project developer will opt for it. In India, where government used to provide tax benefits; there are around 18,000 MW of wind installations occurred till year 2013. Now the same tax benefits are shifted towards solar energy based projects and hence in next couple of years, solar sector will get boosted. So, money, government support and the technology is what we need to support renewable energy.

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      Mark said:
      March 21, 2013 at 8:20 pm

      You fail to mention that the demand on fossil fuels may be small because nuclear is providing the UK and German baseload.

      Like

        Robert Wilson said:
        March 22, 2013 at 8:13 pm

        Mark

        If you are not interested in responding to the subject I actually took the time to write about then please do not comment. It is a total waste of my time, and that of anyone who is reading through the comments.

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      Keith Brown said:
      March 25, 2013 at 5:28 pm

      This is interesting but it seems to me that a full simulation needs to be run before reaching conclusions. So far, my preliminary conclusion is that Wind does not cut emissions as much as claimed, but the claim that no emissions saved at all may be overstated. The issue is not just variation, but predictability. I read an interesting paper on Thermodynamic fluctuations as appled to wind energy. I’ll go dig it out. Conclusions not good for wind btw.

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        Robert Wilson said:
        March 25, 2013 at 5:57 pm

        Keith

        Please do not make another comment like this one. It is a waste of my time and that of anyone who reads it. Telling me you once read a paper, and are going to dig it out is anti-persuasive.

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    tallbloke said:
    March 22, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    What percentage of UK energy needs did our installed wind capacity provide today?

    Like

      Robert Wilson said:
      March 22, 2013 at 10:12 pm

      If you are not interesting in commenting on what this post is actually about then please do not waste my time and the time of people who are reading this post for its actual content.

      Like

    tallbloke said:
    March 22, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    The question of whether or not wind farms are net sources or sinks of co2 gains relevance only if placed in the context of how much extra co2 is generated or saved relative to the contribution of the windfarms to the UK energy budget. There has to be a cost benefit analysis somewhere down the line, because we’re going to need an awful lot more of these wind turbines before they are producing more than a symblic percentage of the UK’s needs. Getting a sense of the proportions is a sensible thing to do, because other considerations might come into play once the scale of turbine multiplication necessary is understood.

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    tallbloke said:
    March 22, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    By the way, Kirstygogan on twitter just answered my question. At this moment: Wind 14% vs gas 12%. Nuclear’s always high at night (21%) & old king coal still out in front 43%

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      Robert Wilson said:
      March 23, 2013 at 8:38 am

      Tallbloke

      I have a comments section so that people can have an informed discussion about the subject of each post. It is not for people to ask questions that can easily be answered by ten seconds on google.

      Please do not comment here again if you are not willing to contribute anything of relevance to the subject of the post.

      Like

    tallbloke said:
    March 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Point me to the article where you discuss the points raised in my comment then. Narrowly circumscribing debate limits transfer of understanding. Not that hundreds are flocking here to hear it.

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      Robert Wilson said:
      March 23, 2013 at 3:46 pm

      Tall bloke

      You’re just wasting my time. I have written a number of posts discussing wind power. If you want to read them you can find them by searching through my blog. I am not going to point them out to you.

      Since you have repeatedly indicated your unwillingness to discuss the subject of this post I am blocking you from making any future comments.

      Like

    Archaeos Pteryx said:
    March 30, 2013 at 2:54 am

    your second graph refers to a 12 hr period. The problem I believe arises with transients (at the beginning and end of such periods). While the argument in favor may need hard substantiation, the argument against is, forgive my saying, bogus. Any and all measurements or calculations of actual (not imputed) fuel saved by wind power (Ireland, Germany, Falklands, Holland) suggest that depending on the details of a power network, emissions (and hence fuel) savings are of the order of, or less than, 50% of those corresponding to the wind MWhrs generated by wind. Wind advocate claims refer to fictitious CO2 savings. Why aren’t there hard data on ACTUAL fuel saved? Or to ask it in a slightly different way, “how many wind generators does it take to actually manufacture a single ball bearing? — I mean “manufacture”, not “theoretical energy requirements”, if you get the subtle difference…

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    Billothewisp said:
    June 8, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    Hi Robert,

    While I concede that it is unlikely that wind in the UK causes an increase in emissions, there are a couple of points I would like to raise because I do believe that the contribution to carbon reduction from wind is grossly overstated.

    The “formula” you label as nonsense is only nonsense due to the current low penetration of wind (UK 3% ish) Today Wind output tends to be buried in the noise. The formula becomes increasingly more plausible the higher the penetration of (any) intermittent energy source. So the more turbines – the less effective they are at reducing CO2.

    It is not fair to compare the variation of wind with usage variation. While the energy requirement varies throughout the day this variation tends to be quite predictable for weeks if not months in advance as it
    is based on human activity and the time of the year. Whereas wind output can be wildly unpredictable (see the 48hr predicted vs actual on the NETA site – sometime they get it right, sometimes completely wrong – not for want of trying!))

    It would also be interesting to figure out what plant is actually cycled down when wind is blowing. I have no definite proof but I suspect that the first major power source to get wound down is the Channel interconnector (French carbon free nuclear) rather than cheaper coal and CCGT gas

    Garrard Hassan (wind turbine afficionado’s without question) “calculated” for th IPPC that IWT’s cut CO2 emmissions by 5.5 MTonnes in 2009 ( see http://bit.ly/14JIEXv and (if you like) my blog post on it at: http://bit.ly/QDvLet)

    Even assuming GH are correct (highly debatable), this equates to one medium sized coal fired power station has been replaced by the entire IWT fleet. Hardly an environmental bargain for the annual £800M subsidy is it? It would be much more effective and cost efficient to replace 1GW coal with 1GW gas.

    The cost DOES matter as it dictates what you can achieve. Wasting money on IWT’s for pitiful carbon savings is counter productive and, in a wholly different way, causes an increase in emissions.
    But that is an increase on what we could have achieved with CCGT and nuclear replacing coal, if the money had been spent sensibly.

    Regards
    Billo

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    Ray Martin said:
    April 13, 2014 at 12:53 am

    I had a look at Spain’s real time info and it is pretty much the same as Ireland’s in terms of demand. Low in the morning, increases as factories open and starts to trail off at 6pm. Its easily predictable and the fluctuations are not as great as wind. The first point is important as it means you can gradually deramp/ramp gas plant resulting in less emissions than a sudden deramp/ramp during an unexpected jump or drop in wind.

    The next part of your article claims wind doesnt force gas plant off the system – if that is the case then can you explain where the emissions savings come from that are directly attributable to wind ? Because otherwise you just have a duplicate system.

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