Yes, wind power really is green

At the wind farm debate hosted by Saint FM in June, a member of SIEGE was distributing leaflets entitled “Is wind power really green?” and produced by the “concerned citizens” of Grey Highlands, Ontario, Canada. We wanted to examine the claims made in this leaflet to see if there was anything to them.

Background

A few moments with a search engine reveals that that the leaflet is essentially a rehashing of an article entitled “Wind power is a complete disaster” by Michael Trebilcock, published in Canada’s Financial Post on 9th April 2009. The article itself was composed of extracts from a submission entitied “Speaking Truth to “Wind” Power” by the C.D. Howe Institute to the Ontario government’s legislative committee on Bill 150 – the Green Energy and Green Economy Act, 2009.

It turns out that Michael Trebilcock is a resident of Grey Highlands and he says in his submission’s first footnote that:

I, my wife, and other residents of Grey Highlands, and similar rural municipalities in Ontario, are personally affected by this legislation and acknowledge this conflict.

This fact was missing from the version printed in the Financial Post. It is reasonable to assume that Michael Trebilcock had some involvement in producing the “Is wind power really green?” leaflet, although his name is not mentioned on it nor on the anti-windfarm website it links to.

The C.D. Howe Institute makes the claim on its website that:

Policy recommendations in the Institute’s publications are founded on quality research conducted by leading experts and subject to rigorous peer review.

and each page of their submission contains the slogan “INDEPENDENT – REASONED – RELEVANT”. This submission is self-evidently not independent and its reasoning is poor, which puts into question its relevance. Mr Trebilcock is a professor of law and economics with no cited qualifications in energy policy, suggesting that he is not a leading expert. No evidence is provided that the submission was peer reviewed at all, let alone rigorously.

A rebuttal of Trebilcock’s article was given by Sigurd Lauge Pedersen, a senior advisor to the Danish Energy Agency in his piece Wind power works, which was published on 11th May 2009. It’s interesting to note that Michael Trebilcock was given the opportunity to respond to this the same day in “The myth of the Danish green energy ‘miracle’”. According to the timestamp, it was actually published on the blog before the article to which it was responding.

The ‘facts’

The leaflet encourages us to “Examine the facts, then decide for yourself.”, but provides no way of doing this as none of the assertions made are sourced. It turns out that there’s a good reason for this. If you look at the source data, you discover how misleading the claims are.

“Not one fossil fuel power plant has been closed”

These are weasel words. For example, the Amager power station has converted from burning coal to burning biomass – it hasn’t closed, but it is no longer a fossil fuel power plant. Other coal-fired power stations, such as one at Esbjerg have been fitted with experimental Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) systems to reduce their carbon emissions. Since Trebilcock’s article, there have been closures of Danish coal-fired power stations – in April 2010, unit 5 of the Asnaes power station near Kalundborg on the Sjaelland island and unit 4 of the Studstrup power station, north of Aarhus on the Jylland peninsula were closed.

In his article, Pedersen says that “Denmark has closed several coal and oil fired plants in the last 10 years.” Trebilcock does not dispute this in his response but instead starts talking about combined heat and power. Unfortunately, neither article cites its sources.

Many of Denmark’s power stations, such as Avedøre are Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants. These are far more efficient than conventional power stations, because they make use of the heat produced by the power station for heating homes and offices rather than simply releasing it in cooling towers. In order to close these power stations, it’s not simply a case of replacing the electricity generating capacity – an alternative form of heating also has to be provided. Elsewhere in the world (such as the UK), households generally have their own discrete central heating systems, usually powered by oil or gas. In such places, electricity generation is much less efficient, because the “waste” heat generated isn’t being used for anything.

The Danish government has a long-term policy to remove all reliance on fossil fuels and banned the building of any new coal-fired power stations in 1996.

“50% more coal-generated electricity is needed to cover wind’s failings”

Not only is this assertion meaningless, as no indication is given as to what it is based on, it’s also just plain wrong. 50% more than what? Why specifically coal-generated electricity? There is no intrinsic need for base load for wind turbines to be supplied by coal – it just happens that Denmark gets just over 50% of its electricity from coal.

Denmark’s electricity generation in 2007 by production type
Source: International Energy Agency
  coal 50.82%  
wind 18.32%
gas 17.66%
biomass 5.36%
waste 4.50%
oil 3.27%
hydro 0.07%
solar pv 0.01%
nuclear 0.00%

Elsewhere, claims have been made that Denmark relies on nuclear and coal generation from other countries, with the implication that they are not self-sufficient in electricity because of their high proportion of wind energy. It is true that in 2007, Denmark imported 10427 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity and that much of this will have been generated by nuclear and coal plants. However, it ignores the fact that the country exported 11377 GWh – it is a net exporter.

If we compare Denmark’s coal usage in 1980 (when they had very few wind turbines, producing a total of 10.5 GWh that year) with the coal usage in 2007 (when Denmark’s wind turbines produced 7173 GWh) we find that the coal usage has fallen by 22%. Total fossil fuel use has dropped by 12% despite the fact that Denmark now uses natural gas for electricity generation, which it didn’t in 1980. This is despite the fact that Denmark produce nearly 12% more electricity in 2007 than it did in 1980. These figures are from the Danish Energy Agency’s Energy Statistics 2007.

“Pollution and carbon dioxide emissions rose 36% in 2006 alone”

This is a nonsensical statement. Why combine “pollution” (which could mean almost anything) and carbon dioxide and give a single percentage rise? Was this alleged rise caused by wind turbines? Why 2006 specifically?

It turns out that it’s very easy to answer the last question. 2006 was an atypical year. Energinet’s Environmental Report 2007 says:

2006 was a dry year, with small quantities of precipitation and thus low hydropower production in Sweden and Norway. Combined with high prices, this resulted in Danish power generation being substantially higher in 2006 than in 2005.

This answers the second question – with an emphatic “no”.

It also happens that Denmark’s electricity production in 2005 was very carbon efficient with only 282.679g of CO2 produced per KWh electricity generated. Electricity production in 2006 was more carbon intensive at 343.498g of CO2 per KWh – an increase of about 22% (not 36%), accounted for by the increase in coal burned to help meet the Swedish and Norwegian hydro shortfall. This is still comparatively low – Germany’s figure in 2006 was 403.629g of CO2 per KWh. The figures used here come from Denmark and Germany 2000-2007 CO2 Emissions per kWh of Electricity and Heat Output from the International Energy Agency.

As for the answer to the first question, it seems that only Michael Trebilcock has that.

“Danish electricity costs are the highest in Europe”

This statement is both misleading and wrong. Pedersen says in his rebuttal of Trebilcock’s article that:

Mr. Trebilcock claims that Denmark’s electricity generation costs are the highest in Europe without citation. Again he is wrong. The 2008 electricity price in Denmark to medium-sized industries is 7.85 eurocents/kWh, which is below the European average of 9 eurocents/kWh.

At November 2009 prices, Denmark is most expensive for electricity in only one out of four categories listed on energy.eu – for a domestic user consuming 3500 kWh/year with 30% of that usage at night. For domestic users consuming 7500 kWh/year and for industrial use, Denmark is not the most expensive.

However, these figures include energy tax, so do not simply reflect the cost of producing the electricity. The energy tax is imposed by the Danish government to promote energy efficiency and therefore has nothing to do with the fact that Denmark has a lot of wind turbines. With the taxes taken out of the equation, we actually find that Denmark is some way down the list – behind a number of other countries, including the UK. A graph showing Electricity Prices In Europe for domestic and industrial consumers on Status Ireland’s website illustrates this nicely.

An assortment of quotes

Trebilcock’s article and the leaflet produced from it go on to provide a number of carefully-selected opinion-based quotes from a number of self-evidently anti-wind Danes to try to convince the reader that the whole of Denmark is anti-wind. Pedersen points out how out of date each of these quotes is:

Mr. Trebilcock quotes Flemming Nissen from ELSAM power company. Not only is the quote misleading (at best), but Mr. Nissen has not been in ELSAM for years, and the company no longer exists. Mr. Trebilcock quotes Niels Gram of the Federation of Danish Industries, but it has been years since he left. Mr. Trebilcock cites Aase Madsen as chair of energy policy in the Danish Parliament, a position she has not held for a long time.

In an attempt to appear less biased (“But don’t take our word for it.”), the leaflet encourages readers to visit http://windfarms.wordpress.com/denmark/. This page features a couple more quotes relating to Denmark and wind farms, which make the same false assertions about carbon emissions and energy prices as are debunked above. It forms part of a website called “Blowing Our Tax Dollars on Wind Farms” which is an Ontario-based anti-wind blog, written by a conspiracy theorist climate change denier called Ron Stephens.

“Germany’s CO2 emissions haven’t been reduced by even a single gram”

These words were, according to the leaflet, printed in Der Spiegel at some point. No indication is given of when or in what context, but the claim is easily dismissed as wrong. While there are annual fluctuations, the trend is that emissions from German electricity generation are falling. In 2000, it was 493.814g of CO2 per kWh, falling to a low of 403.639g of CO2 per kWh in 2006. In 2007 CO2 emissions rose slightly to 426.736g per kWh, which is still a drop of nearly 14% on 2000. These figures once again come from Denmark and Germany 2000-2007 CO2 Emissions per kWh of Electricity and Heat Output from the International Energy Agency.

The leaflet goes on to claim that Germany has had to build more coal and gas-fired power stations, trying to imply that this is due to an increase in wind turbines. In fact, the amount of natural gas burned by Germany has fallen since 2000. While it is true that the use of some types of coal has increased, others have fallen and overall, the total amount of combustible fuels used has fallen, as has the reliance on nuclear power. By contrast, hydro, solar and wind generation have all increased. Source: Electricity and Heat Generation in Germany, 2000-2007, International Energy Agency.

“The government of Ontario is either ignorant of the latest clean-coal technology or, worse, has opted to ignore it in favour of courting ‘green’ voters.”

As noted above, the latest “clean-coal technology” (carbon capture and storage) is experimental. It relies on there being somewhere safe to store the carbon once it has been captured. In Denmark, they are storing the carbon in “geological structures” (read “big caves”) between 1 and 2km beneath the earth’s surface. In order for CCS to be considered in Ontario, it would have to have suitable, sealed geological structures in which to store the carbon. It must also be borne in mind that in many places where CCS is being proposed, such as the UK, only around 25% of the carbon dioxide is being captured.

CO2 isn’t the only pollutant produced by coal – it isn’t even the only greenhouse gas. To pretend that coal with CCS is anywhere close to being as environmentally sound an energy source as the wind is simply irresponsible.

Efficiency of generation

The leaflet claims that:

Wind turbines generate power on average less than 25% of the time, with varying voltages that can lead to brownouts. Energy experts say that, under these circumstances, “wind is more a nuisance than a source of power.”

The efficiency of a wind turbine obviously depends on its placement: if it is in a windy place, it will be more efficient than if it’s somewhere that isn’t windy. If it is judged to be economically viable, why does it matter that a turbine is only working for a percentage of the time?

The issue of varying voltages and brownouts applies to all forms of electricity generation. It is the responsibility of electricity companies to manage their whole portfolio of generation methods to provide a consistent service. They are able to cope with the variability of supply from wind turbines, so this is another red herring.

Given that the circumstances quoted are dealt with adequately by every country that uses wind turbines, the unnamed anonymous energy “experts” quoted evidently don’t know what they are talking about.

“Wind power is expensive, unreliable and inefficient”

We’ve already seen that wind power is none of these things. The case study of Denmark chosen by the leaflet’s author actually proves this very nicely as the country gets nearly 20% of its electricity from wind while having lower electricity production costs than many countries with less wind power, such as the UK.

“Worldwide, it [wind power] contributes less than 1% to the reduction of greenhouse gasses.”

This argument just makes no sense at all – if anything, it’s an argument to build more wind turbines so that they make a bigger contribution to a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Wind turbines are built primarily as a form of electricity generation, with a secondary advantage that they rely on a renewable energy source rather than non-renewable fossil fuels.

Conclusion

Each of the statements made in the “Is wind power really green?” leaflet is at best misleading and at worst completely wrong. According to the Danish Energy Agency, the leaflet even gets the number of wind turbines in Denmark wrong – the leaflet says there are more than 6,000 but the Energy Agency says that there were 5,266 in 2006 and 5,212 in 2007 (the drop being accounted for by lower capacity turbines being replaced with higher capacity ones).

The only conclusion one can reach about Michael Trebilcock is that he can’t be a very good lawyer if he has to use lies and misinformation to argue his case.

Wind turbines clearly aren’t a “silver bullet” solution to all our energy needs and environmental problems, but they form an important part of the transition away from non-renewable fossil fuel-based energy production. If we want to continue to benefit from the advantages of electrical power, we have to do so in a sustainable way that isn’t going to destroy the planet’s ecosystems. The only people arguing against this are those with a vested interest in fossil fuel-based energy production and NIMBYs who will turn to any convenient argument against what they perceive as the inconvenience of living near a wind farm.

Further reading

5 Responses to “Yes, wind power really is green”

  1. Ron Stephens says:

    My site is not anti anything – it’s a pro truth site. I deal in reality and truth – concepts completely outside the grasp of Green sludge crawling on earth at present. Don’t call yourselves environmentalists – speak the truth for once. Not sure what that is? Try a dictionary!
    Not one of you Green/UN/depopulation has every agreed to debate me……who about you………

    “In an attempt to appear less biased (“But don’t take our word for it.”), the leaflet encourages readers to visit http://windfarms.wordpress.com/denmark/. This page features a couple more quotes relating to Denmark and wind farms, which make the same false assertions about carbon emissions and energy prices as are debunked above. It forms part of a website called “Blowing Our Tax Dollars on Wind Farms” which is an Ontario-based anti-wind blog, written by a conspiracy theorist climate change denier called Ron Stephens.”

    • Denis Walker says:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment on the We Want a Wind Farm website.

      On 11 Aug 2010, at 14:10, Ron Stephens wrote:

      My site is not anti anything – it’s a pro truth site. I deal in reality and truth – concepts completely outside the grasp of Green sludge crawling on earth at present.

      I’m afraid I have to disagree. The page about Denmark on your website is, as I explain in the article “Yes, wind power really is green,” simply wrong. I haven’t investigated what axe Tony Lodge has to grind, but he clearly has one or he wouldn’t need to fabricate his statistics and make up explanations for them. The increase in coal consumption for electricity generation in Denmark in 2006 was due to it being a particularly dry year, meaning that Norway and Sweden were unable to produce as much electricity from hydro generation. Denmark make up for some of that shortfall by increasing generation from coal. You will find details of this in the Energinet.dk Environmental Report 2007.

      Your page on so-called “chemtrails” is blatant conspiracy theory nonsense. What you show in your videos is water vapour produced during combustion condensing as it cools. This is why the trail only starts appearing a short distance behind the plane. When no condensation trail is produced it will be because of the atmospheric conditions at the altitude at which the aeroplane happens to be flying. Even if there was anything to this, what would it have to do with renewable electricity production?

      Don’t call yourselves environmentalists – speak the truth for once. Not sure what that is? Try a dictionary!

      I am, to the best of my knowledge, truthful in what I say in my article and more generally on the We Want a Wind Farm website. I took great care to name the primary sources for all of the data in the article. If you believe I have said anything that is incorrect, please do correct me, citing the primary sources for your data.

      Not one of you Green/UN/depopulation has every agreed to debate me……who about you………

      I am unclear what your issue with the United Nations is, or for that matter with the premise that we should ensure the safety of the earth’s environment to enable our own survival. Nor have I ever campaigned to actively depopulate the planet. I am perfectly happy to have a debate with you, on the understanding that I have other demands on my time, as I am sure you do. There is no point in either of us wasting our time. Please provide the source of any data you rely on; I will do the same.

  2. D Cuomo says:

    Thanks for helping to debunk some of the rhetoric around wind power. It is much easier to argue against something than to argue for it. Wind power is part of a sustainable future. Those who chose to vilify and demonize it as a conspiracy of evil industrialists have other agendas. I too support sustainable, renewable energy generation to free us from carbon based fuels. According to recent surveys over 80% of people in Ontario are also in favour of wind power. It’s time the silent majority was heard.

  3. Denis Walker says:

    An article in Spiegel Online – Wind Turbines in Europe Do Nothing for Emissions-Reduction Goals – is worth reading for an explanation of why Carbon Trading and emission certificates are preventing CO2 reductions. Note the bias in the headline – wind turbines are irrelevant to the issue, which is one of bureaucracy.

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