Commentary: End Life Support for Big Wind (August 2013)

by John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

The future of Big Wind hangs on Congress renewing a lavish tax break called PTC. If it disappears, so will Big Wind Northern New England.

*          *          *

The fate of Big Wind in Vermont  is currently resting with a piece of legislation that has become hotly controversial in Congress.

To understand why, it’s necessary to grasp that Big Wind is almost entirely a product of a host of federal and state subsidies.  Most of these are disguised as “tax expenditures” that allow Big Wind investors to offset their taxable income from other sources. For instance, Big Wind investors can depreciate their investments over five years – and take 50% bonus depreciation the first year.

The really crucial Federal handout is the Production Tax Credit (PTC). Under this provision a Big Wind developer can collect a $23 credit for every Megawatt hour of electricity produced. (“Big Wind” means ridgetop turbines producing more than 100kw of electricity. There are also many state and federal incentives for renewables generally, including small wind.)

The current crisis facing Big Wind’s profitability is the fact that the bonus depreciation and the PTC expired at the end of 2013. Big Wind, and the renewable industrial complex generally, has mounted a frantic lobbying campaign to get Congress to pass the “extender” bill to revive the expired provisions to enable more Big Wind money making. The Washington Post described the bill as “a full employment plan for lobbyists” and “fiscal irresponsibility plain and simple”, because there is no revenue source to cover the $85 billion in first-year tax expenditures ($13 billion for Big Wind.)

Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch are enthusiastic supporters of reviving the Big Wind PTC. It’s hard to explain the enthusiasm of these three for subsidy-sucking Big Wind, when so many of their constituents are opposed to it.

The “extender” bill is currently on hold in the Senate, partly because of opposition to many of the handouts contained therein (especially from anti-subsidy Tea Party Republicans), and partly because of Senate Democratic Leader Harry’s Reid’s tyrannical refusal to allow Republicans to offer amendments not approved by him.

One might view the Big Wind subsidies somewhat more favorably if wind power were a dependable and economically competitive energy source. It is not. It delivers irregular power during the 25% of the time  (New England average) that suitable wind is blowing, at roughly twice the cost of power from the New England grid (or Vermont Yankee, which will go off line in three months).

When the wind blows at night, and power demand is low enough so that it can be met with baseload generation, the wind power producers actually pay the utilities to accept their power. More amazingly, when there is no wind, the turbines must suck power out of the grid to keep the huge blades slowly moving to prevent metal fatigue. This is called “parasite load”.

Congress, urged on by Leahy, Sanders and Welch, may pass the extender bill after this year’s election. If the PTC extension is included, Big Wind will get strong new life support.

And even more help is on the way. Gov. Shumlin and his ally Rep. Tony Klein will almost certainly ask next year’s Vermont legislature to enact a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). This new mandate would require Vermont utilities to purchase increasing portions of their power from renewable sources, regardless of the cost to the ratepayers.

The new RPS would be an important component of Shumlin’s Comprehensive Energy Plan of 2011, that promises to mandate, tax and subsidize until 90% of Vermont’s energy consumption comes from renewable sources, including Big Wind, by 2050. The reason for this, of course, is to save our grandchildren from the “horrid future” Shumlin confidently predicts for them if we don’t take heroic steps now to combat the dreaded Menace of Global Warming.

If you have had enough of the expensive Big Wind subsidy carnival, what should you do? Get your three liberal members of Congress to back off from their support for including the PTC in the extender bill. Its expiration will almost certainly guarantee that no large wind project will ever again be built in Vermont.

But don’t stop there. Make it clear to candidates for governor and the legislature that you want Shumlin’s absurd “90% by 2050” mandate repealed, and the Renewable Portfolio Standard scrapped.

Just to drive the final nail in the Big Wind coffin, you could also ask them to enact a standby state production tax of $23 per Megawatt hour on electricity from new Big Wind projects, that would cancel out any revival of the Federal PTC.

- John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).


The Ethan Allen Institute is a 501c3 non profit organization dedicated to promoting liberty and free market solutions for Vermont. We are supported by small, local donors such as yourself. Join the cause. Be part of the solution! JOIN HERE! Contributions are tax deductible.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Ian Adams August 21, 2014 at 3:16 pm

“When the wind blows at night, and power demand is low enough so that it can be met with baseload generation, the wind power producers actually pay the utilities to accept their power. More amazingly, when there is no wind, the turbines must suck power out of the grid to keep the huge blades slowly moving to prevent metal fatigue. This is called “parasite load”.”

As someone with an engineering degree and a job in the construction industry, I would love to see a source for this claim. Anyone can do a quick Google search and find that this article is the only piece that mentions this “parasite load.” If you look at any of the numerous wind turbines around the state on a calm winded day, you will notice that the blades, in fact, stand completely still. Additionally, keeping the blades moving like you said would actually increase any metal fatiguing, not that metal fatiguing is a pressing issue to the day-to-day operation of a wind turbine. Blatant misinformation like this, presented to further one’s own agenda, is the real parasite here. Wind energy is a clean, renewable contributor to solving our nation’s energy problem. Perhaps if your time and money was spent helping to solve the energy crisis, instead of trying to shoot down productive legislation, we would be closer to ending our dependency on fossil fuels.

Reply

John McClaughry August 22, 2014 at 12:33 pm

According to electrical engineer Willem Post, whose work appears regularly on theenergycollective.com, “Parasitic energy is the energy used by the wind turbine itself. During spring, summer and fall it is a small percentage of the wind turbine rated output. During the winter it may be as much as 10 to 20 percent of the wind turbine rated output. Much of this energy is needed whether the wind turbine is operating or not. At low wind speeds, the turbine output may be less than the energy used by the turbine; the shortfall is drawn from the grid. In winter, the wind speed has to be well above 4.5 m/s, or 10.7 miles/hour, to offset the parasitic energy. Speeds less than that means drawing from the grid, speeds greater than that means feeding into the grid. (italics added) .
This will significantly reduce the net wind energy produced during a winter. On cold winter days the nacelle (on utility-scale turbines the size of a Greyhound bus) and other components require significant quantities of electric energy.
[Post then lists ten uses for auxiliary power for wind turbines, the last of which is] “- using the generator as a motor to help the blades start to turn when the wind speed is low or, as many suspect, to create the illusion the facility is producing electricity when it is not, particularly during important site tours. It also spins the rotor shaft and blades to prevent warping when there is no wind.” (7//25/11)(italics added)

A site which appears trustworthy to me, Windfarmrealities.org , describes the experimental results obtained by the University of Minnesota-Morris using a V82 Vesta 1.65 Mw unit: “As you might expect, whenever the wind speed is above the 3.5 meters/second cut-in speed the turbine starts producing, but not getting consistently into positive territory until about 4.5 meters/second. Notice the results when the wind doesn’t get above 3.5 meters/second – typically there’s a MINUS 50kw of production. This is power that must be supplied from the grid just to keep the turbine in business.” (italics added).

In retrospect, I should have referred to “parasitic energy” instead of “parasite load”, and indicated that there were numerous grid power demands by non-producing wind turbines in addition to preventing blade warping (metal fatigue).

I concede that renewing the Production Tax Credit and bonus depreciation would be “productive legislation”, from the standpoint of wind industry investors.

FYI, I have spent considerable time over quite a few years “helping to solve the energy crisis”, by advocating for advanced Generation IV baseload nuclear plants, such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (and others). Fifteen or twenty years from now, when Gen 4 plants mature, we will look back and wonder why we wasted such enormous subsidies on something as unreliable as Big Wind.

John McClaughry AB physics, MS nuclear engineering.

Reply

Ian Adams August 22, 2014 at 2:46 pm

Thanks for the response John. I appreciate the source material, although, I am still not entirely convinced about the “metal fatigue”, mostly because the blades used by the turbines are comprised of composite material, usually carbon fiber or fiberglass. As far as the blades warping whilst not moving, this may be possible although fiberglass and carbon fiber based products are known for their stiffness and resistance to deflection. The connection points of the blades to the shaft are, however, made of metal and could be subject to some uneven shear forces when not moving, but I find that unlikely because dynamic(moving) loads tend to put more extreme and diverse stresses on systems.

As for the blades being kept moving when there is no wind; that’s not true. I know anecdotal sources are not ideal, but anyone who has seen wind farms or lived near them can observe that sometimes they do not move. It’s also mentioned on this page: http://www.ewea.org/wind-energy-basics/faq/ that they do not move at times because there is not enough wind to spin the blades. I can understand the turbines being spun mechanically to prevent icing in the winter or to temporarily show someone on a tour how they move if there is no wind; both of those reasons make sense.

As far as the parasite load, everything electronic in your house has something similar to this. All electronics and all sources of energy(coal power plants, nuclear plants, etc.) have these energy loads used in stand-by. The real point that’s needed is whether or not this energy load detracts heavily from the cost/benefit ratio involved with the project. Do you think that those designing wind farms don’t take this into account? If the energy load was significant enough to detract heavily from the energy produced, no one would be building wind farms.

I agree with your support of nuclear energy. It’s most certainly the direction that our global energy production is headed. It’s statistically very safe and efficient, although with incidents like the Fukushima, it obviously needs heavy oversight to prevent any future disasters. What I don’t understand is why you cannot see a future in which wind, solar, and nuclear work in conjunction with one another. The end results will be the same; clean, cheap energy.

With limited funding, it’s understandable that you’d rather see the money that we are using on wind farms put towards the nuclear option. However, it would be prudent to diversify our energy options for the future, as to prevent unforeseen shortfalls of any of the options. Nuclear provides the most bang for the buck, but is also the most potentially volatile option. The disposal of nuclear waste is still a hot topic. If everyone adopts nuclear, there is going to be a sizable amount of hazardous waste that needs to be stored for thousands of years until it becomes inert. So, essentially, what shortcomings do you see with a mix of nuclear, solar, and wind? The amount of hazardous material produced is reduced, and the completely clean, but smaller producing options can take up the slack. Solar and wind would also be there in the event of an issue with a reactor, temporary or permanent, because we always have wind and sunshine.

Additionally, your use of the term “Big Wind” seems to imply that there is some large, malicious corporation trying to push wind for their own monetary benefit, but considering how much more money is involved with nuclear energy and the disposal it’s byproducts, don’t you think that’s a little backwards? But, in reality, there is no need to demonize anything except fossil fuel energy because the end game here is clean, sustainable energy.

Thanks.

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John McClaughry August 23, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Ina – you wonder “why [I] cannot see a future in which wind, solar, and nuclear work in conjunction with one another. The end results will be the same; clean, cheap energy.”
On what do you base that observation?
Yes, I can see Gen 4 nuclear, hydro, solar and wind working together – provided something dependable meets the baseload requirements. Absent fossil fuels, that something has to be nuclear, hydro, geothermal where available, and possibly tidal, and the future additions will almost certainly have to be advanced nuclear. But solar and wind can only augment a dependable baseload generation. I don’t buy the argument that “there’s always sun shining and wind blowing somewhere”, because that implies an expensive transfer mechanism (like Danish wind backed by the German grid).
Big Wind includes all the wind energy manufacturers and developers (>100 kw) like GE, Siemens and in Vermont, All Earth Renewables. Who do you think is mounting the frantic DC lobbying campaign to reinstate the PTC?

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Rob August 25, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Metal fatigue. Ian, I believe the metal fatigue referred to does not occur on the blades themselves but in the area where the blades connect to the tower. The weight of the blades is essentially hanging on a pin. That joint needs to be kept moving otherwise it causes stress on one section of the circle (like rotating a roasting chicken on a spit, if you don’t turn the thing one side gets burned). I also understand (not 100% sure on this) that it is only the largest (heaviest) wind towers where this is an issue.

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jim bulmer September 2, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Where will Vermont Yankee where will you be when we need you? Perhaps these mighty wind mills will run on all the hot air proponents are spewing. If a green project makes tree huggers feel good, they’re all for it regadless of cost or practicality!!!

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