Why it is futile to think that Wind could ever make a significant contribution to energy supplies

Matt Ridley. May 15, 2017. Wind turbines are neither clean nor green and they provide zero global energy. Even after 30 years of huge subsidies, it provides about zero energy. The Spectator.

The Global Wind Energy Council recently released its latest report, excitedly boasting that ‘the proliferation of wind energy into the global power market continues at a furious pace, after it was revealed that more than 54 gigawatts of clean renewable wind power was installed across the global market last year’.

You may have got the impression from announcements like that, and from the obligatory pictures of wind turbines in any BBC story or airport advert about energy, that wind power is making a big contribution to world energy today. You would be wrong. Its contribution is still, after decades — nay centuries — of development, trivial to the point of irrelevance.

Even put together, wind and photovoltaic solar are supplying less than 1 per cent of global energy demand. From the International Energy Agency’s 2016 Key Renewables Trends, we can see that wind provided 0.46 per cent of global energy consumption in 2014, and solar and tide combined provided 0.35 per cent. Remember this is total energy, not just electricity, which is less than a fifth of all final energy, the rest being the solid, gaseous, and liquid fuels that do the heavy lifting for heat, transport and industry.

[One critic suggested I should have used the BP numbers instead, which show wind achieving 1.2% in 2014 rather than 0.46%. I chose not to do so mainly because that number is arrived at by falsely exaggerating the actual output of wind farms threefold in order to take into account that wind farms do not waste two-thirds of their energy as heat; also the source is an oil company, which would have given green blobbers a excuse to dismiss it, whereas the IEA is unimpleachable But it’s still a very small number, so it makes little difference.]

Such numbers are not hard to find, but they don’t figure prominently in reports on energy derived from the unreliables lobby (solar and wind). Their trick is to hide behind the statement that close to 14 per cent of the world’s energy is renewable, with the implication that this is wind and solar. In fact the vast majority — three quarters — is biomass (mainly wood), and a very large part of that is ‘traditional biomass’; sticks and logs and dung burned by the poor in their homes to cook with. Those people need that energy, but they pay a big price in health problems caused by smoke inhalation.

Even in rich countries playing with subsidised wind and solar, a huge slug of their renewable energy comes from wood and hydro, the reliable renewables. Meanwhile, world energy demand has been growing at about 2 per cent a year for nearly 40 years. Between 2013 and 2014, again using International Energy Agency data, it grew by just under 2,000 terawatt-hours.

If wind turbines were to supply all of that growth but no more, how many would need to be built each year? The answer is nearly 350,000, since a two-megawatt turbine can produce about 0.005 terawatt-hours per annum. That’s one-and-a-half times as many as have been built in the world since governments started pouring consumer funds into this so-called industry in the early 2000s.

At a density of, very roughly, 50 acres per megawatt, typical for wind farms, that many turbines would require a land area [half the size of] the British Isles, including Ireland. Every year. If we kept this up for 50 years, we would have covered every square mile of a land area [half] the size of Russia with wind farms. Remember, this would be just to fulfil the new demand for energy, not to displace the vast existing supply of energy from fossil fuels, which currently supply 80 per cent of global energy needs. [para corrected from original.]

Do not take refuge in the idea that wind turbines could become more efficient. There is a limit to how much energy you can extract from a moving fluid, the Betz limit, and wind turbines are already close to it. Their effectiveness (the load factor, to use the engineering term) is determined by the wind that is available, and that varies at its own sweet will from second to second, day to day, year to year.

As machines, wind turbines are pretty good already; the problem is the wind resource itself, and we cannot change that. It’s a fluctuating stream of low–density energy. Mankind stopped using it for mission-critical transport and mechanical power long ago, for sound reasons. It’s just not very good.

As for resource consumption and environmental impacts, the direct effects of wind turbines — killing birds and bats, sinking concrete foundations deep into wild lands — is bad enough. But out of sight and out of mind is the dirty pollution generated in Inner Mongolia by the mining of rare-earth metals for the magnets in the turbines. This generates toxic and radioactive waste on an epic scale, which is why the phrase ‘clean energy’ is such a sick joke and ministers should be ashamed every time it passes their lips.

It gets worse. Wind turbines, apart from the fibreglass blades, are made mostly of steel, with concrete bases. They need about 200 times as much material per unit of capacity as a modern combined cycle gas turbine. Steel is made with coal, not just to provide the heat for smelting ore, but to supply the carbon in the alloy. Cement is also often made using coal. The machinery of ‘clean’ renewables is the output of the fossil fuel economy, and largely the coal economy.

A two-megawatt wind turbine weighs about 250 tonnes, including the tower, nacelle, rotor and blades. Globally, it takes about half a tonne of coal to make a tonne of steel. Add another 25 tonnes of coal for making the cement and you’re talking 150 tonnes of coal per turbine. Now if we are to build 350,000 wind turbines a year (or a smaller number of bigger ones), just to keep up with increasing energy demand, that will require 50 million tonnes of coal a year. That’s about half the EU’s hard coal–mining output.

The point of running through these numbers is to demonstrate that it is utterly futile, on a priori grounds, even to think that wind power can make any significant contribution to world energy supply, let alone to emissions reductions, without ruining the planet. As the late David MacKay pointed out years back, the arithmetic is against such unreliable renewables.

MacKay, former chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said in the final interview before his tragic death last year that the idea that renewable energy could power the UK is an “appalling delusion” — for this reason, that there is not enough land.

This entry was posted in Alternative Energy, Wind and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Why it is futile to think that Wind could ever make a significant contribution to energy supplies

  1. Shawn says:

    Presumably, this is article was written by the same Matt Ridely who wrote Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010). I sort of fell for that shtick when I first read that book. Not so much anymore. In this case Ridely might be right about Wind Power. But he is not a source I would want to quote or rely on. Note the subtitle of this article was “We urgently need to stop the ecological posturing and invest in gas and nuclear”

    • energyskeptic says:

      I have a lot of problems with Matt Ridley, like he was a climate change denier for a while among other things. And I hate it when people who want to promote nuclear bash wind and solar, but in this case I think Ridley is right.

  2. The grand lesson learned from the Renewable Energy experiment so far is that Energy comes from the past into the future.

    Forest trees that have stored 80 years-worth of solar energy were not energy dense-enough to kick starting James Watt’s steam engine mass-production. Coal, which has taken millions of years to form and massive solar energy stored in it – was – the only energy storage capable for allowing that process to materlialise, triggering the Industrial Revolution.

    PV solar and wind, a real-time energy capturing devices, will never accumulate energy density of value unless thousands of years are passed by at work. Given they are subject to wear and tear, they are energy-negative machines, as a recently proposed thesis in thermodynamics inspires.

    • energyskeptic says:

      Great link, thanks. I wish I could remember the book where the author made the case (and this is the gist of what I remember and doesn’t do justice to the concept), but basically unless an energy resource is primary, which means it contains energy (oil, gas, coal, wood), then it is secondary and can’t possibly deliver more energy than what it took to make it (i.e. hydrogen, solar, wind, etc). This is obvious to me, but it is impossible to do an EROI study that has all of the inputs or all the externalities (such as the EROI of wind and solar also need to add in the EROI of transmission and storage). http://energyskeptic.com/2014/invisible-oil-and-energy-payback-time/

      • …but it is impossible to do an EROI study that has all of the inputs or all the externalities..“.

        This is exactly the reason why EROEI defies physics when it promotes audits like a “1 barrel of crude oil invested was enough to get 100 crude oil barrels-produced and the energy pay-back of a solar or wind are 1 year“, as the 1 barrel doesn’t have enough energy to sustain the production and all other energy-intensive processes extracting the 100 barrels, up to making that quantity a final useful energy at the consumption point. Yet alone to cover for repairs required for the supporting industrial-base built earlier with fossil fuels. And, yet worse when it comes to energy pay-back of solar and wind.

        Why humans have failed to recognise this severe tunnel-vision in the global energy-audit, all along?

        The likely reason being that James Watt’s engine was fueled at the mouth of the coal pit. The industrial base that built the engine was not too far from the pit, as well. Mine leases in Britain, back in the 1700’s, were not based on the quantity of the coal dug-up but on the period-of-lease. Effectively, the coal itself priced at £0 when it was also short-circuit and consumed directly to empower the internal process of extracting more coal.

        This has suspended the natural human greed that would have kicked off protecting the coal from being massively dug-up free of charge – to total depletion, if the finite nature of coal was explained and understood by the community being THE ultimate increasing value of the reserve, not the money the coal that has been sold-for on the market on any day.

        Effectively that was not too different from an act of looting the coal when that set-up has created the fake sense of abundance and propagated it across the society and around the globe!

        Coal in Britain has peaked soon under that culture and system in 1913, and the country went invading Iraq in 1914, right at the same time when Winston Churchill switched the fuel of his Navy from coal to oil, when no drop of oil was found in Britain then!

        Being the son of the reality of leased-valued coal, Churchill felt oil in the Middle East should be no different and his superpower troops can manage sealing there an excellent ‘lease’ deal!

        These two practices have ballooned later when the rest of the fossil fuel reserves have been exploited, worldwide as Iraq, for instance, has seen more and more wars and invasions since, the majority of its people under the poverty line today and the country never able to recover from conflicts!

        Today, no one can tell what portion of the incredible fossil fuels daily production goes straight into setting in motion the production process of more fossil fuels production – as it is irreconcilable having 23000 man-hour in a barrel of crude, 100m/b consumed daily but half of the population live virtually energy-less, resources are exhausted like no tomorrow, and reserves are vanishing like vapor, war never ends, poverty is rampant, the environment in tatters and we have not counted for the energy in coal and gas, yet!

        The suspension of natural human greed by the agency of lease-valued fossil fuels reserves, and unreported energy consumption at the mouth of the pit have played havoc with our civilisation, to the extent, they are destroying Capitalism, hundreds of millions of years-worth of finite energy stored in fossil fuels and the environment.

        The experiment of Capitalism since the Eighteenth Century (in fact Socialism as its sub product, too) managing fossil fuels by suspending humans’ basic instinct and ability valuing and dealing with life-critical scarcity naturally – has been no less than making all humans turning babies when they put their hands on the hot cooker unable to fathoming they are burning themselves and the future!

        EROEI has always been felt a deceptive unit of measurement, never accurate, never real and the time has come for humans to ditch it and its bad legacy of wrong, sleep-walking seeded-consciousness – to rescue Capitalism and, what’s left of fossil fuels reserves – maintaining a dignified continuity into the post fossil fuels age – the second-generation self-growing Renewables future!