I’m writing as a Minnesota engineer in the power industry to address some misconceptions about wind energy and its effect on our state of Minnesota, in response to a recent “Viewpoint” piece on this page authored by the Center of the American Experiment in Golden Valley, Minnesota.
There are many factors that go into the cost of our electricity and while we have seen a large influx of wind generation over the years, putting the blame of increased rates solely on wind farms is naive. First, the levelized cost of wind energy (LCOE) is the cheapest out of all other sources of electricity even without tax credits according to the EIA (Energy Information Administration.
If you think the capital cost of wind farms is high, then you should know that the capital cost for a new coal plant is $3,636/kW compared to $1,877/kW for onshore wind according to 2016 plant estimates by the EIA. What the writer also fails to mention when looking at the cost of wind energy are the land lease payments, jobs, and tax dollars that help rural communities.
Minnesota landowners receive annual land lease payments of $10-$15 million and in 2016 alone there were about 4,000 direct and indirect jobs supported by Wind Energy. The second misconception is that consumers will be paying for electricity twice, because of reserve generation needed to keep spinning.
That is an incredible waste of money and resources and fails to cover what the grid operators do on an hourly basis. Reserves are not always needed when working with Wind Energy, but when they are needed, grid operators work with a “pool” of reserve power made up of spinning and non-spinning reserves.
Hydroelectric dams are the first choice for reserves followed by natural gas plants. In most cases grid operators have no need to tap into reserves because, as the electricity produced by a wind plant increases they decrease the electricity production at other plants that are the most expensive to operate. These plants are almost always natural gas or coal plants because of their high fuel costs.
Grid operators in many states have adapted to the growth of Wind Energy and take many variables into account when directing how much power should flow and where it should go. Currently, four states get more than 30% of their electricity from Wind: Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota; all of which have experienced little to no change in electricity rates over the past 10 years according to the EIA. What becomes expensive and difficult to manage is an abrupt loss of a large conventional generator, such as a coal fired plant.
Thanks to the power electronics of modern Wind Turbines, Wind energy is much better equipped to handle voltage or frequency disturbances that trouble their fossil fuel counterparts. While Wind Energy is variable, it does not instantly appear and disappear. Locations for wind farms are carefully selected and changes in wind availability typically occur gradually. From an emissions standpoint, Wind Energy still comes out ahead when factoring in whatever reserve is necessary.
Even under a scenario using an inflexible fossil fuel plant as reserve, with worst case scenario efficiency penalty, the emissions savings of wind energy would outweigh the added emissions by a factor of 1,000. The third misconception seems to be tied to carbon emissions in Minnesota. The truth is that since the peak level of 36.4 million metric tons of CO2 in 2003, Minnesota power sector has reduced emissions by 25%. Over that same time period, 85% of the states wind power capacity was built.
Typically the people from the CAE (Center of the American Experiment) like to compare emissions from 2009 and 2014 to display how emissions have remained relatively flat. The truth is that coal power generation spiked 19% in 2014 and is an anomaly, CO2 emissions would have been much higher without the 9.7 terawatt-hours of wind generation that year. Wind power generated more than 17% of Minnesota’s electricity in 2016 which helped avoid 5.5 million metric tons of CO2 emissions as well as saving 3.1 billion gallons of water consumption.
For some reason the CAE fails to understand what many people from our state have already come to realize, which is what Wind Energy represents. Wind Energy represents supporting rural communities, finding cheaper sources of energy and inspiring the next generation of creative thinkers. Personally, I cannot think of anything that explains the American Experiment more than that.
Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota