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Wind Energy, Part 2: Why Free Energy Isn’t Free

Wind as well as solar energy are often referred to as “free”. How can that be?

Wind energy is a free, renewable resource, so no matter how much is used today, there will still be the same supply in the future. Wind energy is also a source of clean, non-polluting, electricity. Unlike conventional power plants, wind plants emit no air pollutants or greenhouse gases. Wind is the fuel in this system that creates electricity and it is free.

In reality, wind energy actually costs more than other energy. This is a bit puzzling as wind energy does not require investment in gas exploration or mining and transportation like coal energy for example. So why is this?

I’m sure at some point most of you have heard all the bad stuff about wind energy. Case in point is the article entitled, “A Problem With Wind Power” September 5, 2006 by Eric Rosenbloom which sounds more like it was written by a New York city law firm than it was a technical writer. And the fact that an eleven year old document represents an emerging technology is somewhat skeptical too here in 2017. Perhaps the only reason I even referenced this work is to prove that there is someone more skeptical out there than me, if you can believe that.

This report blames everything from salt and dead bugs buildup on the blades to the environmental impact on birds and bats for the reasons wind energy is not practical. I noticed that the report conveniently fails to mention how many birds and bats are saved by using wind energy versus pollution resulting from burning fossil fuels. Perhaps it’s not a sensational enough subject or maybe it’s associated with real numbers.

Then we have this fine piece of work, entitled, Free as the Wind’: The True Cost of Wind Energy”, that blames everything from bureaucracies to rare earth metals for the environmental costs of wind energy. Warning it’s about as pleasant to read as listening to a Michael Moore interview and not far in equivalent logic content either.

A lot of the added cost of wind energy is blamed on the infrastructure it takes to erect a working wind tower. A quick scan of Google’s search engine yielded the following statement from the wind industry.org web page: “The costs for a utility scale wind turbine range from about $1.3 million to $2.2 million per MW of nameplate capacity installed. Most of the commercial-scale turbines installed today are 2 MW in size and cost roughly $3-$4 million installed.” That’s quite a chunk of change especially when you consider transmission costs for bringing the remotely located wind power to a population center.

However, if you look at your power bill, the transmission cost is separate at least for the lines that carry both wind and power plant generated energy. Even though I tried to sort these associated costs out by looking at the local utilities cost explanation, it was about as clear as 401k fees. I don’t know why it is that money sitting in an account collecting interest has “maintenance fees” when no work is being performed other than computer calculations and basic data transmission. Just another hidden cost to the consumer perhaps.

Some of the costs are blamed on permitting fees and the like. If these wind farms are a part of the National Greed, why are we paying for permits? It’s like the government paying the government and passing the cost along to the consumer. Don’t we already pay the government in the form of taxes? Why pay twice? It’s the American way and that some congressman wants to fund a soldier’s gender change with the slush fund that’s created.

Maintenance is another cost that has to be considered. After all, a wind tower does contain moving parts in addition to exposing components to weather and sunlight. And then there are those pesky capacitors, the weak reliability link in this as well as many other DC link-based electronics.

So how does this reflect in a bill? That’s interesting too. For Xcel energy, my utility one can pay a voluntary price roughly a third more for wind energy. In other words, you’re getting the same product for a higher cost just to use wind energy.

By the way, what isn’t shown here is the additional fee to create renewable energy jobs. Is this the coal, oil, and gas industry’s way of retaliating for lost business or a legitimate cost for having to add personnel for wind energy? How come there are no labor costs separated out for fossil fuel energy generation?

Will the cost ever end? If it does, wind energy purchasers have invested in setting the system up while others reap the benefit of using it. If it doesn’t, then it’s a never ending cycle of revenue for the power companies depending of course on the rate of added wind farms. I would imagine the perpetual cost would be justified in the same manner as the New York State Thruway which was mainly put in during the 1950’s and was supposed to pay for itself in a few years.

Here we are sixty years later and this five-hundred-mile-long pothole is still charging people to use it. Rumor has it that it makes too much money for the state so why shut it down even if it has paid for itself several times? Wikipedia confirms this, “All tolls along the Thruway were supposed to be abolished when the construction bonds used to build it had been paid off. The last of the bonds were paid off in 1996; however, the tolls remained in place after the New York State Legislature transferred ownership of the New York State Canal System to NYSTA in 1992.”

Of course having a Thruway Authority is synonymous with a typical, bloated government agency that has to be funded to provide duplicate jobs that could be managed under the state or federal road system more efficiently but not by much. We’re talking government workers for government entities here where efficiency is half that of a linear power supply.

So does wind energy provide the value to make it worth it? I guess that depends on your point of view. The wind will never stop blowing; however, natural resources eventually will run out. So perhaps we’re just prolonging the agony for future generations. Otherwise, it could just be another profitable business that will never make free energy free.

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