WInd Energy - A bubble of Hot Air?

'..... it would break the laws of physics if emissions and fuel use didn’t go down when wind was contributing.' - American Wind Energy Association

By Mark Kirk

Is wind energy, endorsed by co-sponsors BirdLife South Africa & Investec, a bubble of hot air?

In August 2012 Investec & BirdLife South Africa appointed Samantha Ralston to 'actively participate in the renewable energy sector' - I assume to provide a responsible framework. BirdLife South Africa, prima facie, acknowledged a possible [?], negative impact on birds. Investec Power & Infrastructure finance renewable energy projects. [Investec - Sustainability & BirdlifeSA]

From the BirdLife South Africa site [BirdLife South Africa] the following -

'The need for cleaner energy has resulted in a burgeoning renewable energy industry in South Africa. At BirdLife South Africa we acknowledge the predicted shortfall of energy [(sic) - presumably 'energy'] supply versus demand. We also recognise the need to include more renewable energy in our energy mix if the threat of climate change is to be reduced. BirdLife South Africa therefore supports the responsible development of a renewable energy industry in South Africa.'

Good intentions, clearly, but a little naive, perhaps. Let's cut to it. We know birds are killed by wind turbines. In fact a median estimate suggests some 300000+ birds are killed in the US each year []. Seabirds are at greater risk.. [BirdLife International] To conclude before we begin and without being disparaging, our co-sponsored outdoor advert 'without impact' is misleading, if not high-grade BS. A claim of 'with minimal impact' is more accurate but let's not get into the semantics of language.

BirdLife makes reference to the burgeoning renewable energy industry & this is key. The emphasis on burgeoning is mine.

What do we mean by wind energy?

- Wind energy is a form of solar energy. Wind energy (or wind power) describes the process by which wind is used to generate electricity. Wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in the wind into mechanical power. A generator can convert mechanical power into electricity. []

What are the purported benefits of wind energy? - (verbatim per the Jeffreys Bay Wind Farm

Wind is a clean, renewable energy source. There are many environmental benefits of wind energy, including:

Water saving – wind energy does not consume water during the energy generation process, it also helps preserve scarce water resources.
Reduced carbon emissions – one megawatt of wind energy equates to 2600 fewer tons of carbon emissions when compared to coal-fired energy generation.
Wind energy generation emits zero air or water pollution.

With Regards to Jeffrey's Bay Wind Farm

Annual CO2 emissions avoided | 420 000 tonnes

Project lifetime CO2 emissions avoided | 8 400 000 tonnes

Water savings | 590 000 000 Litres per year

South Africa's Eskom  reached full capacity [annual 233000MWh or approx. 95000 homes] at its own Sere Farm; a wind farm near Vredendal in the Western Cape.

*For interest - Eskom's published map of Sere uncannily resembles BirdLife's own published map of the nearby Olifant's River Estuary [Olifants-river-estuary], an IBA [Important Bird Area].

Other local projects include the wind facility near Darling, in the Western Cape. The same benefits highlighted earlier are also claimed here.

That's all good & well if you take the data at face value. Unavoidably bias is inherent in most endeavours; good & bad. If you refer back to the benefits highlighted by the Jeffrey's Bay Wind Farm, emphasis is placed on saving CO2 emissions.

Forbes - wind-energy-carbon published an article on a real-world study by Bentek Energy [now Platts], an energy analytics firm. The study concluded that wind-energy's carbon-reduction figures were, in many cases, grossly overstated and as a consequence, too expensive to be commercially scaled. Most [all?] proponents of renewable energy refute their conclusions [Quora]. In context the Bentek study was sponsored by the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States... Debated inaccuracies notwithstanding, Bentek concentrated on the emission-savings of coal plants, where the plants are continually [inefficiently] cycled as back-up on the variability of wind production. This is important.

Will we ever learn to work in harmony with nature?

The wind industry's claim on emissions-savings relies on two assumptions:

  1. The vagaries of wind does not impact coal-fired facilities.
  2. The reduction in production from coal-fired plants = a proportionate drop in emissions.
Both assumptions are false.

Base-load energy production [**I'll get to this in a minute] ie: coal & nuclear, are designed to be efficient at optimal levels of production. Emissions increase as production & efficiencies decline. Wind production fluctuates with wind speed. To balance the grid other generators work harder. This increases emissions to the point where savings from wind may, in fact, be negative.

**Base-load production is the high-efficiency production of energy, at a constant rate and usually at low cost. Base-load plants don't usually adjust output to comply with increased consumer demand. Peaks or spikes in demand are often provided for by smaller, less efficient peaking power plants eg: gas & wind. Caveat - renewable energy sources are, however, sometimes incorporated into the base-load production.

Jeffrey's Bay Wind Farm CO2 Savings Claim

8 400 000 tonnes of CO2 over the project's life-cycle. Most often those figures are calculated on displacement ie: where each wind kw-hr eliminates the emissions from a coal-fired plant generating the same kw-hr. BUT this almost always ignores the CO2 emissions that are created [back-up] to compensate for variance in wind production.

The problem, generally, is a lack of production control. This leads to the prevalence of / need for backup plants - almost always running at lower efficiencies & usually at surprisingly higher emissions.

Eskom's Brian Molefe confirmed, very recently, that the utility was reviewing the role of renewable energy [Eskom - review] for the same reasons I've outlined above. It's an interesting take & the criticism of Brian's position has been fierce... Notwithstanding, intuition & reality are not always interchangeable.

BirdLife South Africa's commitment to mitigating bird mortality

We know collisions kill birds. That fact has been widely reported by the mainstream media & by BirdLife International themselves. An improperly placed turbine can & does have a disproportionate impact on birds including key species. Sensitive habitat destruction is also a valid concern.Understanding the impact on the birds themselves and on the habitat as a whole, I would assume, is key to BirdLife's monitoring process. In addition, newer turbines are purported to have less direct impact on flying birds & that's good news of course.

What is not as broadly reported is the negative effect of turbines on bats. In addition to collisions, bats suffer fatalities without coming into contact with the blade itself. At close quarters the air is forced out of their lungs, quickly enough, for the bats to suffer a pulmonary edema.

I concede the merits of progress & the burgeoning energy demands of an unchecked population. I understand profit and the incentive to innovate. What you may not know, however, is that the Jeffrey's Bay Wind Farm is owned by a consortium which includes local financial investment companies. That's fair enough of course. If opportunity doesn't knock, build a turbine...What I don't like is the disingenuous claim that wind proportionately reduces carbon emissions and let's be honest; that's the sales pitch.

w.r.t our two co-sponsors & their endorsement of wind energy, two things come to mind. Firstly I'm not convinced that Bird'Life' South Africa has the mandate to publicly celebrate a product that in itself is factually indefensible however well it's done. Secondly, whilst Investec's motivations are an internal matter, I assume their CSR models are broadly relevant. Nobody likes a spoilsport.

As for me I enjoy my coastlines & mountains free of whirly-junk. What's wrong with that?

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