Wind Turbines Out West, Epilogue
Parts I and II of my Wind Turbines Out West essays didn’t exhaust this topic completely. In the meantime, some interesting developments relating to the topic have appeared. So, a closing essay seems appropriate. The structure of this final part in the series is to summarize claims made by wind turbine developers and which their proponents then repeat.
Claim: These projects bring prosperity, or at least good paying jobs and tax revenue.
I explained in Part I of this series that most rural locations in the West do not possess the economic infrastructure to gain much from these projects. The construction crews are transient and reside elsewhere. The manufacturing is elsewhere. There isn’t a pressing need for local warehousing of parts or supplies. There will be a few technicians and their families who add to the local population, but they will be few. On the positive side there will be new tax revenues but these benefits will be apportioned with politics in mind. Who knows how this will play out. In brief, I know of no prosperous communities built on wind turbine plants, but there are plenty built by fossil fuels and mines (Ref: Gillette, Newcastle, Casper, Cody, Wyoming)
Claim: These renewable energy plants are part of a new clean energy system that is badly needed to forestall climate change.
There is no point belaboring this fairy tale at WUWT. The idea that wind and solar are “clean energy” is based on a shell game where CO2 emissions and other environmental impacts are shifted from the U.S. to developing countries. Perhaps people will come to realize that the radiation impact of CO2 is not as large as the IPCC claim, or that adaptation to what harms might occur will be far less expensive than the proposed cures. Let’s hope that reason eventually prevails. And soon.
Claim: These projects present no risk to birds.
In Part Il of my series I alluded to evidence that not only are birds at risk from large wind turbine plants, but showed evidence as well that they alter the behavior of ungulates. As if on cue, right after Part ll appeared there was news of a large fine being assessed against ESI Energy, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy LLC, for the illegal taking of eagles at wind plants they operate across the country. Several of these plants are located in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. There was coverage of this at WUWT here and here. ESI has admitted to the charges made in the complaint and have agreed to the penalties imposed in the settlement; so there is not much argument that these charges are unproven. Let’s summarize from Appendix A of the complaint. In the bold text which follows I will summarize what the complaint has to say with regard to the Roundhouse wind plant (RRE) which abuts the recently approved Rail Tie plant but this summary applies widely to ESI operations, and others.
At several facilities, or facilities of subsidiaries of ESI, in Wyoming (including Roundhouse Renewable Energy, RRE, in southeastern Wyoming) and New Mexico, ESI or its affiliates knew that there was a high probability of eagle deaths through work done by a consultant to the company and through meetings with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Although RRE followed recommendations relating to the siting of some wind turbines, USFWS again stated that the project was predicted to take eagles even if all USFWS recommendations were implemented, and recommended that ESI seek an Eagle Takings Permit (ETP). At least two officers of ESI were aware of the communications in 2019 with USFWS about risks to eagles from the Roundhouse project.
In representations it made to the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council (WISC) RRE had proved that its project would not pose a threat of serious injury to the environment and was granted a permit by WISC partially on that basis.
This occurred in more than just a couple of isolated instances. ESI adopted a nationwide posture of not applying for eagle take permits and at no time did ESI or any of its subsidiaries or affiliated companies or their personnel or agents apply for or obtain any eagle take permit authorizing the killing or wounding of any eagles relating to any of its wind power facilities.
This posture that NextEra’s subsidiaries and affiliates followed may have resulted from a general belief that their own experts knew better despite contrary evidence. Alternatively this strategy might have resulted from a cost/benefit calculation in which the eagles themselves would be employed to prove the truth of the matter. I estimate that obtaining ETPs for all projects would have cost about $1,000,000 per project and taken two man-years each to obtain. It’s a cynical tactic, but despite the $8,000,000 fine and other restitution the settlement requires, ESI probably saved on development costs.
Something that should be apparent from this incident is the failure which results from relying on the biased representations made by applicants. It also underlines the failure which would result from pressuring regulatory agencies to consider politics in their assessments. I have attended five public hearings on wind plant siting to this point, and at no time have I observed the claims of the applicant or government planning agencies weighed with anything like scientific rigor.
Claim: These projects are going to have a minimal impact on viewshed, environment and safety.
Perceptions are badly skewed here. I have already pointed out that there appears to be no recognition in the regulatory process, or in the public reporting of this process, that the applicant themselves, or those being paid by the applicant to provide testimony, or state regulatory agencies sensitive to politics will not provide unbiased input. The whole point of the Daubert Rule in Federal courts was meant to address this problem. The procedures of regulatory proceedings have nothing equivalent. At one time people might have depended on the local press to interview opponents and provide some balance. Yet, nowadays the local press generally can’t get off its duff. External actors, like Google, are now embedding their own journalists in local newspapers to provide bias they approve of.
One ISC commissioner asked me questions implying that he believes wind plants cannot impair views when Wyoming already has industrial plants along every road entering the state. I have no idea how someone living in Wyoming could hold such a belief. There are highways in the state which have mines or fuels processing plants along their course; this is true. But many, I would say most, have little or no industry along them that a traveler would notice. Moreover, the visual impact of a coal mine, or trona mine is compact and limited. These operations do not earn money by moving dirt needlessly or over long distances. As I replied to the commissioner, Wyoming may be widely populated with industrial sites, but a sprawling wind plant covering hundreds of square miles with 600 foot tall turbines placed two to the square mile is a different thing entirely.
While a few people try to make a case for wind turbines being graceful and enhancing a natural scene, or they insist that 600 foot tall wind turbines won’t be noticed with the planned set back of several thousand feet, no one tries to argue that the natural scenery is not impacted by wind turbines. Yet, the proponents and applicants rationalize this. For example, people insist that a few ranch steads or a highway in a view like that in Figure 1 means the view is already spoiled. As another example, in their representations to Albany County Commissioners one wind energy developer has stated that the wind plant
“…will result in a certain amount of visible alteration to the existing viewshed surrounding the Project area. However, the turbines will be siting near existing wind farms, so the presence of additional turbines will not be unfamiliar to the area.”
OK. If more and more wind turbines are erected, will they become increasingly familiar and thus increasingly acceptable? This argument rationalizes placing new wind turbines anywhere older wind turbines exist nearby. It is a camel’s nose under someone’s tent. It is tantamount to allowing that once begun there is no rational end to alterations of viewshed – atop mountain ranges and along the foothills we go.
Finally, the technical analysis of viewshed impacts follows guidance in a 2007 NRC publication. However, this guidance did not consider impacts as they would occur in clear air of the West.
Claim: Environmental organizations are on board
Who cares? The Audubon Society was recently prodded into suing wind energy companies but it took the carnage known as Altamont pass to stir them to life. The Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed all our local wind projects. The late Dwayne Keown, an emeritus professor of Science Education from the University of Wyoming, scorched the Sierra Club for their environmental indifference in endorsing the Rail Tie project in a public meeting in June 2021. I enjoyed being a witness to it.
As an environmental advocate our Sierra Club chapter would do better work to simply remain inert. Their efforts apparently aim to sacrifice most of Wyoming to keep these projects away from the Jackson Hole and Yellowstone areas. If some environmental group supports renewable energy, pay no attention. They are hopelessly conflicted.
Claim: The Electrical energy generated will add to local supplies and make energy more secure and cheaper
There is no empirical evidence that adding renewable energy lowers cost to consumers but there is growing concern about the perils of adding renewable energy into existing grids. In Part I of this series I showed data suggesting that O&M costs for wind plants in the West run around $0.02 per kilowatt-hour each year, and first costs to develop a project range between $0.018 and $0.024 per kW-hr over a 20 year life ($1,100 to $1,500 per kW nameplate at 35% capacity factor without discounting). Thus, costs are perilously close to average power purchase agreements (PPA) which are now around $0.04 per kW-hr. This seems to explain the business model of developing a wind plant and then unloading it on a utility, which can turn to a public service commission and ask for a needed rate of return.
Does such an arrangement imperil the utilities who end up owning these plants or the rate payers who are expected to pay for this generation? Yes. Utilities who end up owning such resources often find many expensive problems. They encounter complaints. As part of its public input process I wrote to the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) in May of 2021 to ask for details about an item that appeared in the Federal Register regarding the connection of the Rail Tie wind plant to WAPA transmission lines. I may as well just quote myself.
“My sixth concern is not with the EIS per se, but the impact the use of power generation at Rail Tie may have on the electrical grid. In the Federal register from 2019 there is this claim made by WAPA:
“Preliminary studies indicate that the power system can accommodate the proposed interconnection without negatively affecting system reliability or power deliveries to existing customers. The transmission system may require network and/or transmission system upgrades as determined in the final studies.”
So far I have seen nothing about these promised studies, and don’t even know what the preliminary studies addressed. WAPA intends to use power generated in this project to replace power from the Hayden generating station. This means that non-dispatchable power is replacing dispatchable power. If the recent problems in Texas, Germany, California, and the State of South Australia tell us anything, it is that a grid having too much non-dispatchable power is undesirable in the extreme. Now, the interesting question is how much is too much? WAPA claims to have done some preliminary analysis in the above statement, which I presume would address just these issues, and concluded that they envisage no problem. Yet there are no details available about this analysis, and no way to independently review this claim. I would expect to see several reasonable scenarios by WAPA that demonstrate what their dispatchable reserve margin is in these cases.”
WAPA answered by stating they had “…completed a System Impact Study that details the requirements for the requested interconnection and associated system upgrades (WAPA 2020a). WAPA’s purpose and need is to consider and respond to the request for an interconnection agreement in accordance with the agency’s Tariff and the Federal Power Act, as amended (see section 1.1, “Western Area Power Administration’s Purpose, Need, and Decision”).”
This side-stepped my question. They appear to analyze only what equipment is required to allow the Rail Tie plant a connection to the transmission lines. This is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. According to Section 1.1, WAPA offers capacity on its transmission system to deliver electricity when capacity is available. The Tariff contains terms for processing requests for the interconnection of generation facilities to WAPA’s transmission system and also identifying system upgrades or additions necessary to accommodate interconnection of the Project.
However, section 1.1 also states that “…In reviewing interconnection requests and making its decision, WAPA must ensure that existing reliability and service are not degraded….” Moreover the WAPA mission statement reads.
“Safely provide reliable, cost-based hydropower and transmission to our customers and the communities we serve.”
Where is there substantiation of having considered these visions and mandates successfully? This issue is not restricted just to WAPA but extends into any electrical energy network (grid in the common parlance) in North America. In particular, Rocky Mountain Power who supply energy to customers in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, are sponsoring about 3,500MW (nameplate) of the new wind plants we have permitted in southeastern Wyoming. According to Rocky Mountain Power itself, their 2021 capacity resource mix amounts to 15,550MW including 64% which is dispatchable. By 2030 they plan to have 22,815 MW of system capacity, but only 42% is now dispatchable. Western networks are small and thus easily destabilized by modest additions of non-dispatchable generators. Of course these grids can call upon neighboring grids to transfer energy for support, but how much reserve is available, and under what circumstances? Moreover, there are vague references to some pumped hydro storage and batteries, but it all sounds like brave talk. It sounds ominous. Where is the evidence of system reliability after these alterations?
In an almost prescient article in The Houston Chronicle from 2020,  the Honorable Jason Isaac, former U.S. Representative from Texas, pointed out that ERCOT was using an annual average capacity factor from wind and solar plants to calculate its summer reserves of power. But summer capacity factors anywhere in North America are below annual averages, and so what appeared to be comfortable reserves of 19.6% for peak summer demand in 2019, were in fact only 8.6% – most of the reserves were phantom. In February 2021 what we learned was that non-dispatchable energy sources had produced an even more dire deficiency of winter-time reserves; something that ERCOT had not considered. What we learned in that fiasco, the hard way, is that what matters is not reserves calculated from average capacity factors, but what energy reserves a system can call upon and then actually guarantee to deliver to a customer at any time of year. One would not think that such a distinction would need to be articulated, but one would be wrong in such thinking. It needs to be explained widely and often.
What is now occurring is that homeowners, and probably businesses too, are installing on-site electrical generation backup, much of which depends on natural gas to operate. This could proceed so far as to cause a shortage of deliverable natural gas during an unusual, but not unexpected, becalmed cold spell in some future winter. I expect trouble out west before 2030.
-I have written in Part II about state agencies being pressured to not push back hard on wind energy development.
-Dan Litchfield, a senior manager at Invenergy, “one of the world’s largest wind-energy developers,” indicates that “A lot of people tell me they like the look of wind turbines,” he added. “They find them graceful.” Quoted in this WUWT article.
-Quotation is from page 499 of the agenda for Albany County Commissioner’s meeting of November 10, 2021.
-Viewshed analysis employed: Environmental Impacts of Wind-Energy Projects developed by the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Environmental Impacts of Wind Energy Projects.(2007) However, a more recent and more pertinent study made explicitly in Wyoming and Colorado suggests much greater impact in the clear air of Western locations. See: Robert G. Sullivan, et al, Wind Turbine Visibility and Visual Impact Threshold Distances in Western Landscapes, Environmental Science Division Argonne National Laboratory Argonne, IL (2012) found online.
-Dwayne Keown, obituary. https://obituaries.the-journal.com/us/obituaries/the-journal/name/duane-keown-obituary?id=14266820
-Or what is equivalent, a calculation made at a discount rate of 0%.
-solar and wind combined average PPA of $36.30 per MW-hr in early 2022 according to Level Ten Energy.
-See rockymountainpower.net/about/innovation-environment.html On what basis they calculate system capacity is not explained. One would hope it is not nameplate rating or even annual capacity factors for wind and solar. The question needs to be addressed by a Public Service Commission. An even more ominous graph is found on the website of the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power, PacifiCorp, which shows system wide CO2 emissions declining to 0% by 2048.
-”ERCOT’s phantom reserves spell trouble for summertime,” the honorable Jason Isaac, July 8, 2020 Houston Chronicle.