Fact check: Larry Bell's list of errors

Forbes magazine's blog recently carried an opinion article attacking wind energy by Larry Bell, a professor of space architecture at the University of Houston. Following is the response that I posted in the form of a series of comments:

Larry, there are so many false and misleading claims in your post, we’ll have to take them one at a time:

1. You begin by criticizing the May 2008 Department of Energy report, which concluded that wind energy could achieve a number of benefits by providing 20% of America’s electricity by the year 2030, as being too optimistic about wind energy’s future. First, I should point out that this report was written by the Bush Administration’s DOE, making it difficult to portray the report as pie-in-the-sky thinking.

You also make a number of factual errors when talking about the report. As the title “20% Wind Energy by 2030” and the report itself make clear, the DOE report was looking at a scenario in which wind provides 20% of America’s electricity, not 5% as you claim. Second, the U.S. wind industry is already well ahead of the trajectory the report estimated would be needed to achieve the 20% by 2030 goal, having installed over 8,000 MW of wind in 2008 and 10,000 MW in 2009. Wind energy accounted for around 40% of newly installed generating capacity in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

I’d recommend going back and reading the DOE report, as you’d find that it directly refutes almost all of your attacks on wind energy. For example, it’s hard to claim that wind energy isn’t abundant, when the report identifies enough economically viable wind resources to meet our electricity needs a dozen times over. It’s also difficult to attack wind’s emissions benefits when the report concludes that 20% wind would reduce CO2 emissions by 825 million tons in the year 2030 alone and 7.6 billion tons cumulatively, in addition to large amounts of other harmful pollutants. Moreover, the report finds 20% wind would save 4 trillion gallons of water cumulatively by 2030 and substantially reduce natural gas prices by diversifying our energy portfolio away from fossil fuels. The DOE study also finds 20% wind could create over 500,000 new jobs, making it difficult for you to claim that wind energy is not a powerful job creation tool.

2.  Your claim that Texas wind output averages about 16.8% of nameplate capacity is also just plain false – the real capacity factor number is over 30% (http://www1.eere.energy.gov/windandhydro/pdfs/2009_wind_technologies_market_report.pdf). While that may seem low, that is actually significantly higher than the average capacity factor of natural gas power plants (8-11%) and hydroelectric plants (27%) on a typical power system, as reported in the DOE study (page 89). As far as trying to attack wind power’s reliability, you should talk to the CEO of the company that operates the Texas utility system. He’ll tell you about how wind energy helped save the day last month when dozens of fossil-fired power plants suddenly failed and went offline, yet wind energy kept producing as expected, keeping the lights on for millions of Texans.

2. You say “Wind doesn’t appreciably reduce fossil dependence or CO2 emissions”
In addition to the DOE study you cited, which found 7.6 billion tons in CO2 emission savings and drops of 50% in natural gas consumption and 18% in coal use from achieving 20% wind by 2030, you may want to consult the data and studies summarized in these documents. I don’t have space to fully summarize them here, but the basic conclusion of a large body of government data, studies, and grid operating experience is that the net effect of adding wind to the grid is a massive reduction in harmful emissions. In many cases, these emissions reductions are even greater than the direct reductions associated with adding wind, due to wind allowing cleaner fuel sources like natural gas to displace dirtier sources of generation like coal.

3. “Wind isn’t free, or even cheap.”
Years ago you might have gotten away with arguing that wind wasn’t affordable, but that simply isn’t the case anymore. Just read Bloomberg Energy Finance’s latest data on wind turbine costs, showing that as wind turbine costs have fallen drastically over the last several years, wind energy has become increasingly affordable.

Importantly, these cost numbers don’t even account for the massive negative externalities associated with fossil fuel use. Recent estimates from the Harvard School of Public Health and the National Academies of Sciences have concluded that including the economic costs of the tens of thousands of premature deaths, health problems, and other environmental harms caused by using coal makes the true costs of using fossil fuels several times greater than currently accounted for in market prices. Natural gas production, distribution, and use also imposes significant costs that are not accounted for in market prices.

Why the federal government continues to spend far more per year subsidizing fossil fuel use than it does promoting renewable energy, after already spending hundreds of billions subsidizing fossil fuels over the last century, is an open question.

And, the comparatively modest investments needed in our electricity transmission system are needed anyway even if wind were not being added to the grid – consumers are already paying tens of billions of dollars in costs per year from the unreliability of our grid and because the grid is too congested for them to be able to access lower cost sources of electricity.

4. Next, you claim “wind doesn’t produce net job gains.”
The reality is that the U.S. wind industry has created 85,000 jobs so far, and the DOE study discussed above found that over 500,000 jobs would be created from getting 20% of America’s electricity from wind energy.

The Spanish study that you reference was immediately debunked and discredited by a thorough report by the government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

In contrast, a legitimate Massachusetts study found that an investment in renewable energy creates three times more jobs than a comparable investment in fossil fuels.

5. Finally, you claim, “Nor does [wind] cool brows of feverish environmental critics.”
When comparing the environmental impact of different energy sources, it is important to look at the environmental impacts of the alternatives. Any form of energy use has environmental impacts, and fortunately the impacts of wind energy are far smaller than almost any other energy source, particularly compared to the environmental devastation caused by fossil fuel and uranium production as well as the impacts of climate change. The data is clear that thousands of times more birds are killed every year by things like buildings, cars, pesticides, and even cats, than by wind turbines.

While there is going to be some NIMBY opposition to any type of infrastructure development, you would be hard pressed to argue that more people are opposed to wind energy than are opposed to oil and gas drilling, coal plants, or nuclear plants. In fact, recent polls have found that 87% to 89% of Americans want more investment in wind energy, possibly one of the most broadly supported views on any issue in America.


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