Fact check: Sen. Alexander's claims about wind energy unfounded

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) was featured recently in a USATODAY article about his (perennial) opposition to wind energy.

Sen. Alexander has persisted in seeking to undermine the wind industry in Congress for a number of years, even though during that time, the Southeastern U.S. has become a center of manufacturing for wind turbine components and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a major regional public utility, has purchased large quantities of wind energy from Midwestern wind farms (AWEA honored TVA last December as Utility of the Year for its pioneering efforts).

His latest broadside, like earlier efforts, contains a variety of errors. Here are some mythbusting facts in response:

Federal incentives for wind power have been reasonable and extremely effective. Incentivizing domestic energy production makes economic sense, as those incentives lower consumer costs, create jobs, and help create a diverse national energy mix. All energy sources have been subsidized over time, and wind is no exception. For a fair comparison of government incentives, one must have a historic perspective.

Over the last 90 years, federal support for the fossil fuel industry has been far greater than for renewables. In fact, according to a study of historical incentives by the venture capital firm DBL Investors, the federal commitment to oil and gas was five times greater than for renewables during the first 15 years of each set of incentives. Government support totaling nearly $600 billion has been provided to bolster the production of conventional fossil energy sources, along with $73 billion for nuclear power, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute's own tally.

Wind power and its primary incentive, the Production Tax Credit (PTC), have been proven to be cost effective. The PTC has driven up to $25 billion a year in private investment, helping to create a supply chain for the wind industry that spreads across 44 states.

Even better, wind power has been shown to save consumers money. A May 2012 report from Synapse Energy Economics found adding more wind power in the Midwest could save consumers in that region between $3 billion and $9.5 billion a year by 2020, depending on the number of new wind farms installed. Wind farms' operating costs are very low, and so when the wind is blowing, the electricity they produce displaces output from the most expensive power plants that are currently operating. Because wind power has no fuel cost, it also protects consumers from volatility in the price of other fuels, much like a fixed rate mortgage protects consumers from fluctuations in interest rates.

In short, American wind energy and the PTC have been a bipartisan policy success story, helping to pave the way for an abundant, clean, renewable energy future.

With regard to electric generation, wind power has made utility systems more reliable, not less. That's because adding wind energy helps build a more balanced and reliable portfolio of energy resources. When Texas experienced rolling blackouts in February 2011 because a cold snap caused the failure of dozens of fossil-fired power plants, wind energy continued producing as expected and helped keep the lights on, earning praise from the state’s utility system operator.

Failures at large fossil and nuclear power plants occur instantaneously and without warning, requiring system operators to keep large quantities of expensive, fast-acting reserves on hand 24/7/365 to be ready in case an outage occurs. In contrast, changes in wind and solar output occur slowly and can be forecast by using advanced weather models, allowing system operators to plan ahead and readily accommodate their output. (Also, contrary to Sen. Alexander's claims, most wind farms generate electricity 65 percent of the time or more, although they often run at less than full output.)

To better understand wind power’s reliability and how utility system operators ensure flexibility within the grid, read more here: http://www.awea.org/blog/index.cfm?customel_dataPageID_1699=21744

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