New study raises questions for wind energy debate

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Wind energy that needs backup can lead to more pollutants  released to the environment.  Photo by ~Jetta Girl~

By Josh Garvey

LANSING, Mich. – Wind energy paired with coal could cause more pollution than coal itself, a study in Colorado and Texas said.

A coal plant is most efficient when it runs continuously at a certain level of production, says the study by Bentek Energy LLC, a consulting company hired by Colorado’s oil and gas industry.

Repeatedly raising and lowering coal energy production to back up wind energy, a process called cycling, causes a coal plant to release more pollutants, such as carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, than it does when at normal levels.

But critics say the study simply shows a minor problem that will be corrected as Michigan adapts to using more wind energy.

Wind isn’t enough on its own

“One problem with wind is that it’s intermittent as a resource,” said Jim Ault, president of the Michigan Electric and Gas Association. “You have to back it up with something for when the wind drops away.”

That intermittent nature can result in coal plants not operating at full capacity or full efficiency when paired with wind energy.

The study recommends against expanding wind turbines until energy types that work more efficiently with wind can be put in place.

Ault said that backing up wind energy is necessary because electrical service has to be provided continually.

“The product is consumed the moment it is generated,” he said.

Skip Pruss, director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth (DELEG), said such concerns can be seen as growing pains as Michigan moves to “a more robust renewable energy future.”

“We’re just in the beginning stages of this overall energy deployment,” he said.  “We will work through these sorts of issues with different technologies, and we’re intent on Michigan being the place where those technologies will be developed and deployed.”

Not everyone is as optimistic about Michigan’s wind future, which brings with it the prospect of structures 260 feet tall and higher.

Groups opposed to turbines popping up in picturesque locations around the state began forming after Michigan announced its pro-alternative energy plans. There are currently groups opposed to local wind energy in Allegan, Oceana and Clinton counties and other areas throughout the state.

For example, Clinton County Wind Watch argues that wind power’s stop-and-go nature makes it too unreliable for extensive use.

Natural gas may be a better backup than coal

Pruss said part of the states energy plans involve moving forward with not just wind energy, but also with electricity from sources that complement wind better, such as hybrid combinations that increase the reliability of wind.

“Take a wind farm and hook it up with the latest in natural gas technology, for instance,” he said.

Ault said that natural gas is often suggested in discussions of what to pair with wind.

“If you get a drop in wind, you can start natural gas up pretty quickly compared to coal or nuclear, where you couldn’t,” he said.

Hugh McDiarmid, the communications director for the Michigan Environmental Council, also suggested natural gas as an obvious partner for wind technology.

“It has the advantage of being a little bit less polluting than coal, but it’s also far more adaptable,” he said. “Natural gas plants can peak and stop as needed.”

State needs smarter power grid

Another part of implementing wind technology is improving the power infrastructure in the state, according to McDiarmid.

“The move to renewable energy sources necessitates a smarter and more flexible grid,” he said.  “We have to move away from the model of a few massive coal plants and huge transmission lines carrying power to every nook and cranny.”

McDiarmid is referring to an energy grid that can adjust to more than one source of electricity, pay rebates to customers who produce energy that goes back into the system and charge different rates for power used at different times.

Such a grid would be necessary to best make use of the wind-generated electricity, according to Pruss.

Michigan currently generates 140 megawatts of energy from wind a year, and DELEG projects that to increase to more than 2,000 megawatts by 2015.

One megawatt is enough to power 300 homes, according to John Sarver, the head of Michigan’s Wind Working Group.

8 thoughts on “New study raises questions for wind energy debate

  1. It’s important to point out that the anti-wind “study” discussed in this article was actually paid for by the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, a lobby group representing the fossil fuel industry. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the results of this “study” are directly contradicted by government data and studies showing that adding wind energy to the power grid drastically reduces fossil fuel use and pollution.

    A quick glance at U.S. Department of Energy statistics shows that power plant emissions in Colorado and Texas have gone down in perfect lockstep as wind energy has been added to the power grid in those states, directly contradicting this study’s attempt to claim otherwise. Moreover, a number of other government-sponsored studies have performed detailed modeling of the power system and concluded that wind energy drastically reduces carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel use. For more detail on these data and studies, please see

    Michael Goggin
    American Wind Energy Association

  2. Hi Chuck – Thanks for the “journalistic spin” comment. We welcome opportunities to discuss with readers the decisions we make. And while we can’t guarantee that we will always make the right ones, we can strive to explain how we arrive at them.
    I wrote today’s headline long enough before my morning oatmeal that I can assure you that the intent of any journalistic spin was to get it before readers so that they could read it over their morning oatmeal.
    I’m having trouble seeing the problems with “New study raises questions for wind energy debate.” I’ll take a hit for it being bland and uninspiring.
    But spin?
    It doesn’t say they are important, significant, valid, irrelevant or silly questions. But then spin can be a tough thing to ferret out. To me, this story could have been spun with a headline that said “Study proves windmills cause pollution.” That headline is accurate – within the confines of the study’s parameters of coal power used to accommodate ramp up and ramp down of wind power. But it is a headline that fails to convey those important nuances.
    And of course that’s a lot of weight for a headline to carry. The story carries some of that weight – hopefully giving readers enough context to decide if such questions are valid. Better yet, readers have contributed important perspective that carries the issue even farther along.
    That’s pretty exciting stuff. Echo welcomes that kind of interaction.
    I especially liked your contribution of “One only has to look at the funding source of the study to understand the results.” That’s great context. This study isn’t questioning wind power so much as it questions the wind/coal combination. And the wind/gas combination that would benefit gas producers (and study authors) is a clear alternative identified here.
    Sometimes we wrestle with if it is sufficient to identify a study’s funder and let readers draw their own conclusions. Do readers get that? Should we hit them over the head with it? Perhaps we should have added a line that indicates how this funder stands to benefit. We didn’t, but you did – again providing context and understanding.
    But does adding that sentence ourselves open us up to criticism that we “spun the story” to question the motives of the study’s authors? And if it did, should we care?

  3. Backward Michigan will remain backward if it continues to listen to negative predictions like those of the Michigan Electric and Gas Association. I read that Iowa already produces 20 percent of its electric energy from wind. Indiana has planned for and is well along in erecting THOUSANDS of wind turbines. The same is true in Texas. Denmark produces so much electricity from wind that it must export some of its electric energy to Germany from time to time.

    One technique not even mentioned in the Echo piece is using electric energy produced by wind to pump water into towers, where it is stored. Energy is then regenerated EVENLY when the water is pulled by gravity through generators by means of steady, controlled release, much as is done at hydroelectric dams.

    The world around us has moved forward with alternative forms of energy production. Meanwhile, we in Michigan are inundated with dour forecasts of doom from a small minority heavily invested in old, polluting, coal-based energy. Those few pessimistic voices depend on fear and ignorance to maintain a profitable status quo for themselves.

  4. If pairing wind with coal increases pollution, than all the more reason to entirely phase out coal sooner rather than later. We can’t afford to have coal plants interfering with Michigan’s move into a new energy economy, and the proposed and existing plants in Michigan clearly are a threat to Michigan’s economic future.

    Ontario is making that move and their circumstances are incredibly similar to Michigan in so many ways, from a lack of coal, to the Great Lakes, to the climate conditions. Why on earth would Michigan let the out of date utilities and coal industry hold us back?

  5. Typically when a newer technology comes along, both those with vested interests in competitive processes and those who fear and resist change will predict every dire consequence that can be dreamt up to resist the change. In their early days, there were objections to the construction of lighthouses, with claims that they were unsightly, despite their utility in facilitating maritime safety. Fast forward about two centuries and we find coalitions banding together to protect and maintain these structures as things of beauty and historic value.

    The first time I saw a field of windmills – LOTS of windmills – was driving through the wine country of California. My initial and spontaneous feeling was “Wow, these things are gorgeous – like a finely-choreographed ballet.” Some will certainly view windmills differently, just as there are some that view beautiful wilderness areas as nothing more than potential sites for development.

    We recently visited the wind farm in Michigan’s thumb area. Again, this was a very positive experience for me. It was only a mildly breezy day, yet the windmills were steadily cranking away. We drove to the base of several of these units, trying to actually hear the sound that was emitted. Yes, they could be heard, however I found that I had to concentrate to discern the sound of the windmills from that of the gentle breezes that were blowing.

    There will certainly be growing pains. Installing windmills or solar panels to produce energy is only part of the sustainable-energy equation. Other existing technologies will continue to be part of that equation, with new energy sources and efficiencies being factored in as we progress. It is unfortunate that so many people choose focus only on shortcomings of one solution or another without seeing the larger picture. Achieving sustainability will require a synergy between many technologies, as cleaner and more-sustainable sources are factored in and polluting and finite resources are factored out.

  6. The key take away from this article is definitely the importance of managing the power grid to best utilize renewable power systems to achieve the cleanest, most efficient power supply possible.

  7. One only has to look at the funding source of the study to understand the results. The problems identified assume a predominant use of wind. What is interesting is the headline that focuses not on the challenges that need to be addressed but on the presumed outcome in the absence solutions. Journalistic spin lives.

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