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The Green Life: Ask Mr. Green: Low-Cost Wind Power or Hot Air?

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November 28, 2012

Ask Mr. Green: Low-Cost Wind Power or Hot Air?

Mr. Green is Bob SchildgenHey Mr. Green,

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas noted one day last summer that out of 10,400 megawatts of its wind-power capacity, wind was only producing 37 megawatts. Wow! 10,400 mWs of wind construction to get just 37. How the hell do you guys expect to power the nation with no coal- or gas-fired power plants when wind is so expensive and unreliable? I don't know about you, but I like my power on all the time.  

—Andy in Texarkana, Arkansas

Hang on, podner. Nobody claims we’ll instantly get by without coal or gas. The Sierra Club’s goal is a bit more modest and realistic: retire a third of the coal plants by 2020. Besides, your knock on windmills relies on fudged numbers, because you’ve singled out an unusually calm day. If you’d picked, say, March 28, 2012 instead, you’d’ve noticed that wind power topped 7,900 megawatts that day24 percent of Texas’s total load. Already, 8 percent of the electricity generated in that massive state is from wind. Wind  power isn’t pricey, either. It costs about the same as electricity from new coal plants, averaging around $100 for your precious mWh, according to the Energy Information Administration. Iowa, for example, which gets almost 20 percent of its electricity from wind, enjoys a relatively low residential rate of less than 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. Even some nuclear-energy disciples have expressed surprise at the fast-dropping cost of wind power.

How in hell, as you say, can this be? Well, although it does cost more per megawatt to build and maintain windmills, wind itself is free, at least until some corporate wizard commodifies it and sets to gambling on wind futures. But you’ve got to feed more than $20 worth of coal into a conventional plant to obtain a megawatt hour.

Note that these cost estimates don’t include “externalized” costs of coal’s collateral damage—in healthcare and environmental expenses from mining and coal combustion, which one study, from Harvard Medical School, pegs at around $345 billion a year. When you start talking about burning that much out of our national economy, wind power is a breath of fresh air. Coal also enjoys some hefty government subsidies, as noted awhile back in my post “Coal on the Dole.” 

Finally, I hope you didn’t run through too many electrons composing your question, because you guys use a lot power in your neck of the woods. Cut your electricity consumption in half, down around the level of, say, Germany or Japan, and you wouldn’t be so lathered. Average residential electric use in Texas is twice as high as, say, California’s. If we don’t reduce our consumption, we’re all likely to get hanged like a historic iconic Texas cattle rustler in a modern feedback loop of more air-conditioning that demands more power that causes more global warming that demands more air-conditioning that demands more global warming until . . .  well, speaking of hell, we’re talking a string of heat waves like last summer’s.


Got a question? Ask Mr. Green!


--illustration by Little Friends of Printmaking


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