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Value of Wind Power Questioned in New Study

Wind-power advocates are turning up the heat in their efforts to push for increased public support for research and development of offshore wind energy.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in late July held one of a series of federally funded public information sessions in Myrtle Beach laying out the benefits and challenges related to implementing offshore wind turbines.

And in June, representatives from South Carolina and North Carolina, including the S.C. Energy Office, Clemson University, Coastal Carolina University, the city of North Myrtle Beach and Santee Cooper, met in Charlotte to discuss opportunities for collaborating to accelerate the development of offshore wind energy on the south Atlantic seaboard.

Initial opportunities discussed included enabling research institutions to collaborate on future projects and exploring the possibility of an offshore wind energy project along the border between the Carolinas.

Over the past few years, nearly $2.5 million in state and federal dollars has been spent in South Carolina alone to explore the feasibility of offshore wind energy, according to information provided by state agencies.

In addition, a $98 million wind turbine-testing center has been built near Charleston, with approximately 90 percent of the funding coming from public sources, according to information provided by Clemson University, which operates the facility.

Despite the big outlay, you’d be hard pressed to find a government report or media story with anything but praise for the alternative energy form, with some even touting wind as the equivalent of an environmentally friendly golden goose. Consider this from the Myrtle Beach Sun News:

“South Carolina is strategically poised to become a hub in this burgeoning industry, as up and down the East Coast, states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia scramble to be the first in the race to develop offshore wind farms. Capitalizing on natural and manmade resources readily available in our own backyard, the Palmetto State may emerge as the big winner as teams of researchers, scientists and engineers from Coastal Carolina University, Clemson University, the South Carolina Energy office and Santee Cooper work collaboratively with industry and environmental leaders and state and local officials to harness the kinetic energy of the offshore wind industry. It’s a green revolution, combining environmental awareness with economic recovery, and has the potential to breathe new life – and jobs – into our area.”

With benefits like that, what could be wrong with embracing wind power?

How about the notion that wind power may be neither green nor cost effective?

That’s the finding of a recently released report titled, “The Wind Power Paradox,” from BENTEK Energy of Evergreen, Colo. BENTEK President Porter Bennett, who admits to being a proponent of natural gas, said that because wind blows intermittently and often when energy demand is low, fossil fuel-based back-up power is regularly needed.

Bennett, in a recent interview with Colorado radio station KFKA, said that as a result, the constant ramping up or “cycling” of the base-load power plant actually increases carbon emissions. It’s not unlike how a car performs in city traffic versus more efficient highway driving.

BENTEK claims its study, released in July, is the first to “systematically assess the emission reduction performance of wind generation based on hourly generation and emissions data.”

Wind can also be expensive. Without corporate welfare and a carbon tax, wind is not an economical source of energy, Bennett said.

The report counters longstanding claims by wind-energy proponents and numerous politicians have claimed that increasing the use of wind power to produce electricity will result in huge reductions in carbon dioxide and other emissions.

These claims rest on the results of models that predict not only emissions, but also fuel costs and generation levels for individual utilities and utility grids.

Considerable public dollars have been expended in South Carolina in recent years to study the viability of wind power.

Santee Cooper alone has spent about $1.6 million studying wind power, with much of that going to the Palmetto Wind Research Project, spokeswoman Laura Varn said

The project, a collaborative effort that also involves the S.C. Energy Office and Coastal Carolina University, was launched in 2009 to study the possibilities of generating wind energy off the coast.

The S.C. Energy Office has been awarded approximately $835,500 since 2004 from the U.S. Department of Energy to fund various initiatives to explore the feasibility of offshore wind energy development in South Carolina, according to Rebecca Griggs, public outreach coordinator for the Energy Office.

Santee Cooper, the state’s public utility, said it’s evaluating its wind power-focus based on costs and benefits for consumers. It is currently putting together its budget for next year and has yet to determine how much, if any, money it will dedicate to wind research, Varn said.

“It all depends on what direction we get from management,” she said.

In addition, Clemson University has its $98 million wind-turbine testing facility at the former Charleston Naval Base, which received a large share of its funding from federal stimulus money.

In 2010, the U.S. Energy Department awarded a $45 million grant for the facility to the school under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The remaining $53 million came from matching money generated mostly from a variety of public entities, according to information provided by Clemson University. Those are:


  • Clemson (nearly $10.9 million in cash, property and office space);

  • The State Ports Authority ($10,236,000 in property);

  • The state of South Carolina ($7 million in cash);

  • The Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority ($6 million in cash);

  • The S.C. Department of Commerce ($3 million in cash); and

  • S.C. Public Railways, a division of the S.C. Department of Commerce, ($366,511 in services).


In addition, $10 million came from a private donor in the form of a discount on equipment, and two other donors contributed a combined $525,000 in cash.

Other state entities are getting involved in wind-power programs, as well. Wind data from the coast is transmitted to Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College for use in the institution’s “green education” program.

According to a summer 2010 "progress report" from the North Strand Coastal Wind Team, Orangeburg-Calhoun Tech is participating in “Career Pathways for a Green South,” a multi-state project designed to create a new green technology workforce.

Cost Saver or Cost Booster?

BENTEK says its study shows that claims regarding huge reductions in carbon dioxide and other emissions related to wind power are significantly overstated, and that actual CO2 reductions are either so small as to be insignificant or too expensive to be practical.

“The analysis finds state and federal programs that support wind generation with a goal of substantially reducing pollution instead lead to slight or no emissions savings, along with increased costs for utilities and ultimately ratepayers,” according to BENTEK. “When power plants on a regional power grid are ‘cycled’ to accept wind energy, the plants run less efficiently, leading to significant emissions and higher plant maintenance costs.”

Equal or greater emissions reductions could be achieved at lower cost and with greater reliability by replacing existing coal-fired power generation with natural gas-fired generation, the company added.

BENTEK isn’t the only organization that’s claiming wind power could drive up energy costs.

Rhode Island television station reported earlier this year that plans by a Providence, R.I., company to build a wind farm off the New England coast would raise state and local governments' electric bills by nearly $1.5 million in its first year.

Deepwater Wind’s utility-scale project would result in municipal electric bills increasing by a total of $1 million while the state government's bill would rise by $476,630, according to an estimate commissioned by utility company National Grid from Energy Security Analysis Inc., WPRI reported.

The cost would rise by 3.5 percent every year for the next two decades, the station added.

The estimate was included in a document National Grid asked the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission to seal from public view as the panel weighed whether to approve a controversial 20-year contract between Deepwater and National Grid, WPRI reported. The Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission denied that request.

Simon Mahan, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s renewable energy manager, says that the figures he’s seen show that new wind farms can generate electricity at a cost of 3.5 cents or 4 cents a kilowatt hour, which is less than a new coal plant or a new nuclear plant.

Mahan added that that price is higher than what existing coal or existing hydropower plants can produce electricity for. “We’re still in an incentivizing stage regarding wind power.”

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy found fault with BENTEK’s study.

“I think the report tries to prove that a carbon-free electric source doesn’t reduce carbon emissions,” said Mahan. “But if wind farms aren’t built, more risky and environmentally damaging coal plants and natural gas plants will have to be built.

“It’s the difference between using a carbon-intense resource like coal and a zero-carbon resource like wind,” he added.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy describes itself as “a non-profit, non-partisan organization working to promote responsible energy choices that solve global warming (climate change) problems and ensure clean, safe and healthy communities throughout the Southeast.”

Its goals include working to "prevent the expansion of the nuclear energy industry,” and educating the public about economic, security and health threats of nuclear power.

Paul Gayes, director for marine and wetland studies at Coastal Carolina in Conway, said he believes wind alone won’t solve all of the country’s energy woes. But given that fossil fuels are a finite resource, the U.S. has no option but to pursue renewable energy sources.

“We have a lot of issues with our energy policy, both economically and environmentally,” he said. “If you just consider the number of coal-powered plants that China is building every week, and if you’re thinking we’re going to continue to be able to procure cheap coal given the amount being used in China, along with India, it isn’t realistic.

“So I’d say that not putting all our eggs in one basket is a good idea, and renewable energy is a way to offset that concern,” he added. “There’s no magic bullet.”

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.

Alternative Energy State Agencies