Worst Reporting on Green Energy of the Week

This week’s award for bad environmental reporting goes to John Spear of the Toronto Star for his article on the cost of wind power in Ontario “when we don’t need it.”

Spear manages to write the entire article as though the only comparison between wind power and other energy should be about the conventional pricing, and he continually assumes that green energy is an unneeded add-on. He complains about government essentially subsidizing the start-up costs of wind turbines by paying a relatively high price per kilowatt hour, and brings up the question of over-production of power and the inability of wind to meet high demand on particularly hot, still days as this past August.

Spear either has no sense of irony or has never read a book on pollution or climate change, or just doesn’t get it. I couldn’t tell you.

But he manages not to make the connection between the use of coal, natural gas, and petroleum to produce power in Ontario and the highly dangerous levels of air pollution reached in Toronto in late August, not to mention the the extreme heat alert around the same time. That is, he was complaining about the inability of the wind turbines to deal with the air conditioning demand (in Canada!) on hot windless days instead of realizing that the hydrocarbons caused the heat wave in the first place. It is astonishing.

He doesn’t want to factor into the cost of the hydrocarbons the lost lives caused by pollution (and consequent losses to the economy), the effects on health and consequent costs of medical care, and the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change on Canada as more and more carbon is dumped into the atmosphere– even just things like insufficient lumber availability from transformed forests affected by more frequent forest fires and fewer hardwood trees.

Is the 12 cents a kilowatt hour for wind that Spear complains about really such a bad bargain when it produces none of those bad effects? Is it really the case that hydrocarbons are such a steal when they do?

Nor does he seem to be aware of the potential positive effects on job-generation of wind energy, as the Nordseewerke shipyard in Emden, Germany, has discovered.

I constantly come across this bad arithmetic (it is not even calculus, just adding and subtracting) in business reporting on alternative energy, and am frankly getting more and more crotchety about it.

So Spear’s article should have been about why Ontario is still depending so heavily on the hydrocarbon power generation that “we don’t need” and which is actively harming us, not why the pollution-free wind turbines are a government boondoggle. (Maybe he has a point about how the provincial or municipal energy contracts are being let, I don’t know; but if that is the main problem then it isn’t about wind, is it?)

More in wind news:

World’s largest wind farm opens off UK coast, which is really an article about how minimal and backward Britain’s green energy efforts have been (the new facility would only provide enough power for 200,000 homes), given its enormous wind potential.

For the much better job Portugal is doing, see this posting.

14 Responses

  1. I have read that the average expected life span of a wind turbine is 25 years. This is a rather depressing estimate. I have to wonder if it is really true. Why should it wear out in just 25 years? I can understand that it would need maintenance. But the word life span indicates that it would have to be torn down and a new one built. That does not make a lot of sense to me. Could this figure just be a trick to allow utility companies a larger tax break?

    • The answer: transmissions break.

      I’m always on the lookout for wind turbine designs that don’t require transmissions, but it’s hard to otherwise obtain the high RPM that generators require for efficiency.

      The good news that isn’t being considered here, though, is that all this repair work will have to be done by locals, while the fuels we rely on represent very little labor and a whole lot of corporate and landowner property rights, which simply feed into the upper classes and their self-destructing financial bubbles. Renewable energy is labor-intensive, and Americans have been taught for decades that labor-intensive is evil – because labor is evil. This kind of thinking was used to make us welcome outsourcing, until our remaining jobs no longer paid the wages necessary to pay for the goods our bosses were selling us.

      It might not be a bad thing if our children grew up in a world where they knew good jobs existed specifically due to the need to build energy-producing devices and keep them running, instead of hoping that their relentless consumption would keep banks feeding dollars into a mysterious shadow economy of exotic investments that somehow keeps small crews here and abroad sucking hydrocarbons out of the earth. Literally, destroying one surplus in order to destroy another surplus.

  2. Juan, what do you see as our main source of energy in the future? I’ve been thinking about energy lately and my mind has been going all over the place from outdated, to realistic to sci fi….

    • Hi, Arslan. Solar is best if it can be had relatively inexpensively and environmentally soundly. Solar energy is extremely abundant, moreso than any other source, so if we can tap it, power will be inexpensive and easily acquired.

  3. I am a Global Development/Business student living in London, Ontario and read
    your Blog with interest. In addition to having grown up on the shores of the Great Lakes, I have been a competitive sailor since a child, and more recently a professional Kiteboarder who has been able to travel the world.

    Unfortunately, the points raised by John Spears regarding inconsistent production-demand are valid for reasons perhaps not fully explained in his paper. The wind patterns on the Lakes have always been categorized as “frontal”, this means that during the spring and fall as cold- and warm-fronts “battle” over our province, wind is generated. Further, the front “battles” are still fairly unpredictable, in a “good” season there will be wind over 10 kts only around twice a week normally. (www.localkitespots.com)

    During the summer, however, there is little frontal activity and thus there is little wind, there is little correlation with anthropocentric climate change in this regard as this is the normal meterological process.

    There are some places in the world which are extremely attractive to Kiteboarders seeking high winds because unlike the Great Lakes, they are blessed with “Thermal” wind, this means that simply as a *result* of hot temperatures during the day, a gradient is formed which provides daily, consistent wind directly correlated with rising temperatures, these mostly occur on oceanic coasts, and are further increased by mountains and hot temperatures (Tarifa- Spain, Hood River- Oregon, Squamish- BC, etc.).

    These locations are far, far more favourable to wind generation as the wind resource coincides with demand. However, there are solutions to the argument simply presented by Spears in the emerging technologies of not-in-use Electric Cars as grid storage and other battery storage technologies.

  4. Environmentalists here talk a good game till the wind turbines interfere with anything in their ‘viewscape’. Vacation home owners in the Shenandoah are the worst. They spout a good game at home, buy deny locals in coal fields green jobs. That makes me kinda crotchety.

  5. I agree that John Spear’s column deserves an award for ignorant propaganda .
    I live in Toronto , and the facts are both worse and more complex than your story shows .
    Politics – the (imported) “Common Sense Revolution” did harm which has not yet been fixed . Ontario Hydro was broken into four different agencies , with a plan to sell off the pieces . The sell-off didn’t happen , but now we pay for four different bureaucracies instead of one .
    Nukes – half of Ontario’s electricity comes from CANDU reactors .
    The “stranded debt” from the nuke fantasy is being paid off with a surcharge on every electric bill … for decades to come .
    The largest coal fired generator has been shut down , so there is some improvement .
    Located upwind from Canada’s largest city , that’s a bit of progress .
    Demographics / economics / sociology – I’m not sure which .
    Until fairly recently , Toronto was a manufacturing center –
    shifts worked around the clock .
    Now , with a knowledge based economy , a larger fraction of the people
    arrives home in time for supper .
    This causes a surge in demand – we turn on lights , watch the news at six on TV ,
    cook supper , etc .
    Nukes cannot change output fast enough ; the way water powered and gas fired generators can . So, we’re stuck .
    Just like every big city on the planet .
    Until we learn to use less , and spread out our time , that is .
    9 to 5 workers may prefer 8 to 4 ,or 7 to 3 , or 10 to 5 – it’s only organizing the work .
    And many workers would like to see the kids at breakfast , or see them after school !

  6. So……if wind power is less than ideal as a supplementary green source for power, why not use something that the Great Lakes DOES have, reliably and in abundance – wave power?

    I refer to the problems you cite of inaccurate math as ‘republican math’. It tends to be wrong on so many kinds of policy and other applications.

  7. One wonders whether the article corrected for all the various tax breaks given to the petrochemical industry.

    It may be that a given site isn’t a good match for windpower – what about solar? Putting solar cells on every house plus some kind of energy storage system (batteries, hydrogen generation, etc.) would give us a less centralized energy grid. Decentralized systems are less vulnerable to disruption from natural disasters and/or terrorist attack.

  8. I think you’re being a bit too harsh here. Before I clicked through I was expecting something in the style of Fox News, but I don’t think this qualifies. It certainly could have used some wider context, such as a comparison with places that have higher implementation of wind power. But all wind projects are not the same, and it is legitimate to ask if Ontario’s approach is the right one, or if it is the right renewable to be pushing in that location. There’s a reason people there call their power bills ‘hydro bills’, after all.

  9. I am really not very happy with your throwaway dismissal of our “minimal and backward efforts, particularly since you then go on to mention that this is the world’s biggest wind farm.

    Although the aim in due course is to have 6,000 onshore turbines and 4,000 on sea, the problems are that (a) onshore turbines are noisy and ruinous of the landscape (bear in mind that we are a small country with limited space) and (b) cost.

    The UKERC have calculated that the cost per unit of energy – known as a Megawatt hour – over the 25 year lifespan of the farm is expected to be £149. That compares with £80 for coal and gas, and £97 for nuclear power.

    We are world leaders in wind generation, but at the moment we seem unable to capitalise on that because 80% of the turbines have to be imported – we need to be able to produce more ourselves. In effect UK consumers are subsidising Danish and German wind energy companies.

  10. Since Ontari0 is connected to the grid of the northeastern US, any extra power it can generate can be exported. The NE is a bottomless pit for energy, and the US could help itself in many ways by shutting down more of its coal mines.

    However, Canadians should not assume that hydropower is all that is needed. Any dam that is built on a river supplied by snow melt during the warm months may be at risk from climate change. Take a look at the Colorado River in recent years. There is great concern that the rivers supplied by the Himalayas, on which countless millions in India and China depend on, will be disrupted as snow is replaced by rain that quickly evaporates instead of getting stored up.

  11. I’ll be putting up a small wind turbine with a battery back-up to serve my own needs and not bothering anyone else. That is green energy. Industrial Wind Turbines on the other hand do not have a battery back-up and therefore rely on fossil fuels. That is not green energy. The only purpose for IWTs is to make people in Toronto feel good about the electricity they waste while driving people like me off my land due to the sicknesses they cause. Get informed people.

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