Is Big Wind too big for its britches?


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The world-wide wind industry, says the Global Wind Energy Council, will create 3.3 million new “good-paying union jobs” by 2025, if it actually installs the planned 470 gigawatts of combined onshore and offshore wind capacity.

Just in 2020, says the GWEC, 93 GW of new wind capacity was installed – doubling 2019 installations. The global wind market which has almost quadrupled since 2010, will continue exponential growth thanks to the Biden-Harris Administration and the European Union nations.

An International Energy Agency study further found that global offshore wind capacity could increase 15-fold and attract around $1 trillion of cumulative investment by 2040. This is driven by the declining costs in installations, supportive government policies, and “remarkable technological progress.”

Both turbine size and even shape are in flux. Researchers in the United Kingdom found vertical axis wind turbines to be up to 15 percent better performing than the traditional horizontal axis turbines when set in pairs. WindEurope reports a 5-percent average capacity increase for European offshore turbines installed in 2020 compared with those installed just in 2019.

But even the harbingers of these glad tidings have doubts. “The reality on the ground,” wrote CNBC reporter Anmar Frangoul, “shows that, for many countries, any move away from fossil fuels will be a significant challenge requiring a huge amount of change.”

Louise Smyth, writing in EngineerLive.com, admitted that the wind industry to date has “struggled to meet forecast energy production.” Larger rotors powered by 100-meter-long (and longer) blades allow offshore turbines to produce twice as much energy, she affirms, but higher velocity winds, combined with lighter blade design and increased tip speed lead, “create a higher risk profile.”

Other concerns include the influence of water droplets at high wind speeds on blade lifespans and proper turbine placement to minimize impacts on the flow of wind to downstream turbines. But engineers can solve all these problems, Smyth assured us.

A gushing report in Grist by Derrick Jackson was somewhat befogged by his admission that offshore wind projects in the U.S. have been met with stifling opposition, even on the wind-friendly East Coast, where nearly all of the 28 GW of offshore wind proposed projects remain backlogged in permitting.

The Biden Administration, he beamed, is restoring jobs at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to handle the fast-track processing of offshore wind environmental reviews, lease sales, and construction permitting (in effect, greenwashing).

Jackson also wonders whether New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Connecticut, all with promised massive offshore wind projects, will have enough dock space and infrastructure in time to support an explosion of wind turbine projects.

Jackson also laments that “the trouble that grounded the offshore wind industry hasn’t disappeared.” ”Troublesome” East Coast communities are still fighting offshore wind, particularly in areas where transmission cables would make landfall.

In 2019, Vineyard Wind finally secured certification for its offshore wind farm only after contentious negotiations with the local Fisherman’s Advisory Board that netted $16.7 million toward long-term costs of fisheries impacts and damage to fishing gear from the turbines.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Dan McKee and state coastal regulators delayed a key decision on the proposed South Fork Wind Farm to give developers time to reach a “compensation agreement” with the local fishing industry. But even if Gov. McKee denies South Fork’s certification, the appeal goes to the Department of Commerce, now headed by former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, a longtime champion of offshore wind. And Raimondo’s former chief of staff now works for the wind company.

Madeleine Stone, writing for National Geographic, was forced by facts to temper her unbridled enthusiasm for Big Offshore Wind. She describes a factory in New Jersey that will soon be turning “sheets of steel from the heartland into columns that will underpin a colossal new tool in the fight against climate change.”

These five million pound, 400-foot-long, 40-foot-wide “monopiles,” she gushed, are to be “heaved onto barges and ferried 15 miles offshore” where a crane on a specialized ship will stand them on end and drive them into the seafloor to create a firm foundation for 800-foot-tall wind turbines “that will produce carbon-free* electricity for New Jersey.” That’s if all goes well.

[*Except for fossil fuels burned to forge steel; power concrete mixers, power tools, barges, and cranes; install transmission lines; ferry workers to and from the construction site; and so much more.]

Stone admits that shipping supersized turbine pieces across oceans is both logistically challenging and expensive, as neither the U.S. nor Europe has the manufacturing capacity to support the massive buildout Biden wants. Even Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm admits that, “We’ve got a supply problem. We can’t build enough parts to make 30 GW by 2030.”

Stone admits that Biden’s demands require placement of thousands of new turbines by 2030, along with the transmission infrastructure to connect to the grid. But factories, ports, and ships required to make and deliver the turbines must first be planned, designed, funded, permitted, and constructed. Will President Biden create a Manhattan Project for big wind the way President Trump fast-tracked COVID vaccines?

Even supporters admit that the lack of existing interconnection points where offshore transmission lines can be connected to the current grid “could be a bottleneck.” Another bottleneck described by Stone is the availability of turbine components, including support structures like monopiles and steel towers, as well as nacelles (which contain the generators) and the rotor (to which the turbine blades are attached).

It gets worse. As of last September, only 50 turbine installation ships were either in operation or under construction – all with backlogs. None meet the Jones Act requirement that only U.S.-flag vessels can ferry goods between U.S. ports. The first $500 million, Jones Act-compliant turbine installation ship is under construction in Texas.

European Big Wind developers are only now coping with yet another problem – some cables connecting offshore wind farms to onshore grids are being damaged by scraping against rocks on the seabed. Further, plans to run cables under popular beach sands present a frightening picture to beachgoers.

Hawaiians, some of whom violently protested an onshore wind project that violated World Health Organization distancing standards, are equally offended by under-beach cables and by plans for floating turbines in deep offshore waters.

Longer term, there are fears of shortages or major price increases in rare-earth metals and other raw materials vital to turbine construction and operation. Copper prices, already through the roof, got new shocks when the Biden Administration reopened permits for two new U.S. copper mines.

The commitment by the Biden Administration to a bottomless pile of money to subsidize “the most expensive form of mainstream power generation available” (as Ariel Cohen wrote in Forbes) is certain to result in dramatically higher energy prices, transportation costs, housing costs, and even food costs.

What happens if states that have already set dates for achieving “net zero” carbon emissions find the shortfall in “renewable” energy means making choices of shutting down their economies or reneging on their zealous goals?

California is already facing energy shortfalls that can lead to food shortfalls and panic. People already angry over lockdowns may wholly revolt against losing air conditioning or even long lines at gasoline stations.

The “net zero” crowd well knows that their paper goals are unreachable, yet they press on, intent on punishing their fellow Americans (and fellow Europeans) while massive Asian nations prosper. When will the madness end?

  • Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, "Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout."

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