Too much wind?

I’m a supporter of wind power. I’m not worried that wind turbines kill too many birds (that risk is overstated) or that they are eyesores or that they are too costly. But there is a problem with the way we’re building wind turbines, and that’s the topic of a brief essay that I wrote in the September issue of Wired magazine. Here’s how the story begins:

You’re probably a fan of wind power. It provides a limitless supply of clean energy. The turbines are manufactured primarily in the rust belt, creating much-ballyhooed green jobs for unemployed factory workers. Wind farms generate profits for local utilities, alternative energy companies, farmers, and ranchers, not to mention manufacturers like General Electric. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s this: The US is building generating capacity in places that don’t need the electricity.

To be more specific, we’re building wind turbines in rural areas, like west Texas and Iowa, far from where electricity is needed.

One result is a bizarre phenomenon (See Electricity that’s cheaper than free) which I’ve written about before called “negative electricity prices,” which means what it sounds like. Because of the way the federal production tax credit for wind turbines works, some owners of wind farms will actually pay operators of the electricity grid to take their power because they will collect more from the government than they pay to the grid. It sounds nuts and, in fact, it is.

As I write in Wired, there are two obvious solutions to the fact that we are now building wind in the wrong places. One is to make it much easier for utilities to construct transmission lines to get wind-generated electricity from places like West Texas and the Dakotas to cities where the demand is great. The other is to build more wind farms closer to cities, perhaps offshore, although the costs of offshore farms, which, of course, require new transmission lines of their own, are significantly higher than those built on land. That’s one reason why we are still waiting for the first offshore wind farm to be built in the U.S.

In a response to the story, Michael Goggin of the American Wind Energy Association says that building new transmission is a better approach than putting wind farms in sub-optimal areas. Transmission is boring, but incredibly important, and there’s no doubt that we need more of it.