Maybe The Answers Aren’t Blowin’ In The Wind


The LA Times reports on a phenomena that doesn’t often get discussed by politicians and environmental activists who seek billions of investments into “green energy.” Every wind mill, and every solar panel, in America has to be backed up by a more reliable form of energy, usually coal or gas.

The Delta Energy Center, a power plant about an hour outside San Francisco, was roaring at nearly full bore one day last month, its four gas and steam turbines churning out 880 megawatts of electricity to the California grid.

On the horizon, across an industrial shipping channel on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, scores of wind turbines stood dead still. The air was too calm to turn their blades — or many others across the state that day. Wind provided just 33 megawatts of power statewide in the midafternoon, less than 1% of the potential from wind farms capable of producing 4,000 megawatts of electricity.

As is true on many days in California when multibillion-dollar investments in wind and solar energy plants are thwarted by the weather, the void was filled by gas-fired plants like the Delta Energy Center.

This is particularly troubling for Californias as the state has a mandate for green energy. In order to fulfill that mandate, energy companies are being forced to build expensive new wind and solar farms. But, in addition to those big investments, they must also build more traditional fossil fuel plants to provide the steady supply of energy the wind and solar farms can’t.

One of the hidden costs of solar and wind power — and a problem the state is not yet prepared to meet — is that wind and solar energy must be backed up by other sources, typically gas-fired generators. As more solar and wind energy generators come online, fulfilling a legal mandate to produce one-third of California’s electricity by 2020, the demand will rise for more backup power from fossil fuel plants.

This something akin to buying a bicycle as a “green” way to get to work, and then buying a pickup truck to put that bicycle in so you can get to work on time.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to get reliable and cost-effective energy from solar panels and wind power. But that day is not today, or tomorrow or any day in the foreseeable future. So why not just build what we know does work, and stop wasting money on what doesn’t?

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • mikemc1970

    It is a lot easier to waste money when it is not your own. California is gone anyway. Another half decade and the whole state will be a shining example of liberal policy and ideals like Detroit is now.

    • The Fighting Czech

      So very true…. I played seriously with the idea of going with wind energy for my home. the expense of a unit that would actually do something useful was outrageous. the break even point was something like 14 years. and that, Mind you was if nothing ever went wrong with the windmill during that entire time. Just wasnt worth the gamble. If someone gave me one, That would be a whole different story….

  • SigFan

    Yeah, but it’s the intent that counts. That reality stuff is only for those that pay attention to it.

  • Game

    Here is what I don’t understand about your argument. Let’s say that I need 100 units of energy in a day. Most days, I get 30% of that energy from green sources, and 70% from other sources.

    Now, some days wind blows more, so I get 65% from traditional sources, and some days it is calm, and I get only 5% from wind.

    Are you telling me that the coal plants cannot regulate their output in order to adjust to that reality?

    • The Fighting Czech

      Yes coal plants can regulate their output. how ever, the turbines need to be constantly producing energy so when the demand increases, it can be met. think about your honda generator. you start it, it runs wide open to produce the proper current. It doesnt care if you are powering a light bulb, or a refrigerator, it has to run at a certain rpm to produce the proper power.
      actually no different then a wind turbine, IT too needs to maintain a certain generator speed to produce proper electrical power. wind speed gets too slow, you cant get electricity….

    • Rob

      You should talk to people who actually run the coal plants. They can be cycled up and down to fill in the gaps left by the wind turbines, etc. But it is hugely inefficient. Man power alone is a nightmare, and because they are running in an unpredictable manner the coal plants end up producing more carbon than they would if they were just run consistently.

      This is easier for gas plants, but still not optimal.

      Plus, wind and dollar costs about for times as much as coal and gas.

      Mandates for “green energy” are terrible policy.

      • Waski_the_Squirrel

        This is another great example of unintended consequences. The idea of green power is great for the environment. The reality is that it is not nearly as green as it seems.

  • HideFromObama

    Coal plants are designed as what is called “baseload” generation: The intent is to fire them up, run them to full steam, and let them run 24/7. Yes, they can be moved around with their output to match demand (this is in fact required to run the electric system) but their intent is to be running pretty close to full all the time. Utilities usually use gas turbines as a method of “peaking” because they start up quicker, are usually much smaller units that can be stepped easier.
    It’s beyond this board to explain frequency relation to demand and generation, interconnected systems, etc.
    One catch of wind/solar farms: They can’t run without an existing grid source. So if your grid is dead, those wind towers aren’t worth squat. They are induction motors that require an existing field to run, unlike traditional generators (synchronous motors) that utilize a DC current to set up the field.

    Too many industry “outsider amatuers” trying to run the game instead of letting the professionals (engineers, operators, technicians, etc) run the system the right way.