Saturday, April 30, 2016

Cherry-Picking Wind Turbine Failures

Subtitle:  The Vast Majority of Wind Turbines Work Quite Well

One can only react with disappointment, and a bit of amusement, over the tactics that some people use to try to spread a false narrative.   Especially when the people, or person, involved purport to be objective and "follow the data."    One such blog is WUWT, WattsUpWithThat, which styles itself as "The World's Most Viewed Site on Global Warming and Climate Change."

I have read many articles on WUWT, and have written a few that were published there (about one dozen thus far).  At times, I have left comments and responded to the comments of others.  The blog owner, Anthony Watts, has done immeasurable good for the world, in my opinion.  He has investigated and published the incredibly sorry state of affairs with the US temperature measuring stations.  He has also helped to publicize the rather amazing feats of wrong-doing that occurred and are still occurring in the arcane world of climate science.  

However, Mr. Watts and I disagree on the subjects of renewable energy and nuclear energy.  He has told me, and has written, that nuclear is the way of the future.   That is clearly, in my view, not only not economic but not possible.  The economics are very clear, with the most recent effort at building a world-class nuclear power plant using two reactors of the EPR design and to be built in the UK at Hinkley Point.  That proposed plant is to cost US$26 billion, but the cost does not include the usual amounts for financing or interest on loans.  Instead, the French government is allowing EDF to sell shares of stock, with the government purchasing 3/4 of those shares to finance its portion of the power plant.  

 Power from Hinkley Point C is to be sold at the wholesale level for US$ 145 per MWh, or 14.5 cents per kWh.  That is far more than the price from other generators, but actually less than what a merchant nuclear plant would charge, having to add in financing costs.  If one added in financing costs over the 10 to 12 years of construction, the wholesale power price from Hinkley Point C would be 19 to 20 cents per kWh.   

The impossibility of nuclear energy powering the planet, long-term, is presented by Professor Derek Abbot in his paper published in IEEE.  Professor Abbot gives 15 excellent reasons why nuclear cannot be the energy source over the long term.  Chief among those reasons is the inability to recycle the irradiated alloy metals, and literally running out of metal to build new plants. 

But, what prompted this article is the piece on WUWT a few days ago ( see link) that showed a failed wind-turbine project at a small college in Illinois, Lake Land College.   It appears to me that WUWT has a tendency to publish only articles that highlight failures of wind energy.  With one exception, and that one is an article I wrote that was published there.  That positive article described the increase energy production from careful arrangement of vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWT) so that downwind turbines received stronger wind from those upwind.  see link to "Location location, location: Wind Turbine Power Output Increased 10x" from July 16, 2011. 

A quick search through the past 2 years of WUWT articles with the word "wind" shows zero articles in favor of wind energy, out of 50 articles.   A few of the articles had nothing to do with wind energy, but had some other context for the word.   Even excluding perhaps 10 articles on other uses for the word "wind", that leaves 40 out of 40 negative articles.  

The most recent article from a few days ago describes the short life and very low output of two tiny, 100 kW wind turbines at Lake Land College.   I left a brief comment, which is the basis for the points made below.   Excerpts from my comment are in quotes below. 

"This (WUWT) article appears to be yet again an example of confirmation bias at WUWT against any example of a renewable energy source that has a problem. We have seen featured on WUWT, just from my memory, a wind turbine that caught fire, a wind turbine being de-iced by a helicopter, a solar power tower project that actually works but is in the news for barely missing its estimated production volume, and now this on a small wind turbine that did not perform as expected." 

As mentioned just above, WUWT has a history of bringing out the examples of failure.  It is certainly cherry-picking the data to do so, though.  More on this a bit later. 

"Second, a bit of research shows that this wind project, two small turbines of 100 kW each, cost a bit above average for that size wind turbine at barely over $400,000 US for the both. What is glaringly missing from the article, and the commentary above, is that one of the wind turbines was installed with a defective rotor bearing, so of course it never performed to expectations. This fact is from another article on the college’s wind turbines, see below.

" “The 40-inch bearing is the cause of this disassembly, which is likely the result of a manufacturing error that came to light during the first months of the turbine’s operation,” explained Tillman (of Lake Land College). “We suspected this flaw was preventing the turbine from operating properly and Bora (the turbine manufacturer) confirmed our suspicions. We can now move forward to make the repair and get the turbine back in working order.” — source:  "     see link

Note that the WUWT article featured a misleading price for the turbines, citing a $2.5 million government grant, although at one point it did state that the turbines cost only 18 percent of that grant. 

"Third, the wind turbine manufacturer is Bora Energy, a very new company formed in 2010 that has only the Lake Land College project listed in its website news articles. It is very likely that the Bora company’s first project was these two wind turbines, as they were installed in 2012. It appears that Bora has a steep learning curve. Indeed, the failure of the Bora wind turbines is more of an outlier, and not the norm for the wind industry."

It also appears that these wind turbines were customized for Lake Land College, which would increase the opportunity for errors.  

"Fourth, the article mentions nothing at all about the US wind industry’s overall management of operating and maintenance costs. Readily available information from DOE shows annual average O&M costs of 0.5 to 1.0 cents US per kWh sold. However, as with most mechanical things, O&M costs increase with operating age. At 20 years, O&M for wind turbines is approximately 3 cents US per kWh. see my blog for “Wind Turbines Operations and Maintenance Costs: O&M is Key to Profitability” "   see link

And this is key to what WUWT does in regard to renewable energy.  In science, and indeed in matters affecting public policy, there is almost always a body of data to be considered.  It is bad science, resulting in bad policies, that considers only the unusual, the outliers in the data set.  For example, if 99 percent of the data leads to one conclusion, but only 1 percent to the opposite, why would policy makers focus only on that 1 percent?   In the US, we have thousands and thousands of wind-turbines operating as designed and as expected, with only a few miserable failures due to unusual circumstances.  As stated above, one of the turbines was installed with a defective rotor bearing, one of the main bearings that allows the blades to rotate around the generator housing.   Any engineer would be laughing at this point, as it is not rational to expect a wind turbine to perform with a defective bearing.   Yet, WUWT does not, to my knowledge, publish articles on the many successes of the renewable energy industry.  

Where are the articles showing that wind-turbines produced almost as much energy in 2014 in the US as did all the major hydroelectric plants?  Wind: 4.4 percent of total energy, hydroelectric, 6.3 percent. Surely it should be emphasized that wind energy receives only a very small subsidy of 2.3 cents per kWh sold - but only for the first 10 years of production - but the hydroelectric dams were built almost entirely with public funds (per DOE, 73 percent of hydroelectric power production is from government-owned dams).    

"What is indisputable is that utility-scale wind turbine projects work quite well, and the power flows when the wind blows. They have an average capacity factor of 34 percent in the US, which is actually better than all natural gas power plants at 29 percent, and barely less than the capacity factor for hydroelectric power plants at 37 percent.

"What is also indisputable is that renewable energy worldwide produced the same amount of electricity, 1520 terra-Watt-hours in 2014 as did all of the planet’s nuclear power plants in 1986 combined, the year Chernobyl exploded and spewed radioactive particles across the northern hemisphere. In that almost 30-year span, renewables grew from almost nothing to an annual production of 1520 tWh. Unlike nuclear power, though, the growth of renewables is very likely to continue at a very rapid pace."   -- (here ends the comment on WUWT)

Wind energy has quite a number of things going for it: unit costs are steadily declining and at a rapid pace.  It will be soon that wind-turbines require no more subsidies of any kind.   Examples of improvements in technology that will continue to decrease costs to build and install are taller support towers, larger unit sizes, and flexible blades that are oriented downwind of the tower.   The flexible blade concept (see link for SLB article on the Sandia National Laboratory concept) helps to reduce bearing wear and prolong turbine life.  The blade that is at the top, vertical position receives the strongest wind (usually) and has the most flexure and torque.  In contrast, the blade at 180 degrees opposite, at the bottom of the arc has the least.   With 3 blades the norm, the rotor bearing experiences unequal forces around the bearing surfaces.  However, a flexible blade would bend in the stronger wind at the top of the arc, thus reducing the forces.  

Taller support towers place the blades in wind that is typically stronger and more consistent.  This increases the turbine output, or the capacity factor.   

Larger unit sizes, as Sandia writes a 50 MW turbine, benefits from economy of scale and therefore lower costs to install.  

Next, there is the untapped resource in the US of offshore wind.  These winds are much stronger and much more consistent than onshore.  Projects are underway to produce electricity from offshore wind.  

Finally, there are major advancements in energy storage and dispatch on demand, to eliminate the difficulties of wind intermittency.   There are at least three different technologies for storing grid-scale quantities of wind-derived energy: advanced batteries, underwater pumped storage, and coast-line pumped storage.   Each has an energy loss, which is typically 20 percent.  

In conclusion, the editorial choices made at WUWT are clearly the right of the owner.  It is certain that in the areas of nuclear power, wind energy, and solar energy that those editorial choices are biased in favor of nuclear (it is hopeless), and against wind and solar (they both are enjoying rapid growth and favorable economies of scale).  

In contrast, here at Sowells Law Blog, SLB, I try to follow the valid data.  I insert the word "valid" because so much of what passes for data these days is not valid, but has been manipulated, distorted, cherry-picked, or otherwise tainted.   With my training and experience as a chemical engineer, one does not dare use tainted data, else toxic chemical plants explode with devastating consequences.  

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyrignt © 2016 by Roger Sowell, all rights reserved

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