German Government Study Questions Value of Wind Power

Published June 1, 2005

The German government’s energy agency has released a study that concludes wind farms are an expensive and inefficient way of generating sustainable energy.

The study, released in February, suggests that joining Germany’s existing wind farm to the national supply grid in order to meet the government’s target of producing 20 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2015 would cost €1.1 billion ($1.3 billion). About 800 miles of cables would need to be laid or modified. Power plants would have to be upgraded or replaced so the system would be able to cope with the large fluctuations associated with wind-based energy.

Wind Power Called Impractical

The report concludes, “Instead of spending billions on building new wind turbines, the emphasis should be on making houses more energy efficient.” Opposition spokesmen such as Klaus Lippold MP agreed. Lippold told the Guardian, “The problem with wind farms is that you have to build them in places where you don’t need electricity. The electricity then has to be moved somewhere else. There is growing resistance in Germany to wind farms, not least because of the disastrous effect on our landscape.”

Environment Minister Juergen Trittin of the Green Party disagreed, telling the Guardian the “central parts” of the report supported his claim that wind energy could be expanded quickly and cheaply. “There are no grounds for pessimism,” he said. Nevertheless, the head of the environment agency, Stephan Kohler, admitted, “Wind energy is expensive. That’s true. You can’t dispute it. Conventional methods are cheaper.”

Intermittent Power Untenable

One revealing comment on the German study came from Greenpeace UK chief executive Stephen Tindale, who acknowledged problems in those parts of Germany where wind power is already supplying 20 percent of the electricity. “Everyone accepts that when you get to that level it is much more of a problem because of the fact that wind is intermittent,” conceded Tindale. The UK government aims to provide 20 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

“There is simply no getting around the intermittency problem of wind power,” Sterling Burnett, senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, said. “The wind does not always blow, and its variability cannot be predicted on even a minute-by-minute basis. Even after constructing large wind-turbine complexes, one must have sufficient backup power generated by conventional power plants. This redundancy raises overall electricity prices. Moreover, wind farms harm the environment in their own right, and are horribly prolific killers of aviary wildlife.”

Germany Learning the Hard Way

“Unfortunately, most governments look through rose-colored glasses at these ‘green power’ projects that are supposed to provide power and improve the environment,” said Burnett. “Initial opponents to such projects are immediately labeled shills for industry. But once governments start implementing these plans, problems appear.

“It is not surprising that the German government is finally learning, the hard way, about problems with so-called green power, and is finally beginning to take its blinders off,” said Burnett.

“The German study sheds light on the European illusion that the so-called ‘renewables’ may be a viable alternative to fossil fuels,” Carlo Stagnaro, director of Italy’s Istituto Bruno Leoni, said. “In fact, the wind lobby has been able so far to push a lot of programs all across the Old Continent. The result? Expensive, unreliable energy, waste of taxpayers’ money, and environmental degradation due to wind farms and miles and miles of cables to move electricity from windy zones to the places where real people live. At the present state of knowledge, wind power, as well as solar power, is unsustainable.”

Conventional Power Still Superior

Added Stagnaro, “Those supporting renewables as alternatives to conventional power sources should be honest and tell us that what they actually advocate is addressing an uncertain, future threat–anthropogenic global warming–by creating the certain misery of uneconomical power sources that create their own scourge of environmental degradations.”

“The developments in Germany are important,” Burnett summarized, “because Germany is one of the few countries still moving forward with plans to decommission nuclear power plants. Wind was supposed to replace nuclear power. If Germany steps back from both wind and nuclear, it has a much more difficult proposition in powering the country.”

Iain Murray ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in the debate over climate change and the use and abuse of science in the political process. Myron Ebell ([email protected]) oversees global warming and international environmental work at CEI and chairs the Cooler Heads Coalition, a subgroup of the National Consumers Coalition that focuses on climate change issues.