Wind Turbines: America’s Vast, Ugly Sculpture Garden

Published July 16, 2013

Brilliant scientific minds are not confined to the annals of scientific history. I have been blessed to have had a career in physics first influenced by a nodding acquaintance with Albert Einstein while a student at Princeton, then watching Hyman Rickover build our nuclear Navy, and finally almost having the opportunity to work with Edward Teller on what would have been his last book. Yet none have made a greater impression on me nor served as better mentors than Howard Hayden, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Connecticut. Howard produces a monthly newsletter titled The Energy Advocate in which he attempts to explain in clear terms the insanity of much of our nation’s energy policies as they attempt to rewrite the laws of physics that control the extraction of energy from our planet and universe.

This article, focusing on the amazing absurdity of ever believing that wind energy could efficiently contribute to a central electrical grid, is drawn from Hayden’s writings.

Little Justification for Subsidies
Federal taxpayer subsidies for wind power will almost certainly end; the only question is when. It defies logic for wind subsidies and mandates to continue when wind power is so costly, inefficient, and environmentally harmful. I will guess that the insanity could continue for another decade, with more and more industrial wind turbines added to the preexisting turbine blight on the American landscape. 

Few of these turbines will last 20 years. Most will break down sooner than that, and most electricity sales contracts will not reap enough income for repairs. Few wind power companies have the financial reserves to dismantle these behemoth lawn sculptures. Just as it has taken massive subsidies to build the vast industrial wind installations, it will likely take massive subsidies to dismantle them. The resulting scene of permanent wind sculptures, monuments to the triumph of political favoritism over science and economics, will be frozen in time like a scene from science fiction—as though giant aliens descended onto our planet only to be frozen in place.

Optimistically, a wind turbine will generate electricity 30 percent of the time. However, we cannot predict when that time will be. A true wind power believer might be willing to do without electricity at the times the wind is not blowing, but the general population will not. During that 30 percent of the time the blades are spinning, conventional power plants still most keep cycling in order to ramp up quickly to compensate for the unpredictable 70 percent of the time when wind turbines are not producing power.

After two decades of huge subsidies for wind energy, nowhere in the world has an array of wind turbines replaced a single conventional power plant.

Limited Power Potential
The amount of power the wind can generate per acre of land is unrelated to the size of the turbines. Doubling the length of turbine blades doubles the power output of the turbine; however, turbines with longer blades must be separated by larger distances.

No matter how much money we invest in wind power technology, we know the earth will give up only an average of 5 kilowatts of electricity from wind energy per acre, which amounts to fully 300 square miles of land necessary to produce the 1000 megawatts generated by a conventional coal, natural gas, or nuclear power plant. Each of these conventional power plants requires merely a few hundred acres of land. This fulfills the average power demand of a city of 700,000 people.

Another inescapable problem for electric grids is that the power generated by a wind turbine varies with the cube of the wind speed. This means when the wind speed doubles – say from 10 miles per hour to 20 miles per hour – the energy output increases eight fold (2 x 2 x 2). Someone or some computer has to balance these huge variations on the grid by calling on standby generators to produce more or less power to maintain the stability that is so essential to the grid.

Strong winds are no more conducive to wind power generation than light winds. Turbines must shut down in high winds because strong centrifugal forces would tear the blades apart. Wind turbines rely on a fleeting Goldilocks zone of winds that are not too light but not too strong to generate power.

Rampant Structural Problems
Wind turbine infrastructure can be quite problematic. Thousands of mishaps, breakdowns, and accidents have been reported in recent years. The basic concrete foundations are suffering from frequent strains. The wind turbines themselves rarely remain functional after 20 years.

Severe Environmental Harms
Low frequency noise produced by the turbines is driving people from their homes. The turbines are also taking a toll on the environment. The Audubon Society estimates turbines kill more than a million birds per year. No wind farm has ever paid a fine for such environmental destruction, yet oil companies pay by the bird. 

For all this environmental destruction, wind turbines fail to deliver the amount of electricity promised. Dirt, grit, and insect residue reduce the efficiency of wind turbine blades. A one millimeter buildup of insect residue on turbine blades reduces wind power generation by as much as 25 percent.

The fate of expensive, inefficient, environmentally destructive wind energy is sealed. The day is soon coming when the public will no longer tolerate such subsidies and mandates.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.