Friday, November 25, 2011

Surely you don't believe renewable energy is economical?

If you ever thought it might be, the following article will poke HUGE holes in your thinking.

Green Energy Myths

By James Crawford

Now that Solyndra has become a household word and with all the rhetoric about getting rid of thermal electric generation and using “clean,” “green,” renewable energy instead, we need to take a good look at renewable energy systems. They are springing up and failing all over the place. They are being put on parking garages, rooftops, and filling open spaces in our desert. Green energy systems are being built not because they are profitable, efficient, or make any economic sense. They are being built only because of government subsidies and mandates. The electric company ratepayers and the tax payers are footing the bill.


Let’s first take a look at solar. Public Service Company of NM (PNM) is in the process of installing 5 major solar arrays around the state including one in Los Lunas. We will use them as a model.

Before we go any further, we need to understand the concept of “capacity factors.” All electric power generation has a capacity factor that is less than 100% since nothing works 100% of the time or with 100% efficiency. Since it is dark half the time we know solar can never exceed 50% capacity. So because of cloudy days and other losses solar only has a capacity factor of about 20% on average.

Capacity factor is never disclosed in media coverage of green energy installations. Nominal installed capacity is the only thing described. Readers and listeners are led to believe much more generating capacity is being created along with exaggerated claims of homes served.

The PNM arrays each occupy 50 acres and have a rated capacity of 5 megawatts if they produced at full capacity 100% of the time. So in fact a 5-megawatt array is only going to actually produce about 1 megawatt (5x.20) of power for consumption by consumers. One megawatt produces about 8766 (number of hours in a year) megawatt hours or 8,766,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. We look at kilowatt hours because that is how consumer use is measured.

PNM estimates that the average household uses about 7200 kilowatt hours per year. Each of the 5 PNM arrays can supply the power needs for about 1200 (8,766,000/7200) “average” homes. Average consumption in Texas is over 14,000 kilowatt hours so one array would only cover about 635 Texan homes. Many utilities estimate the average household use at 10,000 kilowatt hours. But what the heck, we will use PNM’s 7200 just to give green energy the best break we can.

PNM is required to buy excess daytime solar power from people with private solar arrays. This is called distributed generation. So with their own arrays and the private arrays, PNM claims to have 45 megawatts of solar capacity. So accounting for the 20% capacity factor, 45 megawatts translates to 9 megawatts of actual usable production. That is 78,894,000 kilowatt hours. That will provide for 10,096 “average” homes.

The big push to convert to renewable energy is because of the perceived evil of thermal generating plants like coal-fired plants. Again we will use PNM as a model and look at the San Juan Generating Station. Environmental activists would like to see the San Juan plant closed down, so let’s look at what it would take to replace it with solar panels.

San Juan has a nominal capacity of about 1743 mega watts. Coal thermal plants have a capacity factor of about 85% to 95% but we will use 85%. Therefore, San Juan is cranking out 1482 megawatts or about 13 million megawatt hours of usable power per year. Now it starts to sound like we are talking about the national debt since 13 million megawatt hours is 13 billion kilowatt hours! That is enough for 1.8 million “average” homes! It would take 1482 of PNM’s 5 megawatt 50 acre arrays to serve that number of homes and would cover about 74,100 acres!

Protection of Mesa Verde National Park is one of the big reasons environmentalists want San Juan closed. Mesa Verde is only 52,000 acres. So to do away with San Juan, all of Mesa Verde and half again more would have to be covered with solar panels! The combined size of the Sandia Mountain and Manzano Mountain Wilderness areas is also only a bit more than the 74,000 acres. Wouldn’t that be a pretty view from the valley to have them covered with solar panels?

A couple of other solar arrays have also been in the news recently. One is the Santa Teresa array, which is also in New Mexico, but owned by El Paso Electric; the other is advertised as the biggest array of its kind, the Agua Caliente facility in Arizona.

The Santa Teresa array has a gross capacity of 20 megawatts, which converts to 4 megawatts using our 20% capacity factor. That would power 4870 of our NM “average homes”. El Paso, however, claims it would power 6600 homes. To achieve that, the capacity factor would have to swell to an unlikely 27%. Since their power is going to Texas homes, they can only power 2500 Texas homes!

The Aqua Caliente project is an excellent example of the misrepresentations about solar arrays. The gross capacity is 290 megawatts or as we have seen 58 megawatts of actual usable electricity. 58 megawatts will power 70,615 of our NM “average homes.” The developers claim that they will power 225,000 homes. To do that, the array would need a capacity factor of 63.7%! In other words it is rarely dark or cloudy in AZ. Capacity factors between 10% and 30% could be argued one way or the other but 64% is out of the question!

Earlier brief mention was made of PNM buying the excess daytime solar power produced by private solar arrays on people’s houses, parking facilities, etc. i.e. distributed generation. So how does that work out for us?

This has to be one of the most ludicrous programs ever devised. PNM sells their residential power for around $.07 per kilowatt hour. They buy the surplus solar power from private individuals for around $.15 per kilowatt hour to sell back to you for $.07. Who do you think makes up the $.08 per kilowatt hour bonus going to someone with a solar panel? It is us, the rest of the sucker ratepayers of course! On top of that the private solar panel owner gets both state and federal subsidies and in some cases outright grants to cover the cost of installation. The average ratepayer not only pays more in electric bills but also kicks in taxes at the state and federal levels.

A couple of Los Lunas and Belen restaurants recently proudly announced they are installing solar arrays that will eliminate their electric bills altogether. To do that they have received outright grants from the federal government along with the federal tax credits covering over half the cost. The rest is covered by state tax credits and PNM paying double for the surplus daytime electricity. In other words all the PNM ratepayers and U.S. and NM tax payers are footing the electric bills for these businesses.

No announcement has been made that these restaurants will close after dark. How will people be able to read the menu in the dark? Of course the lights are going to stay on, but the businesses will be buying back electricity at less than half the price they just sold it for earlier in the day. Menu prices already cover utility expenses. Do you suppose there will be an immediate reduction in menu prices or that we will get a discount on the menu prices if we bring in our tax returns and electric bills? It is not likely. The largess will go into the owners’ pockets.

Another local example, is the plan for the City of Belen to install a solar facility to serve the sewer treatment plant. The nominal capacity is 0.5 megawatts, which converts to 0.1 megawatts of actual usable electricity. The installation will then generate 876,600 kilowatt hours per year. That is enough for about 122 of our “average” homes. Since the kilowatt hours of use by the treatment plant was not published we do not know if that is enough to run the plant like the proponents claim. However, the media reported a South Korean Company will build the facility for $6 million, take all the subsidies, tax credits, and the PNM inflated payments for excess electricity and then sell the facility to the city in seven years for $2.7 million. Based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a plant like this should cost about $2.3 million to start with. So after reaping all the government subsidies the company sells a used facility to the city for more than it should cost originally!

These situations are small local examples of corporate cronyism and public private partnerships where government is deeply involved in or in bed with private enterprise and picks the winners and losers based on politics rather than economic freedom. It creates an unfair advantage over the competition and squanders taxpayer money. All competitors would probably like the taxpayers and rate payers to take care of their electric bills.


Let’s take a look at wind power. New Mexico is home to three existing major wind farms. We will take a close look at the New Mexico Wind Energy Center, which supplies wind power to PNM.

New Mexico Wind Energy Center has 136 wind turbines on 9,600 acres in central NM and has a nominal capacity of 204 megawatts.

Once again we need to consider capacity factor to find out how much usable electricity is being generated. We don’t have to worry about nighttime since the wind often blows at night. However, it doesn’t always blow and often does not blow at optimum speeds. Anything less than 8 miles per hour is too slow and over 55 miles per hour is too fast. Optimum is somewhere in the middle. Because of wind variability and turbines being down because of mechanical problems, capacity factor is about 25% on average.

The 204-megawatt installation can yield about 50 megawatts of usable power. That figure converts to 438,300 megawatt hours or 438,300,000 kilowatt hours. Using our PNM average home consuming 7200 kilowatt hours that will serve 60,875 homes.

So how much wind power will it take to substitute for that evil San Juan Generating Station? San Juan has a capacity of 1743 megawatts. We will use our 85% capacity factor. Therefore, San Juan is cranking out 1482 megawatts or about 13 million megawatt hours per year. Now it starts to sound like we are talking about the national debt since 13 million megawatt hours is 13 billion kilowatt hours! That is enough for 1.8 million “average” homes!

Based on the NM Wind Energy Center data, it takes 192 acres of windmills to generate one usable megawatt of electricity. So it will require 284,544 acres to generate the electricity produced by San Juan. The NM Energy Wind Center uses about 47 acres per nominal megawatt. However, the industry average is about 86 acres per nominal megawatt. If we use the industry average figure, it would take 344 acres per usable megawatt and would then require 509,808 acres of wind farm to replace San Juan! Based on US Census data, Valencia County contains 1068 square miles or about 683,520 acres. It would require covering 75% of Valencia County’s land area with windmills to replace San Juan!

It would then take 30 New Mexico Energy Center wind farms to produce the same 1482 megawatts of power produced by San Juan.

Other installations around the country are even worse. The Roscoe wind project in Texas uses 128 acres per megawatt covering 100,000 acres. The Shepherds Flat project along the Columbia Gorge in Oregon uses 94 acres per megawatt covering 80,000 acres. The land use for these projects is astounding. Instead of growing corn and burning it in our cars, we would have to cover the whole state of Kansas with wind turbines to replace just 20% of the US generating capacity!


No matter what spin is put on it, solar and wind is prohibitively expensive and cannot compete in any kind of free market competitive situation. Wind and solar can’t exist without government mandates and subsidies.

Let’s look at costs for coal, wind and solar using data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A modern coal plant would cost $4.579 million per nominal megawatt or $5.387 million per actual usable megawatt. A solar plant the size of the ones being built by PNM would cost $6.050 million per nominal megawatt or $30.250 million per actual usable megawatt. A wind farm would cost $2.423 million per nominal megawatt or $9.752 million per actual usable megawatt.

Solar costs almost 5.6 times more than coal and wind costs nearly twice as much!

Now let’s put all this into perspective using our San Juan Generating Station example. What would it cost to replace San Juan with a new coal plant, solar plant, or wind plant?

To replace San Juan’s 1482 megawatts of actual usable electricity a new coal plant would cost $8.0 billion. A solar array would cost $44.8 billion. A wind plant would cost $14.5 billion. Wind and solar just cannot be justified on any economic grounds!

Fixed operation and maintenance costs follow the same pattern. Coal costs $74,360 per actual usable megawatt. Wind costs $112,280 per actual usable megawatt. Solar costs $130,200 per actual usable megawatt.

The costs for building these wind and solar monstrosities do not even come close to being all the costs. Since they occupy such huge tracts of land, they are usually sited away from already developed areas. The transmission infrastructure simply does not exist to move the electricity from remote locations to urban areas where the people live. Serious investments in transmission lines will be required for any significant expansion of wind and solar to occur.

Transmission line costs are quite variable but seem to range from $2 million to upwards of $4 million per mile depending on line voltage and terrain. A new 100-mile line could cost as much as a half billion dollars!

The transmission lines also add to the area impacts. The size of the plants themselves is huge, but transmission lines will add a significant amount of acreage. Transmission lines are typically 200-feet wide. Therefore transmission lines would occupy an additional 24 acres per mile. A new 100-mile line would affect an additional 2400 acres.

The other cost of wind and solar that is never mentioned is the need for and cost to build the extra thermal plants that will be needed to make up for wind and solar capacity factors. Right now the 80% and 75% down time of solar and wind are being absorbed by the approximately 15% peaking reserve built into the existing thermal system. Once government mandates force utilities to install enough wind and solar to exceed the present reserve, new thermal plants will have to be built to provide the needed peaking power.

If we covered Kansas with a wind plant and generated 20% of the nation’s power needs, it would take a thousand new 600-megawatt gas plants to provide the backup base-load power.

Of course since the additional thermal plants will be needed only when wind and solar are not generating, they will only have to work part time. They will have to repeatedly surge back and forth from full power to standby. That is an extremely inefficient and uneconomic use of a multimillion-dollar facility.

Ironically, the environmental mania to have more wind and solar production is going to force construction of more thermal capacity than would have been needed if no solar or wind were added at all! More San Juan’s will have to be built rather than being decommissioned!


Green jobs, green jobs, green jobs. The country’s unemployment problem will be solved by green jobs! That is the spin going around the country. Let’s take a look at the job situation.

As most people are aware, Spain has actual experience in the lavish government subsidized solar business. The Spanish experienced a loss of over 2 regular jobs for every green job they were able to create! Their economy is in the tank. Spain’s experiment does not bode well for the U.S. green jobs bonanza.

The media coverage of the wind and solar arrays we have been using as examples all make a big deal of the number of jobs they will create temporarily for a few months during construction. However, they routinely fail to disclose the number of permanent jobs once construction is complete.

PNM did state that no permanent jobs will be created because of their new solar arrays. It was reported that the Santa Teresa array will have one permanent employee and a couple of security people. The New Mexico Wind Energy Center has a staff of about 15.

Once constructed, wind and solar arrays just do not provide many jobs. Both types of facilities don’t require much human supervision because much of the monitoring is done remotely. A few maintenance people are needed, but there again one maintenance crew can service several sites.

Earlier we said that it would take 1482 PNM arrays to substitute for San Juan. If we are generous and assume a permanent position for every 5 arrays, about 300 people would be employed on a fulltime basis. We also said that it would require 30 New Mexico Wind Energy Centers to substitute for San Juan, which would provide about 450 jobs.

So how does 3 or 4 hundred jobs compare to evil San Juan? San Juan employees 394 people in the generating facility and another 529 in the mining operation. The total employment is 923 people. The San Juan Generating Station is located in San Juan County. San Juan County has about 52,000 people employed in the county. That means that direct employment by the San Juan plant accounts for about 2% of the county’s employment, which is a significant amount when all the economic multipliers are considered for retail, housing, etc. There is no possible way 300 to 400 jobs for solar or wind scattered all across the state could substitute for the San Juan economic generator or electric generator!

Environmental Impact:

If we can just get rid of those evil thermal power-generating plants the planet will be saved! That is the elite environmentalist mantra carried by the media. The belief is that wind and solar are clean and green and have no environmental impacts.

They do, however, have their share of impacts.

The environmental community which has been pleading for the death of coal-fired power will soon be using the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and others to bring renewable energy projects to a screeching halt as well.

The required new transmission grid will require thousands of miles and acres of land devoted to power lines. Of course miles and miles of National Forests, Wildlife Refuges and other public lands would be affected and construction proposals will not withstand the environmental challenges under the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, etc. Also, outside of public land, many private landowners will not be receptive to power-line construction, either.

As we have already seen that just to replace the San Juan Generating Station, the area impacted by the new transmission grid would be a drop in the bucket compared to the area that would have to be devoted to solar panels or wind plants.

The wildlife habitat and other environmental conflicts would be significant and never pass muster at the altar of the elite environmental extremists.

On top of covering immense tracts of land, solar arrays and wind plants are ugly. As we have already seen off Cape Cod, the elite environmental extremists like the Kerrys and Kennedys don’t want windmills cluttering up their view. The “Not in My Back Yard” scenario will undoubtedly play out elsewhere for both wind and solar.

Wind turbines also affect the visual landscape because of the flicker and strobe effect of the whirling blades.

Windmills are noisy along with being ugly. Wind turbines produce a steady tiresome low frequency audible sound along with inaudible infrasound. Wind turbine noise is often 10 dB louder than background sound levels (sometimes even 20 dB or more). Acousticians have long known that any increase over 5 dB begins to trigger complaints, with 10dB the threshold for widespread problems.

Wind-turbine syndrome can cause headache, dizziness, nervous fatigue, depression, and sleep problems. The health claims are hard or impossible to prove. Much more telling are community response rates that affirm in some rural communities that 25-50 percent of people hearing turbines near the regulatory sound limits feel that their quality of life is severely impacted.

There are cases in this country as well as Europe where property values have been adversely affected, and some people have been forced to vacate their properties because of their proximity to wind plants.

Once the elite environmental extremists get the wind generators located outside their pristine view areas, they will then have to worry about the number of birds being sliced and diced. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about 440,000 birds including protected species such as the California condor are ground up in windmill plants each year. In California, about 67 golden eagles per year are minced by the wind plants. Wind plants in California are being turned off during bird migration periods to reduce the damage. Keep in mind that also reduces the capacity factor, making wind even less attractive as an alternate energy source.

Wind plants are about twice as deadly as coal plants. There is always a huge outcry when a coal mining disaster is publicized. However during the six-year period between 2003 and 2008 the average death rate for wind was 0.0220 per million megawatt hours and for coal was about half that at 0.0147 per megawatt hours!

Even the distributed solar generating can be dangerous. Because the power companies are required to take excess power from private solar arrays into their system, they have no way to know if and when their lines are being charged by these systems. There are documented cases of injuries to line workers working on down lines that they thought were not energized but actually were with power coming in from private systems.

Oh, but will wind and solar reduce pollution? Maybe not so much! We saw earlier that it would take about 1000 new gas-fired generating stations to back up renewable sufficient to produce 20% of our nation’s energy. Their emissions will largely offset any reductions achieved by the renewable facilities. As an example, Denmark produces about 20% of its power with wind but because of the low capacity factor they ended up using 50% more coal-generated power and have increased their emissions by 36%!

To cover huge areas with solar panels or windmills, it takes a huge amount of material. It takes mining, quarrying, drilling, piping, milling, manufacturing, transporting, and installing to produce the metals, concrete, plastics, fiberglass, resins and on and on to make and install wind and solar plants. All of those operations are extremely energy intensive and will likely consume more energy than the plants will generate in their useful life.

Solar-panel production also needs raw materials and particularly rare earth minerals. The U.S. currently does little mining or processing of rare earths. More than 95% of current production capacity for rare earth metals is currently in China.

Solar panel manufacture can also be deadly.

Several solar companies produce Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) thin film photovoltaics (PV). CdTe is a compound formed from Cadmium and Tellurium. While Tellurium is rare, Cadmium is a highly toxic human carcinogen. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the compound CdTe is also a carcinogen. Depending on the level of exposure, health effects range from kidney damage, fragile bones, and lung damage to death.

Rare earth mining in China has turned towns and hamlets into “cancer villages.” Rivers run murky white to shades of orange. Fish and ducks are dead. And villagers bury friends and neighbors who die of cancer in their 30s and 40s.

The bottom line is that all energy sources come with some type of risk and to assume that solar panels are an economic and environmental panacea is wrong.

One of the most ludicrous claims is how a renewable plant will be equivalent to taking cars off the road. First of all, electric power generation has nothing to do with automobiles. The press releases touting the amount of carbon dioxide reductions in terms of how many cars can be eliminated are just misleading the public. We could cover the county with renewables and no fewer cars would be on the road!

PNM claims CO2 reductions equivalent to 1000 cars from their 50-acre arrays. Of course this is based on nominal capacity. So if we apply our 20% capacity factor to the cars as well as the megawatt nominal capacities we come up with 200 cars per megawatt per year for the PNM sites.

The only thing that makes any sense is to talk about whether or not these renewable facilities could substitute for CO2 from a coal-fired plant like San Juan. According to EPA, the average car produces about 5.5 tons of CO2. The 5 PNM sites would reduce 1000 vehicle equivalents. So we have 1000 vehicle equivalents producing 5.5 tons of CO2 each. That is 5,500 tons. Once again going back to the bedeviled San Juan Generating Station as an example, it produces about 13.8 million tons of CO2. The press releases make the number of vehicle equivalents sound like a big deal but those we mentioned would only substitute for 0.0004% of San Juan’s CO2! A half day down time on one boiler would save more CO2 than these solar arrays.

It is doubtful these kinds of impacts will be acceptable to any environmentalists who are not in it for the money. Elite environmental extremists are pushing massive subsidies for wind and solar. However, if they were to get their wish and they consider the realistic environmental impacts, the luster may start to dull.

Bribery and Coercion:

Why would any power company in its right mind invest two to five times more to build and operate wind and solar plants, pay more for distributed generated power than it can be sold for, or build a bunch of unneeded and inefficient thermal plants just to provide for base load power to back up wind and solar?

The answer of course is found in bribery in the form of loan guarantees, outright government grants, subsidies, tax credits, and coercion in the form of government mandates.

The biggest direct mandates are Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). New Mexico is one of 30 states with a mandatory renewable portfolio standard. The NM RPS requires power companies to obtain 10% of their power from renewable sources in the years 2011 through 2014; 15% in the years 2015 through 2019; and 20% in subsequent years. Lest those mandates are not restrictive enough, the power companies can’t even achieve their mandated percentages of renewable sources by seeking the lowest-cost alternative. The NM RPS goes even further and mandates the mix of renewable sources. Wind has to be no less than 20% of the renewable portfolio; solar no less than 20%; non-wind and non-solar (biomass, etc.) no less than 10%; and distributed generation no less than 1.5% through 2014 and 3% thereafter.

A Heritage Foundation analysis of a national 22.5% national RPS found that it would cause a 36% jump in household electric rates; a 60% jump in industrial electric rates; a $5.2 trillion reduction in GDP; and loss of more than one million jobs.

On top of RPS, NM power companies are also mandated to implement energy-efficiency programs to realize energy savings of 5% by 2014 and 10% by 2020 based on 2005 generation levels. This mandate is why you can buy a new Energy Star refrigerator and get a check from the power company. Not only are you paying more on the electric bill to cover the rebate but also spending money on an appliance that you probably don’t even need! The energy savings are not going to cover the cost of the new appliance!

Perhaps more indirect but no less coercive are the raft of federal and state air- and water-quality regulations promulgated by EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department.

New Mexico has not one but two regulations to cap and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The companies will have to purchase carbon offsets or reduce output from coal-fired plants, both of which will add to electric bills.

Then EPA gets into the act and comes out with new regulations on a regular basis to control regional haze, ozone, hazardous air pollutants, coal ash, and now carbon dioxide. Dealing with all these rules requires companies to undertake major retrofit projects, reduce output, or just shut the doors. Most of the mandates require huge investments of funds and yield imperceptible environmental benefit.

A recent example is the EPA ruling that PNM will have to install retrofit technology to the San Juan plant to improve visibility at Mesa Verde and other national parks. The cost could be as much as a billion dollars and there will be no perceptible change in visibility.

Solar and wind certainly can produce some electricity. They undoubtedly can and will have a niche in future US power production. However, that should only happen when they can be economically viable on their own merit without the massive bribery and coercion forcing them on us now.

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