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Wind damage

Science | From Holland to Hawaii, wind power has proved expensive and difficult to support

Issue: "2012: The Year Ahead," Jan. 14, 2012

The government of the Netherlands has been spending billions of euros to subsidize wind power and other renewables, part of a long-term plan to produce 14 percent of Dutch electricity from renewables by 2020. Now, with a looming budget deficit, the nation will slash renewable subsidies by two-thirds, leaving the energy sector and Dutch customers to pay for expensive power from wind farms, such as the 36 offshore turbines built in the North Sea in 2006 for $272 million.

Some analysts say the new subsidy policy will land the Netherlands several percentage points short of its lofty 2020 target. Currently, only 4 percent of Dutch energy comes from renewables. The faltering dream of the Dutch is just another example of wind power's disappointments.

Andrew Walden, editor of the Hawai'i Free Press, has written about the abandonment of dozens of old wind turbines in Hawaii. In a video of one wind farm at the southern tip of the Big Island, rows of rusting Mitsubishi turbines-built in 1986-stand idle in the breeze, many missing their blades. Last year Walden reported that six such wind farms had been abandoned throughout the Hawaiian Islands, casualties of the approximately 20-year lifespan of electric wind turbines. But energy companies are slow to invest in new equipment at such sites without the promise of government subsidies. Wind power is unreliable by nature, and adding it to the grid is costly in comparison with traditional fossil fuels.

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The first big push for wind power came in the late '70s, when the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act encouraged states to offer tax incentives for wind power. In California, federal and state subsidies in the early '80s were lucrative enough to cover half of a turbine's actual cost, spurring the construction of nearly 15,000 turbines by 1986. Walden estimates that 14,000 of these first-generation turbines in California and elsewhere have been decommissioned over the years due to lack of maintenance, outdated equipment, and the expiration of tax incentives. Disassembling these old turbines and reclaiming the land can require millions of additional dollars-although selling the equipment for scrap metal offsets the cost.

Short life and expensive electricity mean governments have to keep offering taxpayer money to encourage the wind industry along: Three months ago the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would award $43 million over the next five years for the development of offshore wind projects.

Unwanted electricity

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission delivered a rebuke to a local federal power agency on Dec. 6 for shutting off electricity from wind turbines in the Pacific Northwest during periods of energy surplus. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which oversees power generation from dams along the Columbia River, can prevent a glut of energy on the grid-which can happen during storms-by diverting river water into a dam spillway. But doing so would break federal law by harming salmon in the river, the BPA reasoned, so it had resorted to disconnecting power from wind farms temporarily.

The wind operators complained, prompting the commission to order the BPA to rewrite its electricity policy. That may force it to pay customers to accept the extra power.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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