Why wind can never, ever replace coal

Wind turbine owners are collectors of energy, not producers

Can wind turbines replace coal fired electrical plants in Alberta?

That is the essential question.

Advocates of wind power such as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and former Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley argue it can.

The latter, in fact, committed the province to wind energy being 30 per cent of Alberta’s generating capacity by 2030.

That commitment, apparently, still stands under the Premier Jason Kenney United Conservative Party government.

As it currently stands, Alberta has an installed capacity as follows:

Coal     5430 megawatts

Gas      7912 megawatts

Hydro  894 megawatts

Other   485 megawatts

Wind    1781 megawatts

Total    16502 megawatts

So wind’s share of total capacity is just under 11 per cent.

In the mid 90s, the vast majority of electricity was being produced by coal. Over the course of the past three decades, utilities have constructed gas fired plants to comply with provincial and federal regulations.

That’s one of the reasons we have seen our electrical bills climb year after year. Coal is cheap and plentiful and the electricity it produces is cheap as well.

Still, what would it take to replace coal with wind?

First off, lots and lots of land. To get us to a mere 80-20 gas and wind mix, producers will need a minimum of 1,000 km2 of land for the turbines. To completely replace coal would require approximately 5,000 km2 of land.

That’s because wind turbines, as Meredith Angwin explains in her book Campaigning for Clean Air, require 28 hectares per installed megawatt.

As we keep trying to tell everyone, renewable energy sources are not dense.

By way of comparison, the total area of land occupied by oilsands operations, including ponds and associated structures is a mere 88 km2.

It is hard to believe that 88 km2 sends the Greens into a frenzy but the prospect of 5,000 km2 elicts a collective “meh”.

Aside from the obvious eyesore issues (to say nothing of the toll on birds and bats), there is another reason why wind will never replace coal. Namely, a wind turbine owner is a collector of energy, rather than a producer of energy.

When you rely on wind to spin a turbine you are dependent on the wind. If it is blowing sufficiently strong, but not too strong, then you have usable electricity.

That’s why the rated capacity of wind turbines is nothing like they actually produce. Capacity means nothing. A wind turbine actual generation of electricity is somewhere around 15-30 per cent of its rated capacity.

In other words, a utility cannot ramp up production of electricity at a wind farm to meet demand. It is entirely dependent on weather conditions.

There is no getting around that.

A coal fired plant, on the other hand, can simply increase its use of coal until it is at capacity.

As a consequence, every single watt of wind power has to be backed up by something other than wind.

And that is primarily natural gas.

So when the Greens, the NDP and other ecofanatics extol the virtues of wind power understand this – they are either fools or liars.

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