Wind power’s dirty secret? Its carbon footprint

Wind power’s dirty secret? Its carbon footprint »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. – In 10 years Oregon has handed out $1.3 billion in tax credits for renewable energy and conservation projects like wind power, but questions about why the state is spending so much on something that may have a hidden environmental drawback have been raised by some.

Wind power is touted as the cleanest and greenest renewable energy resource.

"You've got a non-carbon-emitting source of energy that's free," said Doug Johnson of the Bonneville Power Administration.

However, Todd Wynn of the Cascade Policy Institute says it’s not as clean as advocates claim. He says it’s simply because the wind is volatile and doesn’t blow all the time.

Johnson confirms: "You don't know what (the wind) is going to do moment to moment."

Indeed, there must be a backup source to wind power at all times to ensure uninterrupted electricity. The more wind power put on line, the more backup power is needed. Often that backup energy comes from coal or natural gas.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, people prefer hydroelectricity.

“So when the wind blows, the dams stop generating electricity, and when the wind stops, the dams continue to generate electricity,” said Wynn. “So, in fact, wind power is just offsetting another renewable energy source. It’s not necessarily offsetting any fossil fuel generation.”

Wynn says a Bonneville Power Administration staffer admitted to his think tank that wind does not reduce carbon emissions, but instead, creates them.

That’s because when wind blows, the dam – or fossil fuel – backs up. It doesn’t shut down, and it takes too long to start up.

It’s like a car stopped at a red light: The engine is still running, and just like the car, this “spinning reserve mode” as it’s called, consumes energy.

"Right now we've got more than 2800 megawatts of wind energy connected to the various plants and flowing through the Northwest at times," which is enough electricity to light Seattle and Portland for one hour, Johnson said.

But Johnson says wind power is exceeding all expectations in the amount of electricity it is creating, and according to Wynn, “We’re simply running out of hydro reserves in order to back this power up.”

According to BPA reports from 2008 and 2009, wind turbines generated so much more power than expected the system almost couldn’t handle it and began operating outside standards set by federal law.

BPA admitted it was at risk of running out of reserves and having a “wind-related reliability event” that would “negatively impact the reputation of wind power.”

With three times more wind power expected to flow down power lines within three years, the carbon footprint of using wind power may increase.

“Natural gas is probably the next best backup to hydro because those facilities can ramp up and down very quickly and move with the wind just like the hydro system,” said Johnson.

“Which would be, in fact, that they’re creating fossil fuel plants because they’re putting wind energy on the grid,” said Wynn.

But Johnson said people have to “remember (that) there is absolutely no carbon emission from the wind blowing.”

For now, the BPA sees wind not as a replacement for water but an enhancement to it. The BPA is also relying on new tools to better predict what the wind will do.

In Troutdale anemometers are used to transmit wind direction and speed, and the BPA schedules power by the half hour instead of by the hour. Soon, dispatchers will have screens with real-time wind generation data.

“The more we learn about wind behavior, the more you learn about what it’s going to do and schedule the amount of energy you expect as an output, the better you get and the fewer reserves you have to keep,” Johnson said.

Oregon is requiring that the largest utilities get one quarter of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. For Washington, it’s 15 percent by 2020.