Burlington Free Press My Turn: Solar better answer than wind

Apr 07, 2011 No Comments by

Reposted here from the Burlington Free Press.


The nuclear crisis in Japan reminds us of the urgent need to develop renewable energy sources. In Vermont, though, controversy rages over which types of renewable energy development are appropriate. But this debate is actually moot. It doesn’t matter whether one believes that wind turbines work or not, or are acceptable on ridge lines.


It is a fact of physics that ridge line wind in the eastern United States has very little potential to replace coal and nuclear. I calculate straightforwardly that, assuming a 30 percent capacity factor for wind generation, and using the state-by-state wind resource estimates by the Department of Energy (available at www.windpoweringamerica.gov/wind_maps.asp) that if all of the onshore commercially viable wind resource of the eastern United States were developed, only about 17 gigawatts of conventional generation could be offset at best, and probably much less in practice.


Compare this with the fact that U.S. demand for electricity is equivalent to 450 gigawatts of continually operating generation (which follows directly from the fact that the United States consumes approximately 4 trillion kilowatt hours per year). Moreover, according to the EPA, electricity accounts for only about one third of our greenhouse gas emissions. Putting this all together, this implies Eastern wind resources could only decrease U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.3 percent at best.


Only a massive expansion of solar generation has the potential at present to significantly reduce conventional generation in the eastern United States with local renewable energy generation. Wind power from offshore or from the Midwest might also contribute significantly in principle, but it is not certain that either of these resources will be environmentally or economically acceptable.


We would be much better off focusing on ramping up solar now, and accelerating its cost reduction in the process, rather than pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into an approach that will mainly just devastate our mountaintop ecosystems, our eco-tourism based economy, and divide our closely knit communities into warring camps.


Ben Luce is an assistant professor of physics, sustainability studies department of natural sciences, at Lyndon State College.

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