Thursday, August 30, 2007

The further adventures of Contextor...

Born on a strange planet in rural Illinois - the very edge of known space - this mysterious stranger wages a never ending battle to place misleading statistics in context.

Today's Episode: Wind Farms and Homes

One day, Contextor noticed whenever wind farms are mentioned, the most prominent number used to describe their size is "how many homes their electricity would power":
Power firm E.ON said the development five miles (8km) off the Humber estuary would be capable of providing electricity to almost 200,000 homes. [More]
Wind power plants, or wind farms as they are sometimes called, are clusters of wind machines used to produce electricity. A wind farm usually has dozens of wind machines scattered over a large area. The world's largest wind farm, the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center in Texas, has 421 wind turbines that generate enough electricity to power 230,000 homes per year. [More]

"Gosh!" Contextor thought, trying to imagine what 230,000 houses would look like. That's mucho electricity.

Isn't it?
In 2005, wind machines in the United States generated a total of 17.8 billion kWh per year of electricity, enough to serve more than 1.6 million households. This is enough electricity to power a city the size of Chicago, but it is only a small fraction of the nation's total electricity production, about 0.4 percent. The amount of electricity generated from wind has been growing fast in recent years, tripling since 1998.
Contextor was puzzled why the overall impact of wind energy was not more clearly spelled out. Doesn't it imply we can just windmill the US to plentiful cheap energy like the good old days of hydroelectric development?

Contextor brooded and decided one reason could be the economics are struggling with the virtue of the idea. Wind energy just seems so wonderful it just has to work.
Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of putting turbines on Nantucket Sound, as proposed by a private company. Though costs have come down to 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour from 6.1 per KWH in 1999, the technology is still not balancing out as cost-effective for some areas. Last week, Long Island scratched its plans to build a wind energy center in the Atlantic when costs were running up toward $800 million. Projects in windy Texas have also been scrapped over cost considerations.

But advocates often tout renewable energy not for its economics, but because it's virtuous. Many of those who are willing to impose the costs of various environmental schemes on other Americans based on "ideals" suddenly have started looking more closely at the tradeoffs when something they hold dear would have to be sacrificed, like a nice view. Wind energy is never going to be anything but a bit player in meeting the world's energy needs. The Nantucket tempest is useful mainly as a real-world test of whether some of the world's most privileged liberals wear their ideals all the time, or only when it suits them. [More]
Contextor looked hard at the glowing press releases and the total energy statistics. "Hmm, wind energy looks like a good thing, but a very high-cost, low-yield good thing to Contextor"

Stay tuned for our next semi-exciting episode wherein Contextor muses: "Why does Contextor refer to Contextor in the third person? Could Contextor have a Pronoun Problem?"

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