Wind Power’s CO2-Cutting Impact Disputed

Inconsistency of supply is one of the biggest drawbacks of renewables such as wind and solar. Put simply: the wind doesn’t blow all day, and the sun doesn’t shine at night. Now scientists are saying that the sporadic supply of renewables coupled with an inefficient power grid means that declines in carbon emissions, in real terms, are not eliminated in proportion to the addition of wind power.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory used computer models to try to determine how adding wind turbines to the grid system might impact overall emissions in Illinois. According to their report, adjusting for wind power adds inefficiencies that cancel out some of the CO2 reduction – a conclusion that the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) disputed.


image via Gemma Renewables

The problem, according to he Argonne research, is not the clean energy itself but inefficiencies endemic to fossil fuel-burning power plants and how these inefficiencies are impacted by sporadic supply. Because the wind doesn’t blow all the time, operators have to turn on these older plants to keep up with demand. Lauren Valentino, who authored the report, said in a statement: “Turning these large plants on and off is inefficient. A certain percentage of the energy goes into just heating up the boilers again.”

According to Valentino the fossil fuel-burning power plants are also less efficient when not operating at full capacity.

Illinois in particular gets high winds at night, the report’s co-author Audun Botterud said, when demand is low. To accommodate these sudden bursts of wind, large, inflexible power plants had to be turned off and then on again, wasting power in the process. The solution Botterud proposes to the problem of sporadic supply is one that readers of this site will be familiar with. Botterud said a way to store large-scale amounts of energy created from wind needs to be found. This problem is being tackled elsewhere in the Argonne lab, Botterud said, but in the meantime smart grids can help by leveling out demand.

However, the AWEA, the U.S. wind industry’s big trade group, said the Argonne study was “a theoretical exercise” that “had “little to no bearing on how the actual utility system works.”

Among other flaws it alleged, the AWEA said the Argonne modeling treated Illinois as a grid unto itself, but Illinois power plants actually feed into two massive interstate electric utility systems covering parts of 23 states and Manitoba. This, the AWEA said, led the study to assume “that at high levels of wind energy output in Illinois, grid operators would be forced to reduce the output of the state’s very large nuclear fleet, thereby resulting in no emissions savings.”  In reality, however, the nukes “would likely never see their power output reduced, because that wind and nuclear power would be shipped out of state on the large power lines,” the organization said.

The study was a collaboration between researchers at Argonne and summer interns Valentino and Viviana Valenzuela, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Georgia Institute of Technology respectively. It  was published in Environmental Science & TechnologyOther Argonne co-authors are Zhi Zhou and Guenter Conzelmann.

illinois wind power

image via Shutterstock

Of course all this being said, the biggest block on reducing carbon emissions in Illinois, like elsewhere, is a lack of investment in renewables. Like many states, Illinois has pledged to get 25 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2025. Yet it currently lags a long way behind its potential. According to 2010 figures, the state got 2.2 percent of its energy from wind.

 A report issued by a trio of wind energy associations suggests that if the state of Illinois were to develop all 3,200 megawatts of currently permitted wind projects, it could potentially generate as many as 20,000 jobs and close to $1 billion in wages. The report from the Illinois Wind Energy Association (IWEA) said the state currently has about 2000 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity, but is in a position to generate much more.

Paul Willis has been journalist for a decade. Starting out in Northern England, from where he hails, he worked as a reporter on regional papers before graduating to the cut-throat world of London print media. On the way he spent a year as a correspondent in East Africa, writing about election fraud, drought and an Ethiopian version of American Idol. Since moving to America three years ago he has worked as a freelancer, working for and major newspapers in Britain, Australia and North America. He writes on subjects as diverse as travel, media ethics and human evolution. He lives in New York where, in spite of the car fumes and the sometimes eccentric driving habits of the yellow cabs, he rides his bike everywhere.


  • Reply June 3, 2012

    john whitehurst

    I m not against wind energy or alternative sources. But the truth has bot been told about theses alternative recources. Wind does not blow al the time fact. Energy is a demand use syatem no storage capacity.
    Article says 20000 jobs 1 Billion payrool; but no mention of cost to finish the wind alternative source for energy. This is where the big lies are. What does it cost to install a wind generator? How long does it take to pay for it self from revenue.
    what does it cost for a grid tie in.
    so many questions and the cost I do not see mentioned any where.
    No of this stuff is effecient when one weights the cost factors for it all.
    All I ever here is it will be cheaper. Folks I live in Europe it is not cheaper, taxes make it seem cheaper because of the support like ethonal has in the US.
    Once the tax support runs out people will start to see the real cost/ Ethanol productioninthe US they receive 45 cents US for every gallon they produce so wher is ir chaeper. Only at the pump. Not really the price of grains in the US are soaring because of this artificial price support, same with Wind energy once the tax dollars and  Euros run out it willl all go away;wind energy….The people doing it ar einit for the tax subsidy and tax deductions not for our benefit. Do some reaading real reading forget Al Gore whois a Multi Millionare becaus eof his bull   shit movies and lectures.. Do a check on ores Education a walking idiot

    • Reply June 24, 2012


      He graduated cum laude and went to Vietnam, unlike a number of prominent politicians who ended up as his political opponents. Don’t Republicans love America enough to fight for it?
      He did drop out of law school and wasn’t very good at science & math but knew it was important enough to the future to actively promote R&D.
      So unlike some of today’s members of Congress, he didn’t dismiss science just because he wasn’t good at it.

  • Reply June 4, 2012

    El Rucio

    Indeed, this was “a theoretical exercise”, as the AWEA noted. Looking at the larger grid and actual experience, wind’s CO2-cutting impact is likely to be even less.

  • Reply June 7, 2012


    So because wind does not completely eliminate all CO2 in the **current** grid then… what is the point of this article?

    A 99% solution is clearly better than no solution at all. Why would that even need stating?!

    Wind mitigates CO2 emissions. That is proven beyond any doubt. Deploy more wind and we keep reducing CO2 emissions. Deploy solar, biomass, geothermal, biogas, etc. and eventually all fossil plant will be gone. It’s not exactly a difficult concept to grasp.

    • Reply June 7, 2012


      Thanks for your note, Tom. The point of the article is to share research — and criticism of the research — in order to better understand the cost-benefit equation for wind power. You’re right that wind mitigates CO2 emissions, and that’s a powerful benefit. But the degree to which it does so is an important consideration as well. Understanding that might help us see ways to boost wind’s benefits — by investing in better grid infrastructure, as the article alludes to, for instance. Or it could point us toward less expensive ways to achieve similar or even better results. There are huge economic and societal implications to how we proceed in tackling the challenge of building a clean energy future and if we don’t proceed thoughtfully and based on rigorous science, we could really f*** it up. I don’t know if you have checked out any of the “Do the Math” pieces by the physicist Tom Murphy that we have run on EarthTechling, but they are highly instructive on this point, emphasizing the necessity that our approach to clean energy be extremely thoughtful. Murphy wrote something that I think is really profound in his essay on tidal power — in a way it answers your question of “what is the point of this article?”:

      “To be clear, I’m not trying to discourage pursuit of any viable alternative to fossil fuels. What I do want to discourage is the sense of comfort we get because we’ve heard of lots of solutions to our energy problems (tidal, wave, geothermal, energy from trash, etc.). When we imagine a smorgasbord of options in front of us, we think we’ll never go hungry. But when the plate arrives and it’s a raisin here, a crumb of bread there, and a speck of cheese there, the variety alone is no longer a source of satisfaction. It’s happened to me in shi-shi restaurants.”As I said in the post on the meaning of sustainability, it is as unlikely that a hundred 1% solutions will satisfy us as it is that we could strap enough gerbils together to make a serviceable pony. We need a few solid, scalable, eliable solutions to fall back on. And tidal is not one of those. It’s more like a decoration than a foundation. Let’s use it where we can, but I don’t want anybody sleeping better.” — Tom Murphy

      Pete Danko
      Managing Editor, EarthTechling

      • Reply June 7, 2012


        I find it curious you lecture on the importance of “Do the math” but there is none in this article. Nothing. Just some vague rhetoric that will be embraced by the deniers:

        > “adjusting for wind power adds inefficiencies that cancel out some of the CO2 reduction”

        “Some”. A little digging shows that what you describe as “some” is totally trivial:

        * The Facts About Wind Energy and Emissions. Anti-wind groups are attempting to defy the laws of physics with their claims. “A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) released in January 2010 found drastic reductions in both fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions as wind energy is added to the grid.”

        * The amount of fossil fuels “saved” or “avoided” by the wind turbines may be estimated at around 90-95 percent of the fuel that ordinarily would be required to generate the same amount of electricity at fossil-fuel generating plants in the absence of the wind turbines.

        So, this article will now be used by the deniers to claim that wind power does not mitigate CO2 – just keep an eye on WattsUpWithThat or ClimateDepot to see how they distort it.

        You’re repeating the game played by the MSM in the climate change ‘debate’ – report trivial issues as significant discussions. The deniers love it, the uninformed become confused.

        This is not an “extremely thoughtful” piece, it’s lazy journalism that creates controversy where no legitimate controversy exists. Still, it’s good for generating clicks, amiright?

        • Reply June 7, 2012


          You raise a good point about how issues are discussed in the media, Tom, and we try to do what we can to help readers find their way through the nonsense. But I think it’s important to note that this research came from the Argonne National Laboratory, not from Heartland or some other anti-clean energy organization. I don’t think we can ignore challenging science just because some people out there might misuse it. What we can do is try to understand the research and try to put it in context. That’s why we gave the AWEA comeback significant and extensive play in the article (I can point to other news organizations that did not) and it’s why we included the final two paragraphs of the article, which state that “the biggest roadblock to reducing carbon emissions in Illinois … is a lack of investment in renewable energy.”

          Again, I appreciate your concern about how news like this might be misused. (As evidence of my own sensitivity to that issue, I humbly refer you to this article of mine on the winds-birds issue: And I respect the passion you bring to defending wind power. At the same time, I think your characterization of this article is unfair, as is your characterization of our intentions, especially given the totality of the article and our extensive coverage of wind power over the years.



          • June 8, 2012



            Thanks for your replies. Apologies for the snark, generated by frustration at how I know this will be twisted by the disinformers.

            I am not questioning the source of your information. I am criticising how you have reported it.

            For example, you could have titled this piece, ‘Inefficient Fossil Power Reduces Benefits of Wind Power’.

            Same story, different angle that shifts the blame where it belongs – on to fossil fuel.

            Whether it is a conscious decision or not, we are all using rhetoric to convey a message. If you accept the science on climate change then it is a moral imperative to advocate for a rapid end to fossil fuels. Therefore, we should choose rhetoric and messaging to achieve that. Blaming wind power for the inherent weaknesses of fossil thermal plant is not the way to achieve the desired goal.

            All the best.

          • June 8, 2012


            Fair point, Tom — one I will keep in mind.



  • Reply June 7, 2012


    The claims being made of CO2 savings from the wind agencies are based on direct conversion of wind energy produced, and these figures are not actual measurements of CO2 emissions lessened, so they are patently untrue, and quite frankly fraudulent.

    A few wind turbines (and solar) can reduce CO2, but the more wind turbines you have, the less CO2 they save. The figure of CO2 saved falls off dramatically after you exceed 5% of grid contribution from wind. A 5% contribution reduces CO2 emissions by about 4%, but at 16% contribution the figure falls to only 2%.

    This is because wind and solar are so intermittent that fossil fuel generators have to cycle up an down to maintain supply and to stabilise the grid, meaning that the generators are not running at their efficient design speed.

    This is explained much better by Jo Nova here;

    The last thing you want for power generation is intermittent energy, such as from wind and solar. That this has been known about for a long time shows that the people promoting wind and solar are not interested in reducing levels of CO2.

  • Reply June 21, 2012


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  • Reply June 24, 2012


    Nobody is mentioning ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT.

    For every action, there is a reaction. Is the ‘wind’ going the same speed on the outbound side of the wind generator as the inbound?

    Anyone ever hear of “weather patterns”?

    “Trivial” you say?  I think not

    Not to mention they REALLY spruce up a picturesque veiw, or that perfect sunset. Everyone should have one in their backyard.

    Why are these facts just ignored?

    It’s like electric cars… Gasoline bill zeros out and the electric bill skyrockets, and the Power plants just consume more oil and spew out more emmissions for ZERO postives and, probably worse off then gasoline… Renewable? What’s going to run the power plants?

    • Reply June 24, 2012


      There are pluses and minuses to all forms of power generation. They haven’t been “just ignored.” They’ve been studied extensively, and continue to be studied, and on balance the impacts of renewables — with the possible exception of corn-based ethanol — have been found to be far fewer and less detrimental than fossil fuels. In fact, on the matter of electric cars, the Union of Concerned Scientists just released a big report assessing the environmental impact of electric cars vs. gasoline-powered cars. The conclusion was that even if an electric car were powered entirely by electricity from a coal-fired power plant (in actually, coal provides a little over 43 percent of U.S. electricity), it would have the same environmental impact as a gasoline powered car that got 30 mpg. One powered entirely from renewables, meanwhile — like wind — would have the environmental impact of a gasoline-powered car that got 3,900 mpg. 

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