Wind To EPA: What About Our Carbon Cutting?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent the natural gas industry a lovely bouquet on Wednesday, in the form of a press release headlined, “Carbon pollution from power plants declines 10 percent from 2010 due to growing use of natural gas.”

That left wind power, which like natural gas has grown quickly as a source of electrical generation in recent years, feeling just a bit snubbed. “I was a little surprised we weren’t mentioned,” American Wind Energy Association senior analyst Michael Goggin said in an interview. “We’ve been a consistent contributor to reducing emissions.”

wind turbines

image via Shutterstock

Goggin argued that peering beyond the 2010-2012 time frame that the EPA analyzed helps to highlight the reliability of wind in the battle to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and shows the long-term risk of relying too heavily on natural gas.

“Preliminary EIA data for 2013 shows that some of the previous emissions reductions from switching from coal to gas, which contributed to the reduction cited by EPA, have actually subsided,” Goggin said. “Electric sector CO2 emissions were up about 2 percent for the first seven months of 2013, compared to the same period in 2012.”

That’s because the price of natural gas, after falling off a cliff, began to rise and power producers upped their coal use. Wind as a fuel, meanwhile, remained stable in price – free, as always – and in demand.

Again using EIA data, Goggin said wind generation year-to-date was up 17.7 million megawatt-hours in 2013 compared to 2012. Meanwhile, generation from coal was up 65.5 million MWh and gas was down 101.9 million MWh.

So how much of a GHG-cutting factor is wind? Goggin said that based on the more than 60 gigawatts of installed capacity the industry had in place at the end of 2012, he figures wind is reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by close to 100 million tons a year – around 4.5 percent of total electrical sector emissions in 2012.

Of course, wind critics have long tried to argue that wind, because of its intermittent generation, isn’t the GHG cutter that it claims to be. They’ve said that having fossil fuel plants cycling up and down to fill in for coming-and-going wind power cancels out much if not all of its GHG emissions benefits.

But Goggin pointed to a recent update of the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study, by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which he said showed that cycling reduced the carbon cutting benefits of wind (and solar) by only 0.2 percent, even at high renewable-energy penetration rates.

“The data is clear that it’s a myth that cycling reduces efficiencies,” Goggin said, “and left no doubt that a megawatt-hour of wind energy produces a megawatt-hour of emissions benefits.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Tom Gray

    A recent study from Spain also confirms wind power’s effectiveness in reducing CO2 emissions. See http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=wind-power-proves-effective-co2-saver . Regards, Tom Gray, communications consultant to American Wind Energy Association

  • debra haddix

    Co2 levels were down but forgot to mention that methane levels were up, which is worse.

    • Pete Danko

      Actually, the EPA report isn’t just for CO2. The facilities reported direct emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and flourinated gases. The figures were then converted to a CO2 equivalent, which accounts for the varying global warming potential of different gases. So each metric ton of methane released was counted as 23 metric tons of CO2 released.

  • Lononriver

    Some times you need to read closely. Those that profit from the myth of wind, use the term “installed capacity”, because wind does not actually produce much in terms of dollars spent. If the federal government were not supporting wind the industry would cease to exist. I have attached the BPA wed site to actual usage it changes every 5 minutes the line at the very bottom next to zero is how much wind power is being generated. http://transmission.bpa.gov/Business/Operations/Wind/baltwg.aspx

    • Pete Danko

      Thanks for the news bulletin on wind’s intermittent generation, Lonoriver. I mean, geez, pardon the sarcasm but I’ve only written about it a million times. Yes, yes, wind has a percentage capacity factor in the low to mid 30s (on average). That is it’s nature. But quite obviously more capacity leads to more generation. Which is why, as the story notes, wind generation is up 17.7 million MWh in the first seven months of 2013 over the same period in 2012; why wind power currently contributes more than 12% of total electricity generation in nine states (with three of these states above 20%); and why wind provides more than 4% of total U.S. electricity supply. Yes, wind power is assisted by the PTC, but do you think other forms of energy aren’t and haven’t been assisted by government policy? If so, you are deluded. Furthermore, wind has none of the social costs of fossil fuels. So it gets a 2.3 cents/kWh boost — well worth it, I’d argue.

      • jeffhre

        Hey Pete, after so much and constant haranguing and harassment, you’re not beginning to take that rhetoric personally are you? LOL, good for you, keep up the good fight. Interesting how people get so blown out of shape over diversifying energy production beyond simply burning stuff. You’d figure changes in the energy mix are a direct attack on their worldview or something 🙂

        • Pete Danko

          Thanks for the encouragement! I do welcome discussion and disagreement, but it kills me that somebody thinks they’re telling me something I didn’t know when they say that installed capacity and generation are two different things. Duh! (BTW, if you click on that BPA link now you can see that BPA has been getting more than 3 GW of wind all day today!).