Is Wind Energy Making a Dent in New York’s Carbon pollution?

By Keith Kloor | November 29, 2013 7:41 am

Guest post by Candace Sheppard

Wind energy production in New York State is expected to double in the next five years.
Wind energy production in New York State is expected to double in the next five years. Photo by U.S. Department of Energy.

A day after a study was released last week about wind turbines killing more than 600,000 bats in the United States in 2012, the Environment America Research Policy Center released its second report about wind energy’s growing environmental and health benefits and the rapid rise of wind energy in the United States.

Maybe the timely release of the report was a bit of damage control. Some additional good news about renewable energy came from the group Environment New York, which asserted, in a separate report, that wind power was providing “huge environmental benefits for the state.” In its news release, the group claimed that wind energy allows New York state to offset “more than 1, 834,576 metric tons of climate-altering carbon pollution which is the equivalent of taking 382,203 cars off the road.” To put it another way, the group says recent increases in wind energy have helped New Yorkers avoid “1,724 tons of smog-causing nitrogen oxides which contributes to asthma, and 2,130 tons of sulfur dioxide which is a major component of acid rain.”

Those numbers sound impressive given that New York State, according to the report, is now the 14th windiest state in the U.S. as of 2012.

However, some context is in order. All told, wind energy  provides about two percent of the state’s electricity, playing a very small role in New York’s renewable energy mix, which includes solar, hydropower, biofuel, and geothermal energy.  It’s also worth pointing out that, according to the state’s Department of Energy Conservation, renewable energy only accounts for 11 percent of New York’s energy needs.

“Wind energy is not a gigantic portion of New York State’s energy mix, but it is growing rapidly,” says Eric Whelan of Environment New York. The group’s report demonstrates “the environmental benefits that we could capture if we move forward in building more clean energy,” Whelan adds.

Those benefits would be greater if there was more investment in the nascent wind industry, say renewable energy advocates. Indeed, the Environment New York report comes just as federal tax credit incentives for wind energy are due to expire at the end of the year. But even if wind energy production is on pace to double in five years in New York, as the report predicts, would the environmental benefits be anything near what nuclear energy has done to reduce emissions in the state?

The CASEnergy Coalition says that nuclear energy already provides nearly “31 percent of the state’s electricity, and nuclear energy facilities in the state supply 60 percent of New York’s emission-free power.” Compared to wind energy emission offsets, nuclear energy in New York has offsets of sulfur dioxides, nitrogen dioxides and carbon emissions that are almost 9 to 14 times greater.

But nuclear also has some big environmental negatives. For example, Whelan points out that “wind and solar don’t require massive water consumption like nuclear power.” The Environmental Protection Agency says that the downside to nuclear power plants using large quantities of water from lakes and rivers is the impact on marine life. Then there’s the nuclear waste issue which has yet to be resolved.

No energy source has zero impacts. Both wind and nuclear power affect ecosystems: the former kills bats (and birds) and the latter may be hazardous to the health of future generations. Which of these two energy sources people prefer probably depends on which environmental benefits they like best–or which risks posed by each energy source they are more willing to accept.

  • harrywr2

    “Which of these two energy sources people prefer probably depends on which environmental benefits they like best”

    No…wind energy systems(systems to convert wind into useful work) have been around since the 9th century.

    So far no one has managed to get them to work in a cost effective manner when the wind is not blowing or when the wind is blowing exceptionally hard.

    As far as wind not consuming water resources…I can say with certainty that since the wind and the rain go together like a horse and carriage…the amount of hydro resource that gets wasted due to lack of demand increases with the more wind power one installs.

    The wind farms in New York State are in rural upper New York state which is predominantly served by HydroQuebec.

    I would guess the wind farms are displacing quite a bit of clean Canadian Hydro Power due to the inadequate transmission lines to urban NYC.

    The question isn’t an ‘either/or’ nuclear,hydro,wind,solar,gas,coal.

    Anyone who is posing that question doesn’t understand the nature of electricity supply and demand.

    The question is what combination of energy generating technologies can be employed in a manner that produces a positive cost/benefit relationship for society as a whole.

    If my entire energy system is reliant on wind and hydro, eventually I am going to get an extended heat wave/cold snap where I won’t have hydro or wind. Energy delivery problems on abnormally cold days or abnormally hot days usually results in ‘excess deaths’.

    Wind energy advocates will claim that wind can be effectively load balanced with hydro at a rate of 3 parts wind to 1 part hydro. The experience in the US Pacific Northwest is that over generation events begin occurring at 1 part wind, 3 parts hydro.

  • rucio

    As harrywr2 notes, decisions about energy sources more crucially depend on weighing the benefits against the impacts. Since wind must always rely on the presence of other sources to balance its variability and intermittency, its impacts are always an addition, not an alternative, and its benefits must always remain minimal.

  • jh

    if wind energy production is on pace to double in five years…

    Consumption growth (0.5-1.0% annually nation wide) will consume all of that growth and the proportion of wind power in NY’s mix will actually shrink.

    Now just imagine if, through some unforeseeable and bizarre set of events, electric cars became both economic and popular during the next five years!

  • J M

    I think a far more important consideration is the effect on the whole energy system.

    German Agora Energiewende project has published their insights into renewable energy future. One striking conclusion they make is that wind and solar-based electricity production system requires that we get rid of traditional energy markets altogether:

    http://www.agora-energiewende.org/topics/the-energiewende/detail-view/article/12-insights-on-the-energiewende/
    It is simple: Since large-scale wind and solar production drive electricity price to zero or negative when it shines or blows, they cannot earn money on the markets and must be subsidized. Rest of the power production acts as capacity markets for renewables and also receives subsidies.
    Of course, this is Germany with no nuclear in the future and little hydro.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Los Angeles’ 209,000 street lights use 197 million kWh/yr. 26.5 million US streetlights use 25 BILLION kWh/yr. If you want to save the Earth and all its innocent babies, ban street lighting planetwide. There is no reason to kill bats, birds, vultures, hawks, and song birds other than Enviro-whiner opportunism.

  • docscience

    In Germany, anti-nuclear “greens” are building 7.3 GW of new coal fired power plants to replace nuclear plants.

    New York’s total peak wind capacity is 1.4 GW.

  • dljvjbsl

    The government of Ontario has created an energy regime in which wnd is heavily subsidized. Wind energy must be accepted into the grid and paid for even if there is a current surplus of power. As a result Ontario has a chronic surplus of electricity and must sell power to NY and other jurisdictions at distressed prices. Oftentimes Ontario has to accept a negative price and pay these jurisdictions to take the power off its hands. Ontario electricity ratepayers are paying daily subsidies amounting to over a million dollars to the ratepayers in these jurisdictions. NY electrcity markets are being subsidized by the people of Ontario

    • dljvjbsl

      As well. Al Gore recently visited Ontario to congratulate it on being the first jurisdiction to eliminate coal power plants. The emphasis on these congratulations would be on the wind and solar initiatives that are producing the unneeded power that has to be sold at distressed rates thus subsidizing NY state consumers among others. The real technology that enabled Ontario to eliminate coal power was nuclear. Ontario’s nuclear plants were refurbished and now supply the bulk of Ontario power followed by hydroelectricity.

      The interesting thing about this is the contrast between Ontario’s real solution to its carbon problem (nuclear) and the solution that is used for political spin (wind, solar). Nuclear power is the green technology that solved the carbon and smog problems in Ontario. Wind and solar are the technologies that are causing massive increases in the electricity rates in Ontario to no purpose. However NY state consumers are benefiting from this through reduced electricity costs.

      Ah, the benefits of green politics

      • bobito

        BUT WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING!!!!! [sarc]

  • http://coldair.luftonline.net/ Scott Luft

    Here’s something to consider: over the first 9 months of 2012 New York state imported 14TWh from Ontario and Quebec – so mostly hydro, with a healthy helping of nuclear, a bit of wind and a smidgeon of methane.
    I suspect that’s more than the 11% figure for renewables in the article
    New York state (the mix for New York city may be very different) is doing well, for now, in not producing enough electricity to meet its demand.
    It seems to me this article likely understates the amount of clean energy on its grid out of nationalism – if it’s clean energy you want, the wind in New York isn’t where you’d look (Quebec is)

    • dljvjbsl

      Quebec has massive untapped reserves of hydroelectric power. it offered to supply Ontario with all that it could use. instead Ontario decided to pass a Green Energy Act that that mandated wind and solar in order to kickstart a domestic manufacturing industry in these. The act provided for feed in tariffs for these sources and required that these sources be taken into the grid even in times of surplus. Ontario went from being a jurisdiction that could attract industry with low power costs to one that has among the highest costs in North America. The domestic green power manufacturing industry never happened and shows no signs of happening. However the large costs to consumers to subsidize this nonexistent industry still exist and are still killing jobs in Ontario.

      Ontario could have eliminated coal power with the simple solution of buying hydroelectricity cheaply from Quebec. Its politicians believed the green energy hype and chose otherwise. Ontario consumers are paying large sums to subsidize green energy that is in turn sold to NY, Michigan and even Quebec at a loss NY consumers should send a hearty resolution of thanks to the Ontario politicians who passed the laws that provide them with cheap subsidized green energy. Sometimes Ontario even ahs to pay NY to take this energy.

    • harrywr2

      Large scale hydro doesn’t count as renewable.

      In Washington State our electricity production was already at 87% ‘fossil free’….so we excluded nuclear and hydro so we could spend a big pile of money on windmills so we could make a 20% renewable by 2020 goal. Now we’ve got to spend to convert our old broken down coal fired plant to natural gas so we have ‘backup’ for when the wind doesn’t blow.

      Home,home on the range…where gigawatt class windfarms play…where frequetly is heard…an irritating whir…and electricity is expensive all day.

      • dljvjbsl

        Why isn’t hydro renewable. it is simply solar and will renew as long as it rains

        • http://coldair.luftonline.net/ Scott Luft

          In the case of the northwest, to sell wind and solar capacity
          In the case of the U.S. northeast, to sell wind and solar and eliminate Quebec/Canada’s comparative advantage.

  • Eli Rabett

    Dear Keith,

    While hippie punching is such fun, it would help if you learned how to use the Google. If you had, you would have discovered that the principle threat to bats is white nose disease caused by a fungus, and that the number of bats in the world is large. For example 1.5 million bats live under a single bridge in Austin.

    Moreover, perhaps you might want to look up how many birds are killed by cats each year, or how many bats by ingestion of insecticides.

    But no, Eli would never expect you to pass up the hippie punching.

  • dljvjbsl

    I just thought that people would find it interesting that between 2 and 3AM on December 5th, the electricity ratepayers of Ontario paid wind energy producers about $150,000 for the energy that they produced. However at that time, Ontario had a surplus of energy and had to find other jurisdictions to take the energy off its hands. Ontario had to PAY electric utilities in NY and Michigan about $9,000 to take the surplus energy.

    So the ratepayers of Ontario had first to pay for unwanted energy production and then pay to have the energy dissipated. This is not an uncommon occurrence. The economic benefits of green energy for all to see

  • George Lerner

    Light Water Reactors are not the only type of “nuclear power”.

    “wind and solar don’t require massive water consumption like nuclear power” — Molten Salt Reactors are cooled by fluoride salts. No water, so no high pressures, no steam containment building, no loss of coolant accidents. MSR high temperature (up to 950C with tested materials, higher if new ones are tested) can directly desalinate water. MSR can operate in deserts, or be deployed to disaster areas for electric and water generation.

    “there’s the nuclear waste issue which has yet to be resolved” — LWR uses 35,000 kg fuel to make 1 gigawatt-year electricity, leaving 35,000 kg to store for 100,000+ years.

    MSR uses 1,000 kg to make the same electricity, since fission products that block fission in LWR, are easily removed in MSR. Molten fuel doesn’t have fuel rods, or fuel pellets, so doesn’t have pellet damage. That 1,000 kg can be thorium or waste from LWR. It is turned into 830 kg that needs 10 years storage, and 170 kg that needs 350 years storage, and only a few kg of actinides. Those actinides can be put into a fast-spectrum reactor to fission, or can be stored separately (but a few kg not 35,000 kg)

    See http://liquidfluoridethoriumreactor.glerner.com/ for clear descriptions how they work, what is needed to build them, how they are safer and less expensive, and how they can generate electricity costing less than coal.

  • http://www.friv2friv3friv4.com/ friv 2 friv 3 friv 4

    Consumption growth (0.5-1.0% annually nation wide) will consume all of
    that growth and the proportion of wind power in NY’s mix will actually
    shrink. http://www.friv2friv3friv4.com/

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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