Wind and Solar: Promises, Problems and Possibilities

By: Frank Giacalone

In my first blog I briefly mentioned how relying on the “promise” of wind and solar energy is unrealistic. Here I’ll detail some of the challenges.

Supply and demand

There are several issues related to the supply and demand of wind and solar. The first is pretty obvious: The sun shines in the daytime, but peak consumption is between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., when workers come home and crank up their power use.

Similarly, midday wind in Texas drops off and then often increases at night. Again, when you need power the most, the output is the least.

The U.S. plains – from North Dakota straight on down to Texas – offer us some of the best wind and solar generation in the U.S. Texas gives us great sun and, in some locations, gives us both wind and solar. North Dakota is notorious for its wind.

The problem is not the potential supply; the problem is that where this power is generated is not where the demand is.

To be fair, it’s working pretty well in Texas, or at least making advances. There number of wind and solar megawatts on the Texas grid is growing.

However, we need to be able to transmit this energy to where the demand is high. We need to provide it to the residents and businesses in Chicago, and Atlanta, and other points around the country.

The intentions are good, but generation for wind and solar tends to be where people don’t live.

Which brings us to other obstacles: using up another valuable resource, and then transmitting the power to where it’s most needed.

Land and distance

You need 10 acres for every wind turbine that generates two megawatts. This means for 200 megawatts of wind power, we sacrifice 2000 acres to other land uses. You need six acres for every one megawatt of solar power. This means for 200 megawatts of that power we then sacrifice 1200 acres to other land uses. This is not very efficient.

Then, the decay of produced energy becomes a function of distance, and that distance comes at a cost of losing 10 to 15 percent of your energy. Getting our plentiful wind energy from the North Dakota plains to where it’s needed, like to Chicago, requires high-voltage transmission. The problems surrounding this are numerous.

First, there’s the unsightly aspect. No one wants to see them, and no one wants to live near them.

With wind generation you will also frequently hear about the “acceptable kill” rate of birds that are killed by wind energy. It’s an industry term; wind generators are required to perform avian and riparian flocking and transit studies to calculate expected bird, bat and migratory bird kills annually as part of the permitting process.

Of course, many bird and nature lovers would disagree that there is an acceptable rate.

I’m a big believer that consumer demand drives technology, and as that new technology is deployed, it improves over time. So, it’s possible that technology may in the future take care of aesthetic, footprint and wildlife issues with energy transmission. But that’s not the case today.

To sum up these issues, recognize that the U.S. electric system is 180,000 megawatts, coast-to-coast. To replace this system with wind only, we would sacrifice 1.8 million acres. To replace with solar we would sacrifice 1,080 million acres. In other words, we would sacrifice the state of Rhode Island 2.5 times for wind or 1.5 times for solar. This is known as energy production density.

Finally, we get to the final and currently most stubbornly entrenched hurdle: regulations.

States don’t play nice

In addition to a public distaste for large power infrastructure, power transmission is limited by multi-state regulatory restrictions that make ultra-high voltage transmission extremely difficult. For example, you cannot transmit power in Arkansas unless you have a generator in Arkansas. 

A coast-to-coast integrated grid does not exist; instead, we have disconnected grids divided by region. Managing flows between these disparate grids is extremely challenging – not just the political landscape, but the actual landscape: landowners who don’t want the transmission infrastructure on their property, or those who lose out on crop production. Each acre holding a turbine loses productive use. The landowner typically gets royalty payments for leasing the land, but in some years this may not make economic sense.

Clean the slate

The bottom line is that anyone who says they can fix climate and energy issues with the wave of a solar or wind wand is very naïve. There are physical, political, regulatory and environmental challenges that confront the competing incentives held by industry and government players.

The nationwide demands are huge, and transitioning the system while maintaining the obligation for on-demand power requires a solution that meets those challenges and constraints that have been set upon the industry, unless and until those constraints can be removed or renegotiated.