Wind power is gas power, and comes with pollution

According to Ontario’s long term energy plan, in 2030 the province will get 26.3 billion kilowatt-hours from wind, solar, and bio-energy. Most of that will be from wind, which according to historical statistics has a 33 percent capacity factor (meaning that over an average year, all wind generators produce only 33 percent of what they could have produced if they were producing at their rated capacity). To get 26.3 billionn kWh, then, Ontario will need around 10,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity.

If you think this seems an odd way to plan a power system, you are right. Wind is not dispatchable; the electricity system operator cannot call the operator of a wind turbine and say “I’ll need 50 MW of power in five minutes, so start ramping up.” Well, he actually can call and request exactly that, but there is a 67 percent chance the wind operator will say “sorry, the wind conditions are such that I cannot fulfill your request.” i.e., the wind isn’t blowing.

This points up a central reality of power systems whose planners want to add a lot of wind capacity. In the words of Dr. Ulrich Decher, a nuclear engineer with long experience in the industry, wind turbines “do not replace the need for any other generators. All the generators that are needed without windmills are needed with windmills.”

Comparisons are often made of how many windmills it would take to eliminate the need for a conventional power plant. These comparisons are totally meaningless because windmills do not add any megawatts to the grid when the wind is not blowing. Windmills must be paired with some other power plant or energy storage device (such as pumped hydro storage) to add capacity to the grid.—Dr. Ulrich Decher (source: ANS Nuclear Café)

This means that when the Ontario system operator is forced to turn to another power generator to meet the provincial demand—not if, but when—it is almost certain that that other generator will run on natural gas.

This is because the province plans to phase out coal-fired generation by 2014. Which raises a critical issue that is directly related to the reason for the coal phase-out. The coal plants are being phased out because of their heavy carbon and pollution emissions. That is why coal is being replaced by wind and gas: wind turbines ostensibly put no emissions into the air, and gas puts less emissions than coal.

But because of the reality that Dr. Decher describes, those 10,000 MW of wind must be matched with 10,000 MW of gas. Let’s also be clear that gas will actually be the main energy source in that pairing, producing those 10,000 MW of energy 67 percent of the time. Depending on the type of gas generator, each kWh of gas power can dump 330 to 550 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In view of this, it is reasonable to consider what the emissions implications of the wind/gas pairing will be.

The spreadsheet below compares that the wind/gas pairing in Ontario with nuclear/coal. You may be surprised to see that nuclear/coal is actually cleaner. Ten thousand MW with wind/gas would dump over 19 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other bona fide air pollutants into the air every year.

Wind/gas vs nuclear/coal

For a pollution-reduction plan, the wind/gas pairing is terrible. Ontario could reduce more pollution simply by shifting more of coal’s historic production to nuclear.

The wind/gas pairing is terrible also in terms of pure economics. As I showed in my post “Ontario nuclear power subsidizes gas and renewables,” wind and gas are responsible for 66 percent of the Global Adjustment dollars that Ontario ratepayers will have to cover just so the wind and gas generators will do business with the province.

Nuclear and coal are far cheaper, and the generators already exist and are connected to the grid.

Ontario could achieve bigger emission reductions with equipment it already has, and for cheaper, than it could by embarking on the wind/gas science project. More people need to know this.

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Rick Coates
12 years ago

Steve, You are right on the money with the costs of the Liberal plan as far as it goes. Don’t forget the substantial infrastructure that will have to be built around the wind/gas system. Also, combined gas generators are not really all that great for following load much less fickle wind and solar. They are really only dispatchable above about 70% loading. This necessitates that gas will displace base generation. you can bet that will not be water. Therefore, it will be nuclear as you have astutely predicted. The Liberals now are realizing that they have backed themselves into a corner and are doubling up on the lower mattagami and proposing single cycle gas generators in order to balance out this new unstable system. There will be a lot of capital put into this in terms of new transmission to get power from the north to Toronto, not to mention the extra emissions from the single cycle gas plants. Makes one wonder why they believed the people who would benefit from this GEA monstrosity path that they have plotted.

12 years ago

Wind power has to be load balanced 100% of name plate capacity with massive transmission builds and low efficiency fast spooling natural gas plant. The wind /gas/transmission combo actually produces more green house gases than skipping the wind and building high efficiency CCGT plant instead.

12 years ago

Add some of Canada’s finest Natural Heritage features to the costs of “free” wind energy.

Birds, bats, and beauty all contribute to our economy and our health.

12 years ago

Very good analysis of the situation.

John Harrison
12 years ago

A capacity factor of 33% seems too high. For Ontario the capacity factor was 26% for the full year July 2009 to June 2010. See:
That could have been a fluctuation but the number is unlikely to be over 30%. For Germany, only for a good year is it over 20%.

Steve Aplin
12 years ago
Reply to  John Harrison

John, you are probably right. I was generous with wind. Soon I will have the precise numbers on Ontario’s wind fleet from the last couple of years; I’ll post them as soon as I have them.

Other readers have pointed out the rather uni-dimensional way in which I compared wind/gas with nuclear/coal, and especially the lack of due attention to nuclear’s inflexibility and the unrealistically low CF for coal. Their observations are correct and well noted. I had hoped to simply point out that wind is neither free nor clean, and that Ontario could chop GHGs more easily and cheaply by adjusting generation using the supply mix we already have. I see now that I cannot avoid getting into a discussion of the complexities of running a grid. I’ll attempt a better explanation in upcoming posts.

12 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

You are correct, wind is primarily an energy resource (and is not dispatchable as an operating reserve). So what does this mean? In a system with 1:1 backup from fossil fuels (not that such a system really exists), every MW of wind generation is one less MW generated from fossil fuels. Not sure how this can be read to mean the opposite?

Steep ramps in demand (which can often be 2/3 of energy supplied during a day) are far more crucial to balancing a grid than wind variability (even at a small 20% or 30%). We’re fine running a grid (such as we have in US and Canada) with no storage and low operating reserves (and renewables at 20-30%). Nobody has suggested this is in any way unmanageable. So in your future review, I hope you look at the problematics of demand management, and why simply adding new sources (regardless of how they are integrated) contribute to another range of very difficult issues (for nuclear, wind, solar, and most importantly how we price energy).

12 years ago

Excellent article, Steve: would you be interested in addressing our group? I like your comment “More people need to know about this…”
You can email
Thank you

12 years ago

It is simply not true to say that wind turbines produce power for 33% (or 26%)of the time and do not produce power for 67% (or74%)of the time.
What is correct is that the wind turbines in Ontario average production for 2009 was 26% of their nameplate capacity.During the year the output at any given time could be anywhere between 0% to 100% of the nameplate capacity but over the 8760 hrs of 2009 the average output was 26%.
Rarely will the output be 0% and almost never 100% but most of the time there will be some output albeit very minimum. The last I heard the IESO counted on 10% (10% efficiency)of the nameplate capacity for planning purposes.

Steve Aplin
12 years ago

Ruffie, good point about the wind capacity factor. My 33 percent was deliberately generous, intended to underline my point. You are right: it’s not like wind turbines (at whatever CF, but let’s go with last year’s actual 26 percent) generate at capacity 26 percent of the time and don’t generate at all the rest of the time. “Capacity factor” is a metric intended to indicate the soundness of both the machine and the human organization that runs it, and therefore is somewhat misleading in the case of wind.

Its use in the spreadsheet above is also misleading in the case of coal. Nobody should look at the 15 percent and judge the coal-fired generator and the operator as sub-standard: the 15 percent is hypothetical, intended to show coal’s use as a limited supplier of intermediate capacity.

Peter John
12 years ago

The entire analysis is misleading. If wind power runs at 33% of nameplate then you simply install three times the amount. Wind power can be backed by hydro and by other types of power plants. Variability in wind power won’t be as bad as some people think since it will be located over a wide area in locations with constant winds. You can also handle the variability of wind power by controlling demand. The largest consumers of electric power is heating and cooling which does not require constant power. It would be a simple thing to turn down or turn off the power when needed. Because the price of coal, gas, oil, and uranium will increase as demand increases and supply decrease the best solution to our energy future is to actually use all forms of energy at the same time including gas and nuke. Keep on installing the wind turbines until it reaches a point where we have to start adding pump storage or gas turbines to back them. We can then take another look.

Steve Aplin
12 years ago
Reply to  Peter John

Peter, even if we installed five times the wind nameplate (and five times the transmission capacity) we’d still never be certain of having electricity when it’s needed. So yes wind would be backed up. My point here was to show that it would be backed up with gas, which (1) is expensive and (2) produces CO2.

And why is Ontario adding so much wind in the first place? Because it comes with no CO2. Well, neither does nuclear, and nuclear is far cheaper.

Also, I don’t think that just over-building wind would be so simple. There are strong objections already, and we only have 1,000+ MW of capacity. That’s because wind farms need enormous amounts of land. We could fit all three Ontario nuclear stations (11,000 MW nameplate) into the area covered by the Wolfe Island wind farm (200 MW). i.e., the nukes have 55 times the capacity of Wolfe, and sit on a smaller patch of land.

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12 years ago

Why make a fuss about nuclear waste disposal? Dump it in a subduction zone and forget it. By the time it pops up it will be harmless. Wind is not cheap when you add the env. costs, including strip mining new places like Bristol Bay Alaska which will impact a huge watershed and whose stated purpose is to supply copper for the windsprawl trans. lines (and generators) which must be overbuilt to allow for the erratic bursts of wind power. Wind power is a scam and a waste of tax dollars. C02 keeps rising in Europe despite thousands of turbines and no coal plants can shut down. I will be off the grid by this summer. I couldn’t afford electric heat 25 years ago and I sure won’t be able to afford wind created price increases.

12 years ago


I think this is an insightful way of looking at the situation.

I hope somebody can figure out how to store energy economically and cleanly soon. You were telling me the other day that some hydro companies pump water against gravity to store a bit of extra capacity. I think that’s a brilliant idea. Perhaps some day a solution for large scale storage will re-open a door to intermittent sources such as wind. I think this is why wind hasn’t and can’t get big.

But even if we can get high capacity storage figured out, I think we still will have a capacity problem with wind turbines themselves.

I think reduction of consumption is a bigger option than meets the eye. It’s not exactly like a ripe-beautiful, low-hanging fruit but consider this: The average person does not comprehend how much energy we waste. Here’s another beauty: I was at the pub the other day and I turned to a lady and asked her what percentage of the light in the room was from wind and also what other sources of energy was involved. She said “I have no idea how much windmills contribute but the rest of it is from power-lines”. Education might be part of the problem.

It might be possible to help the situation by somehow consuming less. For example, I am in the West End of Ottawa right now and I’m considering using a pogo stick to get downtown rather than driving. Hmmm, this is harder than it looks…

Another thing I’d like to bring forward is that carbon may not be the only evil to bring into the opportunity cost equation. That’s just a bunch of food for thought for the moment.

I’ve always liked wind turbines but I realize more since we met that that we haven’t really figured out how to clean our act up with Wind.


Richard Wakefield
12 years ago

You may be interested in this analysis of the actual output from wind in Ontario:

In the summer wind produces less than 7% name plate.

Willem Post
12 years ago

We all know wind is no dispatchable, but the politicians pretend not to know and the voters are brainwashed by the Wind PR miasma.
Hence more wind turbines.

I told a lady friend of my about wind/gas no reducing CO2. She looked at me somewhat puzzled. She usually believes what I tell her, because she thinks I am smart. Then she say: Oh, I like wind because it is clean.

Gee, is this a soap opera?

Read the following articles, especially the last one, which is the latest.