The True Benefits of Wind Power

The setting sun illuminates the sky behind wind turbines of a wind park. Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters

Texas prides itself on being a national leader, whether it be in barbecue, football or wind energy. That's why when someone misguidedly attacks one of our strengths—as Randy Simmons did in an opinion article republished by Newsweek last week—as a Texan, I can't remain silent.

Simmons' op-ed on the "true cost of wind power" is the same tired slant we have heard from fossil fuel interests time and time again, which should come as no surprise when you learn who's really behind the piece. Simmons lists his title as professor of political economy at Utah State University, but he doesn't mention he is the Charles G. Koch professor of political economy. He's also a senior fellow at the Koch- and ExxonMobil-funded Property and Environment Research Center. In other words, he works for oil companies.

So let's expose this op-ed for what it really is: a fraudulent attempt to discredit clean, affordable wind energy and protect polluting coal plants.

Study after study has shown that subsidies for conventional energy sources, such as coal and oil, historically have been much larger than those for renewables, but Simmons ignores this information. The Nuclear Energy Institute's own tally indicates all renewable resources made up less than 10 percent of federal energy incentives between 1950 and 2010. Unsurprisingly, fossil resources received the bulk, at more than 70 percent. In Texas, state support for all renewables (including solar and wind) is less than $40 million a year, but the state tax breaks for natural gas production alone topped $1 billion.

Adding to his list of errors, Simmons also gets grid integration costs wrong. In fact, the cost of integrating large, conventional power plants onto the power system in Texas is more than 17 times larger than the cost of reliably integrating wind energy. When large fossil and nuclear plants fail, they do so instantaneously and without warning—and the impacts can be catastrophic. Changes in wind output, on the other hand, are gradual and predictable, meaning they can be accommodated by using low-cost, non-spin reserves, which cost about one-third as much as the expensive fast-acting reserves used during conventional power plant failures.

Moreover, last month, independent DBL Investors found states with the greatest use of renewable energy experience lower electricity prices, and states with pro-renewable policies have seen lower electricity price increases than those without. So when Simmons asserts renewable energy leads to higher electricity prices—well, he's wrong on that count, too.

There are logical gaps in Simmons' argument. In one breath, wind prices are too high. In the next, Simmons implies wind energy is reducing electricity prices so much that other energy sources cannot compete. This claim that wind energy is having an undue impact on other energy sources has been thoroughly debunked by a number of experts, including former Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner John Norris. Plus, if Simmons actually supports free markets, shouldn't a little competition be welcomed?

Then Simmons says wind specifically requires backup generation when the reality is all power plants are backed up by other plants. "Because a coal-fired or natural gas power plant must be kept online in case there's no wind, two plants are running to do the job of one," he wrote.

Coal is rarely if ever used to back up wind. Actually, if there is an increase in reserve need as a result of less available wind, it is often met by demand response (a people-powered solution that pays electricity customers to conserve energy when the grid is stressed) or natural gas power plants that are not online but can start up quickly in the rare event they are needed. Regardless, two plants cannot be "doing the job of one," as the electrons from any power plant would have to go somewhere.

Furthermore, transmission upgrades that help integrate wind have a number of other benefits, so they end up more than paying for themselves. In addition to saving consumers money, these upgrades improve electric reliability, make electricity markets more competitive, and protect people against fuel price fluctuations. Simmons misleadingly wants to paint these upgrades as a cost solely attributed to and beneficial for wind. (Even if that were the case, DOE calculates it would only be a cost of $3.2/MWh, which is not meaningfully higher than the transmission cost for other energy sources.)

When you truly take into account all factors, wind energy's benefits become clear. Wind is good for:

Your pocketbook: Large wind farms got much cheaper between 2010 and 2014, and greater use of renewable energy leads to lower electricity prices. Moreover, the cost of wind energy technology will inherently go down. This is basic economics. Bernstein Research explains it nicely:

Renewable energy is a technology. In the technology sector, costs always go down. Fossil fuels are extracted. In extractive industries, costs (almost) always go up. Renewable and fossil fuel cost per unit of energy are now roughly comparable in many places…but heading in opposite directions. New, superior technologies don't split markets with old, inferior technologies.

The environment: Operational wind energy projects and those under construction will avoid 115 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. This is especially important to keep in mind as we await the final rules of Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which will place limits on carbon emissions from power plants in the U.S. for the first time ever and help us reduce the threat of climate catastrophe.

Public health: Reductions in emissions that come from using wind rather than dirty fossil fuels also mean a reduction in air pollution. As the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it:

Generating electricity from renewable energy rather than fossil fuels offers significant public health benefits. The air and water pollution emitted by coal plants is linked to breathing problems, neurological damage, heart attacks, and cancer. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy has been found to reduce premature mortality and lost workdays, and it reduces overall healthcare costs.

Unfortunately, most health costs associated with more traditional electricity generation like coal are hidden, making them seem cheaper than they really are.

The economy: According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), total wind industry jobs were way up in 2014, reaching 73,000 (17,000 of which were in Texas). Moreover, AWEA found the industry created $12 billion in private investment in 2014, which brings the total to more than $100 billion since 2008. Plus, healthier populations—as pointed out above—relieve strain on our economy by reducing health costs and lost productivity.

The drought: In Texas and most of the country, it has essentially stopped raining. Because wind energy uses virtually zero water to produce electricity, it was able to avoid the consumption of over 68 billion gallons of water in the U.S. in 2014. In an increasingly water-stressed country, wind energy is one of the lowest cost options to mitigate drought.

The clean energy future is now. We can't let fossil fuel front men, posing as academics confuse us about the benefits of our transition to a low-carbon economy. The writing's in the wind.

Jim Marston is the founding director of the Texas office of Environmental Defense Fund.