News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Study: Wind Energy In California Has Few Benefits

A raw deal? | Photo: Holly Banton/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Though the Obama administration has recently renewed its commitment to approve more wind facilities on public lands as part of the Climate Action Plan it released this week, a new study indicates that wind development in California has far fewer benefits than it does elsewhere in the United States.

The study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, looked at the relative benefits of renewable energy development in different parts of the United States. While federal subsdies of wind in other regions pay for themselves by displaciing dirtier power, according to the researchers, the benefits offered by wind in California only cover about half the cost of federal subsidiies.

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The study "Regional variations in the health, environmental, and climate benefits of wind and solar generation," published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), charts the relative value of wind and solar energy resources across the United States in relation to the environmental effects of power those resources might conceivably displace. For instance, if wind turbines reduced the need for coal-fired power in a certain region, the reduction in CO2 emissions from the unburned coal would be credited as a benefit to those wiind turbines.

The study also calculated the environmental and social benefit from other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur, and particulate matter that accrue from switching to wind and solar power.

The result of the study will likely prrove disheartening for would-be investors in California wind facilities: wind power's benefits to the state from avoided CO2 emissions are startlingly low compared to regions such as the Great Plains. The authors calculate the combined social and environmental benefit of California wind power from pollution reduction at $13 per megawatt-hour.

The federal government's Production Tax Credit (PTC) subsidizes qualifying California wind turbines to the tune of $23 per megawatt-hour. Considering that other regions such as Ohio derive up to $100 in benefiits per each megawatt-hour of power generated by local wind, that makes California look like a pretty bad investment for the PTC.

Here are the relevant maps from the study offering the disparity in wind's benefits at a glance. First, a base map showing raw wind resources:

The Mother Lode for wind power potential is clearly in that big black spotch in the High Plains, but California's resources aren't too shabby. But factor in the amount of CO2 emissions avoided by installing wind, and California starts to lose its luster:

There are only a couple places in the state where wind power might potentially displace carbon-fueled electrical power, and those places don't offer all that much benefit compared to elsewhere in the country. In fact, it looks like if your goal is to avoid CO2 emissions by building wind turbines, California is about the last place you'd want to do so on a cost-effectiveness basis.

When you chart avoided smog-forming pollutants, sulfur, and particulate mattter, California's benefits from wind seem to vanish altogether:

benefits from avoided smog, sulfur, and dust pollution | Photo: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

What's the reason? The study's authors say that regional differences in power generation portfolios reduce the benefiits of wind in a few areas, California emphatically included:

Sites in Oklahoma, Texas, and California are less beneficial because gas-fired plants, with relatively low CO2 rates, are predominantly displaced. Because of the relatively clean sources of electricity and the modest wind resource, wind turbines in California are among the least effective at displacing CO2 emissions. A wind turbine at the best site in California displaces 20 percent less CO2 compared with an average site in Ohio.

The lack of benefits from California wind turbines were marked enough that the study's authors, led by Carnegie-Mellon's Kyle Siler-Evans, noted the state's disadvantages in the paper's abstract, as prominent a mention as a scientific paper can offer:

When wind or solar energy displace conventional generation, the reduction in emissions varies dramatically across the United States. Although the Southwest has the greatest solar resource, a solar panel in New Jersey displaces significantly more sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter than a panel in Arizona, resulting in 15 times more health and environmental benefits. A wind turbine in West Virginia displaces twice as much carbon dioxide as the same turbine in California.

Solar in California fared somewhat better than did wind, at least in benefits from avoided CO2 emissions: each kilowatt of solar generating capacity installed through most of the state displaces around a metric ton of CO2 emissions annually. That said, if you have a kilowatt of solar and you're choosing where to install it to reduce greenhouse gas pollution most dramatically, you'll want to skip the Mojave and put that solar in western Kansas, where it will do the climate twice as much good.

The study isn't perfect. The authors don't account for power purchases between the larger regional grids shown on the maps above in black outlines. (The outline roughly corresponding to California's state lines marks the territory of the California Independent System Operator, or CaISO.) California's utilities have historiically imported a significant amount of coal-fired power from outside CaISO's turf. Even though that era is slowly drawing to a close, the state imported about 20,800 gigawatt-hours of coal-fired power in 2011, making California's coal use about four times what in-state generation would suggest, which increases the state's coal footprint.

But only a bit, in relative terms. California's coal power comes from the southwestern states, which themselves aren't particularly worthy for wind development according to the PNAS study. And if we're criticising the study based on its omission of coal power imported into California, we also have to account for the 30,971 gigawatt hours of gas, hydro, nuclear, and renewable power California also imported in 2011, tweaking the carbon footprint of the state back downward.

Which suggests that even with its omissions, the study may not be far off in casting investment in California wind as investment mainly wasted, at least from an environmental perspective. Given that certain iconic California species are being asked to pay the ultimate price for that investment, it may well be time to do a little rethinking.


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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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Another brilliant article. I'm fascinated reading these studies and recalling how many of these topics were covered in such great detail years ago by so many individuals during past public hearings in jurisdictions such as Kern County, CA. The fact that these individual's hard work and thorough research was simply brushed aside has always reflected poorly on the staff within both the Planning Department and Board of Supervisors offices. Keep up the positive work, we have always believed there are more superior methods to acheiving our goals.


Excellent Article. Everyone should also read the article below because this tragic scenario plays out everyday all over the world but witnesses are rarely present. It is an article about the wind turbine's path of extinction I keep writing about..........Birdwatchers see rare swift killed by wind turbine

Bird safe wind turbines like the FloDesign wind turbine and others will not be ready for years. Most of this problem is deliberate or corruption related. These bird safe turbines will be delayed for as long as possible because the industry is still making a fortune off their product line of killers................ Bird and bat killers that have been insulated with bad science, fraudulent studies, sellout conservation groups, and corrupt politicians.

But as the article points out no birds are safe, not even the fastest bird left on this planet.

Wind turbines will drive dozens of species to extinction in the near future. This is why the public has to get more involved, otherwise this highly destructive business will never be changed.

If by some chance the public does turn this around and a major effort is made to bring back some of these species, NOT ONE DIME should ever go to the Conservation groups like Audubon or the Sierra Club because of their role in this destruction. I have a strong feeling they will shove their way to the head of the line and be the first with their hand out.


its so nice to be reading the many wonderful posts here on KCET about renewable energy/ sarcasm....The title is misleading, and wind energy does help slow the use of natural gas, which when its drilled causes toxic conditions for those around. But its ok to use energy that contaminates someones water in Arkansas or Texas, because no turtles or condors were injured.....


As the article points out on the map, the Mother Lode for wind power potential is clearly in that big black spot in the High Plains.

The wind industry has been very busy exploiting this wind resource over the last several years, putting up thousands of wind turbines. Since 2006 the whooping crane population has suffered a serious steady decline and this is why we are going to lose this bird population. The wind industry has only begun their onslaught.

The latest deliberately vague FWS estimates say there are between 178-362 left. But there is a very big problem with this estimate because it appears the FWS is deliberately counting over 30 captive bred cranes released in Louisiana as part of this dwindling population. What this really means is that there could now be fewer than 150 of the wild population left. There would have been well over 450 if these wind turbines weren't installed along their migration route.


Actually, MJ, you make a good point that we should not encourage fracking. Unfortunately, you hugely misunderstand how wind impacts the fuel mix of the grid if you think it reduces gas burning/fracking. It does exactly the opposite.

Quick sketch: peaker gas turbines are super super inefficient (they use way more gas and pollute way more for every kWh spit into the grid than co-gen or high-efficiency "baseload" gas) but they are load-responsive, which makes them valuable to a variable-load grid.

So, whenever there is a variable load (at the moment, peak daylight hours, mostly in summer, for example), peaker gas fires up and fills the gap between baseload (coal, nukes and cogen/efficient gas plants) and demand because baseload plants cannot be cranked up and down based on demand. We can also use a small amount of hydro in this way.

So, if you put rooftop solar into the mix, the vast majority of peaker gas is removed from the mix because rooftop solar produces at the exact hours that peaker gas is currently being burned. So, rooftop solar equals immediate and huge reduction in inefficient gas burning and fracking. It does basically nothing for coal at the moment. So, rooftop solar (and efficiency) are the absolute best way to reduce fracking until 100% of peak load is eliminated. After that, things get more complicated.

Take Big Wind, for example. It produces at low-demand times (nights, winter) in the SW USA, which means no peaker gas is being used at those times, only baseload power, so unlike rooftop solar, it does not reduce current peaker gas burning. So, when you cut into baseload with wind, but you have turbines that produce only ~18% of the time, you need to fill the gap in grid demand with load-responsive fuel because you can't just turn coal and nukes on and off. As in, crank up the peaker gas. Woops!

So, sure, by knocking some coal out of the grid for 4 hours at 2 AM on a winter night, Big Wind is "cutting emissions" but since peaker gas has to fill in the other 20 hours, plus the peak daytime demand on top of that, you have HUGELY increased inefficient gas burning by replacing a teensy bit of coal with a teensy bit of wind and a huge amount of gas.


MJ's Natural gas argument /comment is severely flawed. This same deflective logic has been widely used by the wind industry for years to sucker the ignorant. It was even used on Congress. But for those of us that know what is going on, there never will be any justification for killing rare and endangered species and then rigging studies for 28 years so the truth could be hidden.

All this reminds me of a 28 year old child molester I caught years ago messing around with my neighbor's son. While he was shedding tears, he told me he wasn't nearly as bad as all those damn drug dealers selling to the kids.


A major benefit of wind energy, apart from providing low-cost electricity that will never run out, is avoiding pollution that would otherwise come from other ways to generate electricity.

This article uses the National Academy of Science (NAS) study’s somewhat obvious findings – that wind offsets more pollution in more-polluted states – to suggest that, somehow, the federal wind Production Tax Credit is not worth the benefits obtained from California wind projects.

The same conclusion could be applied to any of California’s policies to promote a cleaner electricity sector and address climate change – why should California take action, when other states are dirtier? As the national leader in addressing climate change, should California be penalized in getting its fair share of federal tax benefits because it has already largely eliminated coal from its electric system?

Moreover, California is working to transform its transportation sector to rely more on electricity, so added wind power can help displace transportation sector carbon emissions – emissions not addressed in the NAS report. Even more important for the arid Southwest, generating electricity from wind does not require water.

Wind energy has made a major contribution to reducing California’s pollution. The state now generates 4.9 percent of its electricity from wind power (6 percent when out-of-state wind purchases are included), offsetting the most expensive, least efficient power source on the utility grid – usually a fossil fuel plant.

The article also incorrectly argues that the import of hydroelectric generation from the Pacific Northwest is offset by wind power. These hydro power imports are almost never on the margin because they are zero cost, so wind power does not replace them. However, adding more in-state wind power reduces the need to import coal from other states – a fact greatly underestimated by the NAS study.

While environmental benefits are critically important, wind has significant economic benefits as well. Wind farms provide land lease payments for farmers and other land owners, as well as added tax base for rural communities. Added wind power also saves consumers money, as wind’s long-term fixed rate contracts provide a hedge against volatility in the fuel markets.

Wind power’s environmental and economic benefits are clear. Our industry’s main policy tool - the federal Production Tax Credit - has been incredibly successful in incentivizing wind energy development across the country – including in California.