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NYT repeats coal talking points, attempts to sabotage Obama's green energy plans

by Jerome a Paris Tue Mar 31st, 2009 at 03:00:43 AM EST

Articles like this one are terrible because they give "objective" credence to arguments made exclusively by lobbyists. I imagine the coal industry did not imagine that their lies would be repeated so uncritically:

Curbing carbon dioxide emissions -- a central part of tackling climate change -- will almost certainly raise electricity prices, experts say. And increasing the nation's reliance on renewable energy will in itself raise costs.

These are, quite simply, lies, and the sole purpose of publishing such articles is to undermine the Obama administration drive to develop renewable energy.

Part of the Windpower series

From the diaries - afew

The graphs below, from the EWEA (the European Wind Energy Association)(pdf!) can certainly not be seen as pro-coal, and yet they acknowledge that coal does seem to be cheaper:

The top one has coal and gas prices based on oil at 59$/bbl and coal at €1.6/GJ; the second one at oil doubling in price (118$/bbl) and coal going up by 50%. They do suggest that coal-fired electricity is cheaper, unless saddled with carbon costs. Or that you'd need $120 oil for wind to be competitive, something that has only happened for a few months at the top of the economic bubble last year.

But think about it for a second: the price of wind power is not going to change for the next 20 years, whereas the price of gas- or coal-fired electricity is going to vary with that of gas and coal (both of which are more or less directly linked to the price of oil). Are you willing to bet that oil prices will be below $120 for the next 20 years? Again: wind prices will NOT vary for the next 20 years: once a wind farm is built, it costs almost nothing to run, and it will produce electricity reliably for at least 20 years. Fossil fuel plants need to purchase the fossil fuels on an ongoing basis. Studies that show the price of electricity from coal-fired plants as something static somehow never acknowledge this.

And in fact, utilities that offered wind power pricing to consumers have already offered a taste of what's to come:

Cost Dropping Below Conventional Sources Marks Key Milestone in U.S. Shift to Renewable Energy [in 2006]

When Austin Energy, the publicly owned utility in Austin, Texas, launched its GreenChoice program in 2000, customers opting for green electricity paid a premium. During the fall of 2005, climbing natural gas prices pulled conventional electricity costs above those of wind-generated electricity, the source of most green power. This crossing of the cost lines in Austin and several other communities is a milestone in the U.S. shift to a renewable energy economy.

Austin Energy buys wind-generated electricity under 10-year, fixed-price contracts and passes this stable price on to its GreenChoice subscribers. This fixed-price energy product is quite attractive to Austin's 388 corporate GreenChoice customers, including Advanced Micro Devices, Dell, IBM, Samsung, and 3M. Advanced Micro Devices expects to save $4 million over the next decade through this arrangement. School districts are also signing up. Round Rock School District, for example, projects 10-year savings to local taxpayers at $2 million.

Facing a Texas-style stampede of consumers wanting to sign up for the current remaining supply of green electricity, Austin Energy has resorted to a GreenChoice raffle that will be held on March 23. All its customers--both residential and business--were invited to participate in the drawing.

A similar situation has unfolded in Colorado with Xcel Energy, which is the state's largest electricity supplier. Xcel's 33,000 Windsource customers, who until late 2005 were paying $6 more each month for their electricity, are now paying slightly less than those using conventional electricity, which comes mostly from natural gas and coal.

Sure, as commodity prices have crashed with the current crisis, fossil fuel generation is again cheaper today: but we're talking about 20-30 year investments: do you believe that oil&coal will remain cheap for the next 20 years?

:: ::

The second thing that wind critics seem to ignore is the effect of wind on overall prices. As seems to be ignored by mostcasual writer on the topic, wholesale electricity prices are set at every moment by the marginal cost producer, ie the most expensive source required to provide the demand of the moment. Demand is mostly not sensitive to price (people switch on the lights or the AC when they need it, they don't worry about what it costs to produce the electricity powering them) - so supply and demand are balanced by supply ajusting. This is where the "supply dispatch curve" comes into play: it shows all the power producers, ranked by marginal cost of production, ie what it costs them to add one kWh of electricity at a given moment. For a gas- or coal-fired plant, it mostly means the cost of the extra fuel needed to be burnt to generate the extra power.   Wind is a low marginal cost producer, meaning it costs almost nothing to produce more electricity (all is needed is more wind).

Below (on the left), you see what a traditional dispatch curve looks like. The graph is for the Nordgrid, ie Denmark, and Sweden: the low cost base load comes mostly from nuclear, but a US graph would look very similar, with low cost base load provided by coal. On the right, you see the same dispatch curve moved by the injection of wind power into the system: the curve moves to the right, as low cost wind is made available. With the almost vertical demand line, this has a stark effect on prices at peak times: they go down a lot (the effect in times of low demand is much less significant).

What this means is that whenever you have wind into the system, prices of electricity for consumers (for ALL of them, not just those that buy wind power) go down - and they go down most starkly at peak times.

Studies in Denmark show that the aggregate effect of such price reductions is quite significant. From a certain wind penetration, prices are brought down to baseload prices almost all the time:

In Germany, Spain and Denmark, where wind penetration is in the 10-25% range (in MWh terms), the overall electricity price reduction brought about by wind driving down prices when it's blowing is larger than the subsidy paid by the same consumers in the form of guaranteed tariffs. In other words, the subsidy is actually not costing consumers a cent, overall. And that's just from the periods when wind is actually blowing.

:: ::

Which brings us, as always to the intermittency argument, made once again in the NYT article:

A modern coal plant of conventional design, without technology to capture carbon dioxide before it reaches the air, produces at about 7.8 cents a kilowatt-hour; a high-efficiency natural gas plant, 10.6 cents; and a new nuclear reactor, 10.8 cents. A wind plant in a favorable location would cost 9.9 cents per kilowatt hour. But if a utility relied on a great many wind machines, it would need to back them up with conventional generators in places where demand tends to peak on hot summer days with no breeze. That pushes the price up to just over 12 cents, making it more than 50 percent more expensive than a kilowatt-hour for coal.

The argument in this paragraph mixes very different things. It argues that wind farms should cover the cost of other electricity sources when wind is not blowing, ie cover the cost of externalities. It's like asking coal-fired plants to cover the cost of treating asthma in the population living near coal-fired plants, or gas-fired plants to cover the cost of US Navy ships protecting Qatar, which sends LNG to the US. The industry which is fighting hard to exclude these externalities from the cost of fossil fuel generation is somehow keen to have thme included in the cost of wind. Funny, that. And, worse, it gets its numbers worse. Studies from Northern Europe, where wind penetration is significantly higher than anywhere in the US, provide actual data on what it costs to integrate wind into the system:

It doesn't cost 2+ cents/kWh, as claimed above, but around 0.2c/kWh (1 EUR/MWh = 0.1c/kWh) - not in theory, but in real networks with massive wind penetration.

In addition, it should be noted that when you build a wind farm, you don't need to build a backup fossil fuel plant in parallel: these already exist, they'll just be used less when wind blows. The argument that you spew more carbon because of wind is one of the stupidest: you spew more carbon than if you closed down the fossi fuel burning plants completely, but nobody argues that: getting them to burn less fuel is already a good thing, there's no need to actually close them: we'll just use them when wind is not available, instead of all the time.

:: ::

In summary, wind power prices are comparable to those of fossil fuel ppower plants, but (i) that price is guaranteed not to change over the next 20 years, (ii) when wind is blowing, it brings down prices for all consumers and (iii) the cost of intermittency and grid integration is much lower in practice than announced by "experts."

These facts obviously did not get in the way of the NYT journalist, who seems to have been fed fossil fuel industry talking points and to have copied then without any critical thought.

What a shame. Is it incompetence, or malice?

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Mar 29th, 2009 at 04:11:19 PM EST
... one wonders whether there are people on retainer to common on these threads, but on a site as thoroughly soaked in the conventional wisdom from the mess media as Agent Orange, its probably just repeating lies put out into the cable news circus by the coal industry.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Mar 29th, 2009 at 05:31:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
European Tribune - NYT repeats coal talking points, try to sabotage Obama's green energy plans
What a shame. Is it incompetence, or malice?

Nothing personal. Just business.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sun Mar 29th, 2009 at 05:01:56 PM EST
The NYT is under financial stress.  Could that have anything to do with this article.  I wonder if Carlos Slim or other recent investors have any interests in coal?

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Mar 31st, 2009 at 12:59:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The clean coal coalition is running a tele ad here in the US that has Obama endorsing its goals.  Probably from his campaign stumping days.

The more you try to please everyone, the more trouble you make for yourself.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Mar 29th, 2009 at 10:25:03 PM EST
PJM interconnection, the grid service provider for eastern parts of the US, just completed a study of the cost of cutting CO2 emissions from its 66 GW (!) of coal.  They found that various methods of complying with carbon standards would cost between $6 and $36 B per year (which shows how accurate the methodologies are.)  But they did find that the addition of 15GWs of wind would reduce the cost by $3.55 to $4.74B per year.  In other words, Windpower can significantly reduce the cost of compliance with CO2 regulations," says AWEA.  And this is from a company which dispatches 66GWs of coal!

Further, the latest Wind Power Monthly has its annual review of energy costs, which deserves an entire diary, concluding that wind remains competitive with all thermal generation.  They further state that the thermal industries completely underestimate the risk premium associated with building thermal plant.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin

by Crazy Horse on Mon Mar 30th, 2009 at 05:36:42 AM EST
From Wind Power Monthly, only summary online.

Just how wind power has managed to stay competitive against falling fossil fuel prices requires a deal of explanation. Suffice to say here that it has much to do with the sharp fall in interest rates on borrowed money, which brings down the cost of capital-intensive wind power far more than it does the fossil fuel technologies.

Another reason for wind power holding its own lies in the rapidly rising cost of hedging the risk of fossil fuel prices going through the ceiling once more. Nobody expects oil prices to stay at less than $50 for long and even the International Energy Agency, a child of the oil industry, believes they are heading for $200 a barrel in the medium to long term. Any hike in oil prices has historically dragged gas and coal prices up too, for the simple reason that demand for them rises as oil prices itself out of the market. We take a closer look at the "cost of fuel price risk" in a side story to this year's main article.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Mon Mar 30th, 2009 at 05:44:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Climate Progress's Joe Romm also criticizes this article (and, btw, cites Jerome):

NYT's Matt Wald blows the "Alternative and Renewable Energy" story, quotes only industry sources, ignores efficiency and huge cost of inaction

Wald's piece could also be a poster child for award-winning journalist Eric Pooley's searing critique of the media's coverage of climate economics (see How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics -- "The media's decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress").

And, amazingly, as we will see, a report by one of Wald's two industry sources completely disagrees with the report by the other industry group Wald cites! In fact, new Concentrated solar thermal power is already competitive with new gas-fired generation and likely to have better economics in 2015.

. . . See also the Jerome a Paris post on DailyKos, which especially focuses on windpower economics, "NYT repeats coal talking points, try to sabotage Obama's green energy plans."

by TGeraghty on Mon Mar 30th, 2009 at 08:21:16 AM EST
I found a National Geographic report on world energy use.  The US should have done something about it then but no.  It was about capitalist interests and monopoly dominance, control and the waste of massive amounts of money.
by Lasthorseman on Mon Mar 30th, 2009 at 08:32:51 PM EST
The first two graphs in J's diary represent costs for inland windpower, provided by Riso National Lab in Denmark, for less windy inland sites.  That means that moving closer to coastal sites will have corresponding lower costs of energy, as the energy production per annum increases significantly.

Further, all of exposed Scotland, Ireland and parts of the UK would have significantly lower cost of energy due to strong wind resource.

The latest study from Wind Power Monthly, a graph which i have only in hard copy and can't reproduce here, shows onshore wind at 6 meters per second costing 106€ /MWh (megawatt hour) while in a 10 m/s the cost has dropped to around 45€ /MWh.  Coal costs range from 120€ to 60€ / MWh.

Typical costs for coal and gas average around 70€ /MWh, meaning wind equals that at an annual wind speed of 7.4 m/s.  (at hub height)

of course, the coal lobby doesn't let facts get in the way of their quest to buy more politicians, and of course, there is no external cost of mountaintop removal.   Video Here

At least "Der Heilige Obama" will now review all mountaintop removal permits, which is a setback for the US coal industry.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin

by Crazy Horse on Tue Mar 31st, 2009 at 09:24:25 AM EST
At least "Der Heilige Obama" will now review all mountaintop removal permits, which is a setback for the US coal industry.

As sympathetic as I might be to the needs of industry, moutaintop removal is ghoulishness worthy of Sauron himself.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Tue Mar 31st, 2009 at 02:18:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As sympathetic as I might be to the needs of industry, moutaintop removal is ghoulishness worthy of Sauron himself.

...the tar sands are a fairly close approximation to Mordor, as well....

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Tue Mar 31st, 2009 at 06:58:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
At least the tar sands can be rehabilitated, like the open pit coal mines in Germany.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Wed Apr 1st, 2009 at 07:38:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]

My point was only that the Sauronish externalities (social costs) are not included in the cost of a coal plant.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin

by Crazy Horse on Tue Mar 31st, 2009 at 06:59:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why is the need for flexible back-up plants an externality? It seems pretty much included in the spot price:

 Wind energy gets on average lower prices than the rest, because its production is high when prices are low, so the average cost (including subsidies etc.) of wind farms has to be lower than for the rest to compensate for its "uncommandability".

At the same time, adding more wind increases the demand for low-fixed-cost, high-marginal-cost plants relative to for example coal plants, so presumably a wind-heavy network will have higher spot prices when the wind doesn't blow, relative to a wind-free network. Figure 0.12 seems a bit misleading to me in that respect, but I might definitely be wrong there.

The real externalities, like more complicated grid management, are indeed not that large according to figure 0.9. But that doesn't mean there is no (large) cost associated with the uncommandability of wind, just that that cost is already incorporated in the energy prices, and if wind parks are profitable, then that includes the cost of back-up. Again, I could be missing something important here.

by GreatZamfir on Wed Apr 1st, 2009 at 09:59:54 AM EST

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