Last Wednesday I stirred up a hornets nest with an article titled "A Reality Check for Wind Power Investors" (link at the bottom of this article) that included two graphs from the Bonneville Power Administration, or BPA, which manages a four state, 300,000 square mile service region that's home to over 40% of the installed hydro capacity and roughly 12% of the installed wind capacity in the US.
The first graph tracks the BPA's regional load and power production from hydro, thermal and wind facilities over the last seven days and shows why the region is one of the largest power exporters in the country.
The second graph provides stand-alone tracking data for wind power in the BPA region over the last seven days.
My concern was that the BPA graphs clearly contradict widely accepted notions that:
Until I saw the BPA graphs I assumed that wide geographic dispersion of facilities would ameliorate the erratic nature of wind power. The graphs proved my assumption wrong. Once it became clear that broad regional dispersal wasn't enough, I began looking for comparable data on a nationwide basis and couldn't find it – ANYWHERE.
Yesterday, Jack Lifton pointed me in the direction of a March 2011 "Analysis of UK Wind Power Generation" that was commissioned by the John Muir Trust, Britain's premier wildlands conservation charity, and found that:
The study's most startling conclusions were that:
While the complete set of 28 monthly tracking graphs that accompany the UK Analysis are less colorful than the BPA's, the erratic and wholly unreliable character of the UK's wind resource is remarkably similar to the BPA's resource.
My undergraduate degree was in accounting and I understand statistics well enough to know that data from a single region does not disprove the theory that geographic dispersion of wind facilities will solve the intermittency problem. However, my accounting professors taught me that when two substantial samples from regions as diverse as the UK and the Pacific Northwest leave room for reasonable doubt, prudence requires a larger sample and a more granular analysis.
The idea of geographic dispersion is so inherently plausible that it's accepted without question. What if it's a lie? We know it doesn't hold water in the BPA region and we know it doesn't hold water in the UK. The raw data almost certainly exists. Compiling the hard data into a national landscape would require little more than an Excel spreadsheet, particularly if we assume away the need for a robust and flexible interstate transportation grid. The only reason I can imagine why nobody has published results from such a study is that the results are dreadful and they disprove the theory.
I would love to be proven wrong on this point because my preliminary conclusions are damned inconvenient. The time for platitudes and calm assurances from advocates and promoters is past. We need detailed analysis of hard day to day data if we ever hope to have a sensible energy policy that works in the real world.
In light of the clear data from the BPA and confirmation from comparable analysis in the UK, I continue to believe that investments like the First Trust ISE Global Wind Energy Index ETF (FAN), the PowerShares Global Wind Energy Portfolio ETF (PWND) and a host of publicly traded wind power stocks should be avoided like the plague.
This article was originally published on AltEnergyStocks.com and was reprinted with permission.
Editor's Note: To read a rebuttal of this article, check out Tom Konrad's Why Geographic Diversification Smooths Wind Power.