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A Realistic Assessment of Wind in Minnesota

A couple of days ago, Aaron Fontaine (an avid reader of NEI Nuclear Notes), asked us to look at how realistic the state of Minnesota’s goals are for developing a 20 percent requirement of wind generation by 2020. He sent me a link to the Public Utility Commission which links to this Minnesota Wind Integration Study presentation (pdf).

At first, whenever I hear about a 20% renewable portfolio standard I take it with a grain of salt. But I want to be fair, so we should look at the numbers.

According to the presentation, for wind to achieve 20 percent of MN’s retail sales, utilities would need to build about 4,500 MW. The state right now with the most wind capacity is Texas with 2,800 MW. Minnesota has about 800 MW. So if the state wants to meet that timeline it needs to get cracking.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, one MW takes up about 60 acres. That makes the amount of land needed to develop 4,500 MW about 421 square miles. Then the question becomes whether or not you can site those 4,500 MW in the areas that are most advantageous -- and as we've seen, that's not always the case.

Let’s compare to nuclear. The average land space needed for a nuke is about 1 square mile. This could be for one, two, maybe three reactors at one plant site. Right now, two nuclear plants with a combined capacity of 1,600 MW (pdf) provide almost 25 percent of the state’s generation. If nuclear were to provide the same amount of generation as the 4,500 MW wind farms, Minnesota would only need to build two AP1000s. That would probably only take one square mile and could come online by 2020.

If Minnesota can marshal the political will to deploy enough wind energy capacity to meet 20% of its electricity demand, then more power to them. But if they want the reliable, 24/7, baseload power, then a couple of nuclear reactors could serve them just fine.


RobC said…
It's worthwhile to make these comparisons to keep things in perspective. But, as the windpower website points out, 95% of the land remains to be used for other purposes, such as farming.

Speaking as an ardent supporter of nuclear power, I feel it's not productive or necessary to deprecate the contributions renewable energy can make. In the short run, we need to be using all the non-fossil energy we can, and arguing against renewables undermines the urgency needed to deal with global warming.

Looking at it practically, renewables can only take up a small part of the load, at least in the short term--say, a few decades. Nonetheless, we ought to employ them wherever it makes sense.
Sinus said…
Renewable is generally more expensive than nuclear, so for any fixed sum of money (i.e part of a budget) nuclear is more efficient. I like wind turbines, but the funding should go to R&D, not wind subsidies.
Anonymous said…
It's not so much deprecating the contributions renewables can make as doing an honest side-by-side comparison of the pros and cons. When you do that, so-called renewables almost always come up short, either on economics, reliability, or capacity.
Doug said…
I think the piece did a good job of laying out the issues without trashing wind as a power source. Let's face it, on the pro-nuke side most of us aren't anti-renewable, but on the other side you hear arguments about how we don't need any nukes because we can meet all our needs through conservation and renewables. The general public is kept largely ignorant of (1) the sheer size of the renewable footprint that will be needed, (2) the intermittent nature of these sources, and (3) the cost. You won't see the Sierra Club discussing these points, so someone needs to keep drilling them home. Otherwise I'm afraid the average voter will be inclined to support the Sierra Club's vision for the future, not realising that he or she is voting for powering down modern society.
Anonymous said…
Everybody picks and weighs the parameters they think are important for setting public policy differently. Minnesota has a fair amount of indigenous wind resources that it can tap into and seems willing to pay a premium for it. They’ve made their bed. Time will tell how comfy they find it. There is a lot of populist sentiment in the state for the idea of satisfying the state’s energy needs using in-state resources as much as possible, be it from wind turbines or by producing E85 corn-based fuel or the state mandate that nearly all diesel fuel sold in the state be a 2% soy-based bioblend. The sensibilities and dynamics in southern states like Florida, Mississippi, and the Carolinas are obviously different. Those states seem to be under no illusions as to their wind potential, which may be one reason new nuclear plants are being welcomed there with relatively open arms.

Of course the devil is in the details in Minnesota, which doesn’t interest the public or the politicians until it comes time to blame the utilities for not having adequate foresight. Specifically, the wind resources in Minnesota are generally located far from the population centers and there is woefully inadequate transmission capacity to move the existing wind-generated power, much less the additional electricity that is being mandated. Stringing new wires and building towers is a notoriously costly, litigious, and time consuming endeavor. Unlike wind farmers who are getting something out of the deal, the neighboring landowners that see new transmission lines cross their property will no doubt fight tooth and nail.
Anonymous said…
There is a lot of populist sentiment for renewable energies here in MN. That's not just from the green movement either. It's also a farmer power issue. A lot of those windmills, if they do get built, will be situated on existing farmland. This makes the land-footprint impact not as bad since land that was previously only serving a single purpose is now serving a dual purpose. It also means rental income for the farmers that own that land.

I do support the populist sentiment to some extent, simply because I see the move towards local economies as a way to move wealth back into rural areas. That entails local foods as well as local energies.

Of course the devil is in the details and anonymous has already pointed out the obvious setbacks for large scale wind integration. Ethanol is probably worse off though, so I might as well list its limitations here.

As my girlfriend likes to point out, ethanol is triple subsidized:
1. The oil to grow the corn is subsidized.
2. The corn is subsidized.
3. The ethanol plants are subsidized.
This represents a huge economic distortion and perhaps a major misinvestment of capital. And ethanol still hasn't resolved the following issues:
1. Ethanol plants are very water intensive to the point where some of our aquifers could soon be in jeopardy.
2. Ethanol competes with food production and will thus raise market prices for food.
3. Ethanol has yet to show any significant energy gain over the oil inputs used to create it.

Now I will just copy this and anonymous' post into my notes to be used later in letters to politicians and other public figures.

Mike said…
re: we need to be using all the non-fossil energy we can, and arguing against renewables undermines the urgency needed to deal with global warming.

Spend some time each day at the Greenie Watch and you will catch on quickly. The nuclear industry is doing itself a grave disservice by basing their agenda on the fraudulent science of man-made global warming.

The Greenie Watch

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