Wind power for Dummies

Weed-whacking and Symbiosis

Anyone who has raised their own food in their backyard, knows a little about weeds. As often as you pull them out, they return to begin the process anew. So it is with arguments against offshore wind. Each time a new person ponders the issue and feels they have been genetically gifted with unique insight, we see two leaves sprout of an argument that has been debunked months before.

So like weeding ones garden, one must periodically revisit those areas to remove ideas that faulty genetic engineering has placed in places where they do not belong. And so:

What about buying Land based wind power which costs less than that offshore?

This may sound good if one is looking for the lowest cost. But as often as advice comes cheap, its value should be trusted only as deep as its analysis. I can tell you that overall a brand new Mercedes CLK63 sedan is cheaper then a used Dodge Neon. And you may not believe me. But only by investigating the analysis will we know if buying a CLG63 is better for us in the long run….(It’s not.)

So let us first examine the myth that land based wind is cheaper and secondly, probe the economics behind that myth that are always happy to propel that myth forward.

Of course anytime one makes generalizations as I just did, one risks the case that an exception will prove that the overall statement is not correct. It is possible for example in North Dakota, to build a simple small windmill, free on public land, close to existing transmission lines and do it cheaper than build a towering work of engineering on an offshore platform eleven miles into the ocean. That makes sense.

Therefore we need a common denominator or formula that translates all power sources to a single cost effective denominator so we can compare apples to apples as the saying goes, and not find ourselves comparing apples to paramecium, disintegrating pop stars, classic cars, or even oranges.

The best bet found so far for the simplistic comparison of power sources, is the $ per MW that many of you following this argument, have seen repeated over and over. Since at this same time last year even I had no idea what $ per MW was, I will take a moment to explain.

Most of you who pay for your own electricity have at least seen the kilowatt listed on your Delmarva or Electric Co-op bills. This is the standard method of measuring the amount of electricity coming into your home. It traces its origins to James Watt who by many is considered to be the founder of the Industrial Age by his invention of the steam engine. Watt needed a method to measure work produced, and electric companies were quick to apply it to their needs a hundred years later. A watt is a rather small measure. It takes a hundred to power a light bulb. Therefore the standard measure is considerably larger, a thousand times to be exact, and because of that precise level of expansion it is called a kilowatt, or a thousand watts. One kilowatt supplies ten 100 watt bulbs, and is roughly equal to 1.34 horsepower, which is enough to power a large Wal*Mart-bought automatic lawnmower. Therefore for household usage, a kilowatt is the preferred level of measuring electric energy. Since we humans are habitual measurers of time, the amount of energy it takes to supply a kilowatt over the time frame of one hour, is simply called a kilowatt hour. Keep in mind there is a difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt hour. One can survive a 300 kilowatt lightning strike, but would eventually succumb it it had to undergo that ordeal for a full hour. Therefore on our electric bills we pay for kilowatt hours (kWh), which is simply the amount of electricity required to burn those ten light bulbs for one hour.

A megawatt or (MW) is a thousand kilowatts ( kw), just like a Megabyte (MB) on your computer is a thousand Kilobytes (KB). So if we are measuring power to a system of homes numbering in the thousands, it would make sense to use MWh to do so….( For the geeks and trivial buffs the next levels upward are giga, tera, peta, exa.) For principals of scale, the entire US power supply is around 4 petawatts, up from 2.7 PW in 1992)

Therefore when comparing the costs of different energy applications we need to consider the cost per MWh of energy produced. Then if that source is close or far away, we need supplement that generation cost with transmission costs to get a true idea of what we pay. It is easy really. It would be similar to you comparing how much a head of lettuce would cost to grow outside your kitchen window, and how much it would cost to drive both ways to purchase it at a store.

Bluewater wind according to the latest contract that almost, almost became reality last December had members of Delaware’s Legislative Committee not interfered, was costed out at at $98.93 MWh. So for the price of filling ones gas tank at today’s prices, Bluewater Wind will provide Delmarva the yearly average electrical needs of around a 876 homes for that one hour! Wow! For you non math-wizards this gives the average household a monthly charge for the usage part of their utility bill close to $81.31. (Keep in mind we pay an additional charge for demand as well).

What about buying Land based wind power which costs less than that offshore?

First of all, despite common assumptions, does it?

Remarkably the global experts live here in Delaware. Their names may be familiar to some: Jeremy Firestone and Willett Kempton. Their conclusion:

The bottom line is that, with the refinements to our comparison offered by WGES, along with the final price of the Delmarva/Bluewater Power Purchase agreement (PPA), the Bluewater Wind price still appears to be lower than the price offered today by WGES. (Washington Gas & Electric Service)

WGES offers 100% onshore wind, in one and two year contracts (see It is offered at 13.90¢/kWh for 1 year or 14.50¢/kWh for two years. The two-year contract also bundles two years of price stability. As a first summary comparison, we previously compared WGES’ 100% offer with wind only from Bluewater Wind (by itself effectively 100%). Basing our comparison on the proposed Delaware PPA contract, the (energy and capacity) prices from the Bluewater Wind project are 10.82¢/kWh in 2008 and 11.15¢/kWh in 2009. That is, in year 1, the currently-offered WGES landbased wind is 22% more expensive than the PPA price, and for the two-year combined price, 24% over the PPA price.

So how much lower is Bluewater Wind’s offshore 25 year contract cost compared to a 2 year contract with WGES ‘s offer based on land based wind? Compare $98.03 MWh with $145.00MWh and you have your answer. This is not slanted analysis. These are the two actual choices on the table for those Delawareans who currently subscribe to Delmarva. That $46.96 dollar savings (per MW) is what Charlie Copeland, Thurman Adams, Harris McDowell, Tony Deluca and others, has just prevented you and your children from receiving irregardless or whether it is spread to all Delawareans or not! Not just for two years, but twenty-five.

But how can that be? How can offshore wind be so much better and cheaper than that produced on shore?

The three answers lie in 1) economies of Scale, 2) more available wind offshore, and 3) proximity to our market thereby reducing transmission costs.

The head of Delmarva, Gary Stockbridge, frequently misquoted we could get cheaper wind power on land from Pennsylvania. Naturally the next question that popped into everyones head was: how much wind power is available from Pennsylvania? Apparently not much. Currently there are 89 MWh of PA wind power. Proposed? As of last week, 211 MW which have yet to go through the process Bluewater Wind has already begun. Total PA potential? 300MW! And we are to expect that all of this meager total will benevolently be sent to Delaware, so we can benefit from wind power that is already more expensive than that made offshore?

It would also be wise to remember that demand for a product has as much to do with determining the price of something as does the cost required to produce it. By 2020 almost 1/6 of the Northeastern Corridor’s electrical load will be required to come from renewable sources. (Right click on image below to see the Northeastern Corridor.)

Required Amounts of Renewable Energy
That includes Delaware’s 20%. From what source is this to come? And what if there are too few sources to provide this phenomenal demand? The price goes up, and up, and up. So much for wind remaining a cheap source of electricity if we try to get it from another state besides Delaware.

The offshore wind farm was originally planned for a capacity of 600 MW. In the deal approved with Delmarva it was narrowed to a capacity of 450 MW. Towers offshore can be built higher than onshore. The rotors can be built larger, since they are transported by ships, instead of trucks switchbacking up winding mountain roads. At altitudes of 80 m (or 250 feet) the wind blows uninterrupted as opposed to ground level due to the lack of turbulence that land objects create. Anyone who has ever sailed on open ocean knows how the wind seems to blow continuously instead of in bursts as we experience here on land. Therefore those offshore turbines tend to produce more electricity than those wind mills locked down on shore. We communicate this in our discussions by saying offshore wind has a higher capacity to be busy making power, than that capacity found on shore.

Everyone knows that wind does not blow all the time. Therefore when considering where to put a wind farm, (NOAA already has all the data), one looks for a place with a higher capacity for making power. This higher potential of offshore wind, is based on solid evidence. The combination of larger turbines which are able to generate as much as 5MW of power compared to land based units making 1MW, and the greater chance that the wind will blow offshore than it does onshore, ultimately mean that despite the higher cost of construction required for a wind farm built in water, the cost per MW will be lower…It is exactly the same principal that occurs in transportation where even though a bus costs more to rent a does a car, if you want to transport 450 people to Washington DC, it is better to rent buses to do so in order to achieve a lower cost per person, instead of finding a fleet of cars to carry them.

The third reason offshore wind in Delaware is cheaper than importing outrageously expensive onshore wind from Pennsylvania, is the cost of getting it here. Remember from Chapter 2 that transmission lines lose 10% of the power they carry in form of heat. Bluewater’s power ties into the grid at the Bethany Beach sub station, and that location is where the transaction price will occur. This higher level of efficiency means the entire system saves 10% over that of another system including us and stretching over 300 miles away. 10% is a lot to waste.

So even though a bus costs more than a car, the “cheaper-to-construct” land base wind power provides its electricity per MW at a much higher price than any local offshore wind farm would for Delawareans.


Anyone who has studied “systems” knows that any system that is balanced usually maintains the fine line of survivability. In politics, one has to look only as far as our three branches of government to see stability lies in balance. Likewise any parent of a student creating a terrarium knows the very fine line of balancing all the parts to create a whole that works.

It is obvious that deregulation in its current state does not work. It is equally obvious that offshore wind on the Atlantic Coast, due to its proximity to the largest power consumer on this planet, is a definite good investment. Any capacity from any North Atlantic wind farm built, will be sucked up by the power hungry Northeast corridor with barely a blip. But if wind power is allowed to become a producer of cheap energy, and able to sell that energy at rates way below that of Carbon fuel, as will happen in the future, then the free market that was set in part by the movement to de-regulate electrical generation, will possibly be able to succeed after all. The only reason we are paying 60% more under this arrangement, is because there is no other entity to compete with Delmarva and force down its inflated prices. Well guess what, with Bluewater Wind……now there is.

And here is the kicker:

As carbon fuel continue to skyrocket and wind continues to become cheaper, the entire Eastern Seaboard will one day become one long wind farm. It will happen as did cell towers spring overnight across this country, as were fiber optics buried from one shore to the other, as were four lane highways carved out of mountains and spanned across American rivers, as were airports built outside every large American city, as was a canal carved across Panama, as did steam ships replace graceful clippers, as iron horses replaced living ones.

And to think……if a tiny band of horse-shit shoveling farmers had been as successful in their attempt to block the very first railroad from being built, simply because it would make their livery business obsolete?

How different our world would be?

Just as those who saw the railroad’s potential, and looked westward at 3000 miles of unexplored wilderness, knew of its inevitability, those of us who see the end of an era of carbon energy approaching with the speed of a summer storm, know too offshore wind spanning the length of the Atlantic Seaboard is also inevitable.

Delaware's Silicon Valley?
Courtesy of ENS (Environmental News Service)

And where will the new cottage industry of off shore wind be settled, like the Silicon Valley of chip technology? Obviously where it was first done….

There is no time to lose if that central hub of expert manufacturing on this side of the Atlantic is to be located in Delaware………We are in the race, like it or not.