The wind power CO2 conspiracy

The argument about wind not reducing emissions is a long running one that has been comprehensively refuted time and time again. But never let facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory.

Yesterday I explained how those who doubt human activity is leading to global warming seem to see cover-ups and conspiracies on every corner. Often these very same people seem to have a similar propensity to see cover-ups at work with wind power as well, where a range of organisations are working together to obscure the truth that wind power doesn’t work and is harmful. 

Using Maurice Newman one more time to illustrate this broader mentality, he suggests in The Spectator that state and federal governments are hell-bent on supporting wind in spite of it not saving CO2 and in spite of it hurting poor local land holders, due to the efforts of an extraordinary coalition:

“But don’t expect help from academia, mainstream media or the public service. They are members of the same establishment and worship together at the altar of global warming. By ruthlessly perpetuating the illusion that wind farms can somehow save the planet, they keep the money flowing. All the while the poor become poorer, ever more dependent on welfare and colder in winter.”

This argument about wind not saving CO2 is a long running one that has been comprehensively refuted for example from the UK Energy Research Centre and the CSIRO.

Just back in September, in response to claims by Hamish Cumming published in The Australian newspaper a few months ago that wind power had failed to reduce emissions because brown coal generators were producing output in excess of Victorian demand, Climate Spectator published three stories (here, here and here).

These explained in quite a bit of detail how, in spite of wind power’s variability, it would act to substantially displace fossil fuel consumption in other power stations. As part of this it was explained that Victorian brown coal generators were unlikely to be the plants whose output and fuel consumption was displaced because of their very low operating costs. Instead it was explained that South Australian and NSW generators were most likely to be displaced by wind power output.  

However Cumming was unconvinced by these explanations and based on emails to me and others, seems to believe a cover-up is at work involving AEMO, a range of coal-fired generators and wind power developers. 

In a submission against Infigen’s Cherry Tree Wind farm he states:

“I have been calling on AEMO and electricity generators to make publicly available all their data and records concerning GHG abatement claims made by wind farm developers. For some reason electricity generators and wind farm developers are not prepared to make public the data which would support GHG abatement claims made by wind farm developers”.

What data is he demanding they reveal? Only just the hour-by-hour fuel consumption of each Victorian brown coal generating unit (as well as electricity generation data for all generators which is already available). Presumably if he wanted to be thorough he’d also want a chemical breakdown on the fuel too.

And what data has Cumming produced to support his contention that wind farms are not reducing emissions? Well, since Climate Spectator pointed out his previous data on brown coal generator output didn’t prove anything, he now claims that, “from publicly available information and my own research it is apparent that the carbon intensity has actually increased for coal-fired generation plants in Victoria as a consequence of increasing wind power generation.” 

The one firm piece of actual numbers he’s provided to me is the chart below taken from the 2010 Sustainability Report for Loy Yang A showing a slight deterioration in the plant’s emissions intensity since 2004, shown below. 

Source: Loy Yang Power Sustainability Report 2010

He also claims that other Victorian brown coal generators' emissions intensity/energy efficiency have also deteriorated over recent years (but without providing precise numbers). 

Cumming suggests this deterioration in emissions intensity coincides with the addition of wind power capacity to the electricity system and so they must be to blame.

To thoroughly address his points is actually quite time consuming, hence I first chose to ignore his nagging emails. But sure enough his views got an uncritical airing in the Australian media.

Firstly, he’s wrong about emissions intensity deteriorating across all the Victorian brown coal generators.

For both Loy Yang B and Yallourn, emissions intensity barely changed between 2009 and 2011 as detailed in the table below, while wind generation in the NEM increased by 77 per cent and in Victoria by 400 per cent. You can get this data from the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting system (NGER), China Light and Power’s 2012 sustainability report and AEMO’s actual (not modelled) electricity dispatch data – all available online.

Hazelwood emissions data is, however, not available. This is a major shortfall of the NGER providing data only by controlling corporation when it should be by facility. Cumming would be doing the community a great service by echoing my call for making data public by facility.

In terms of Loy Yang A’s emissions intensity deterioration, their own 2011 sustainability report explains, “In recent years the carbon intensity has increased due to mainly plant and coal quality factors.”

As it was explained to me by a former senior manager at a coal generator, in relation to coal quality brown coal can vary in moisture content and also calorific value (heat content measured in GJ/t) as you move through different coal seams. With more moisture in the coal, you need to burn more of it to get the same output leading to a deterioration in emissions intensity. Also plant factors might include such things as the amount of silt in cooling water that could foul condensers making them less efficient.

So Cumming has yet again misinterpreted scraps of data he’s uncovered. Hazelwood data might save his argument but for the fact he also doesn’t have data to illustrate wind farms are causing any change to the operation of brown coal generators that might lead them to become less efficient. But that’s an argument for Friday to be revealed in our charts of the week.

So before people leap to conclusions that there's a complex conspiracy to cover-up the truth about wind power, maybe they might be better served to give Google a bit of a work-out.