Sunday, December 4, 2011

Xcel Energy “Breaks Wind” Records for Rate-Payers

The Denver Post reports: 

Early on Oct. 6, Xcel Energy set a world record for electricity from wind power. Between 4 and 5 a.m. that day, 55.6 percent of the electricity consumed by Xcel’s 1 million customers in Colorado came from wind farms dotting the state. 

“We’re proud of that and believe it shows that wind is an important part of the portolio,” said Michelle Aguayo, an Xcel spokeswoman. 

While that seems like a tremendous accomplishment, let’s take a look at what was accomplished, and what it means for Xcel customers.

The record itself is not that impressive. In a recession at 4:00 in the morning, overall electric usage is pretty low. When the economy is humming along at full steam, manufacturers that require lots of electricity often add night shifts, because electricity often costs less at night, and it’s cheaper than building more production capacity. This creates more jobs. But in this economy, it’s a safe bet there ain’t much happening.  

October 6 was a high wind day. Portions of I-70 were closed that day from winds. In Denver, the wind uprooted power a light pole, which landed on a light-rail power line, delaying the trains. Lots of wind combined with a recession produced the record.

Wind energy costs up to 80% more than conventional power production. When Xcel brags that they broke a record for wind power generation, they are really saying that at 4 a.m. they produced high cost energy at a time that was once considered to be the least expensive time of day to buy electricity.

Let’s go a bit deeper in our analysis. Colorado has a 30% Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), meaning 30% of our electricity must come from renewable resources by 2020. The citizens voted in 2004 for a 10% standard, but a “too eager to please” legislature has since raised it twice. Solar and wind devices provide roughly one third of their rated capacities, because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. A wind farm rated at 100 megawatts will only deliver 33 megawatts. Because they mandated the 30% RPS, we must overbuild renewable generation by nearly three times.

That sounds great, right? Except that there is no way to store the power produced when the wind is blowing for use when it isn’t. Therefore we must have stand-by generation capacity that can meet all our electricity needs.

Coal power can’t easily or efficiently be “cycled”, meaning you can’t turn it off and on to complement wind speeds or sunshine. Some clean coal plants violate clean air standards because solar and wind are too variable. When they are cycled, their clean status is compromised.

Nuclear power, which has no carbon or other bad emissions, can’t be cycled at all. It can only be used for “baseline generation”, the lowest amount of electricity that gets used during a day. As we approach that 30% standard, nuclear can not be part of the mix, because sometimes all our power must come from renewables. The stand-by generation will all have to be quick cycling sources, such as oil or gas.

In recent years, technology has rapidly advanced to make coal a much cleaner fuel for electricity generation. Now that Colorado and President Obama have decided that coal will be eliminated or minimized as a fuel, there will be no incentive for further advancements in clean coal technology. Meanwhile, advancements in wind, solar, and storage technology are creeping along at a snail’s pace. Government interference is misdirecting research and resources.

Colorado’s Renewable Energy Standard is raising electricity costs when families and businesses are struggling, costing hardships and preventing job creation. The environmental savings, if there are any, are negligible. Readily available, clean burning fuels are being ignored, or shipped to China where they burn without the benefit of our clean technology, creating global pollution. It’s time to eliminate the arbitrary Renewable Portfolio Standard and let market forces, guided by sensible restrictions on pollution, determine how we will generate electricity for families and the businesses that create jobs.


  1. Thanks Brian. Your insightful analysis shows once again that running markets by government dictate is a mess and results in higher costs. Those who support renewable energy don't think about the damaging effects of higher energy costs on a struggling single mom.

  2. Look to pumped storage such as the Mount Elbert Powerplant. The system can use off hours "cheap" electricity to pump water to an upper reservoir that can then be released to a lower reservoir generating electricity during high demand hours. It compliments other renewable sources like solar and wind that, as you pointed out, can be ineffective do to their availability and lack of storage.