November 2003

Editorial Comment

Cuisinart comparisons
Vol. 224 No. 11

Cuisinart comparisons. Returning from an oilfield show in Europe, as we flew over Schiphol airport, the fellow in the seat next to me says, “Look at all those g*# d@*% eggbeaters...those idiots.” He was referring to the windmills that surround the international airport at Amsterdam and, I suppose, the people who built them. I remember wondering, “What is it about this inanimate object – a machine – that could arouse such emotion?”

A month later, I was attending an oilfield society luncheon where the speaker – who had for the most part given an authoritative and fact-filled presentation, felt compelled to interject his disdain for windmills, a topic irrelevant to his talk. Probably because he could not find any disparaging data, we were treated to a photo of a large dead bird being held up with a windmill in the background. The speaker called windmills “Cuisinarts of the sky,” supposedly for all of the birds that they kill. We were then shown a picture of a gas well, and told how many hundreds of windmills it would take to “equal” one gas well. A child or naive person would come away with the intended belief – windmills are evil, gas wells are good. (I doubt that the speaker had a genuine concern for birds. Windmills kill at most an average of about one bird per year per machine, newer designs kill fewer still and far less than other human effects, such as skyscrapers, cars, cats, kids with BB guns, and Windex.)

Over the years, I’ve had the unfortunate privilege of having to sit through several lunches where the topic became windmills vs. gas wells, with the apparent point being that windmills are a joke, because gas wells generate much more electricity per unit surface area occupied. When asked my opinion, I always responded, “I don’t know, I’ve never analyzed it.”

Two magazine editorials remarkably close to me reported similar comparisons. This column, in our April 2002 issue, repeated a report from a column in The Washington Times that compared windmills with oil on a per-unit-surface area basis. And our affiliated publication, Petroleum Economist, in March 2002, made a surface- area comparison between windmills and gas power plants. The data in the Times piece was badly skewed, confusing energy quantities with rates, and/or used tiny, circa-1900 rancher windmills. It would take the rest of this page to explain, but the math made no sense; upon examination, the comparison just fell apart. The Petroleum Economist compared 300, 2-MW (600 MW total) windmills that would occupy 40 sq km vs. a 900 MW combined cycle gas turbine plant that covered 0.25 sq km. I suppose the point was that wind farms take up 160 times more space than a gas turbine plant, or perhaps 160 times the public outcry in terms of eyesore per sq km, assuming certain bent rules of measurement.

Both publications ignored the facts that gas and oil wells have gathering systems and deplete. Worse, the average (US) gas well produces one-third (~150 Mcfd) what it did 30 years ago, and is depleting at ever-faster rates. Conversely, windmills are rapidly improving in efficiency, extracting more energy per site. There are over 400,000 active gas wells in the US, and an unknown number (but many thousands) of lost/ forgotten/ not-yet plugged and abandoned wells. 

Picture gas wells as a slowly growing swarm of bees, moving every several years to find new fields. So, especially for gas, wells must eventually occupy much more land surface over time (decades) than a wind site that ostensibly lasts, well – forever is a long time – let’s just say as long as the wind blows. This is like the classic case of the tortoise and the hare. Initially, a gas well delivers far more energy per unit surface area than a windmill, even including gas infrastructure. But eventually, the windmill wins.

Also, incredibly, both publications ignored the space that thousands of miles of pipelines occupy, even if only the percentage that goes to electrical generation were counted, as well as the public protest that inevitably accompanies these “attractive”, “inherently safe” huge swaths. Whether this was willful, I cannot say, but it is glaring if you’re going to talk about surface area. 

I’ve often thought of writing about these dumb comparisons, such as, “Which can cook more yams: a barrel of oil or a truckload of recycled rice hulls?” You can say whatever you want, because nobody is going to check the math. To determine this, you’d have to know the size of the truck, compaction of the rice hulls, the energy content of the oil and rice, the efficiency of the stove, and many other factors, plus many hours to find the facts and do the math to make a fair and honest comparison. But then, usually, the intent in these matters is not to be fair and honest.

Engaging in this sort of distorted “factualizing” can be very clever but it will not stand up to scrutiny. For my part, I do not know how to compare a windmill to any well. The predilection to make these sorts of apples-to-oranges juxtapositions, especially this particular one, seems to have nothing to do with windmills, gas, birds or even energy. Rather, it seems to be about ideology, political or otherwise. Like me, over 80% of our readers are engineers and scientists. You would think that we would go wherever the numbers take us, but you would be wrong. All too often, we simply follow the ideology we inherited. Blood is thicker than math. Apparently, there are two types of energy units: liberal and conservative Btu’s – as if a Btu could give a damn.

At the root of these comparisons is the implication that somehow, oil and rice hulls – or gas and windmills – are mutually exclusive, unable to coexist. It’s this sort of either/or thinking by pundits, politicians and, yes, editors like me, that distorts the picture of what is needed and does great harm in the process. 

What the world needs is copious amounts of energy in all forms. It shouldn’t be either gas or windmills, rather, gas and windmills. And solar cells and oil and nuclear power and geothermal energy and so on. Windmills are a booming growth industry and would be advancing even without government subsidies, just not as fast. The cost of wind power is already competitive with several other forms of power generation. 

If market forces can be brought to bear on the problem of energy supply, then ideology should get on board or step aside. But market forces don’t care about national security; leaders must use them wisely to accomplish that.

So, there you have it  –  a more thorough and honest analysis of some completely stupid comparisons.

I have to run to the airport now. I’m giving the keynote speech at, “The 42nd Annual Swaziland Energy Conference.” My topic is, “Coal or camel dung, what’s best for Swaziland?”  WO

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