An ECM special investigative report:
Serious questions raised over industry claims on wind production here and around the world
By Miriam Raftery
Photos and videos by Jim Pelley
January 23, 2013 (Ocotillo) – Since taxpayer dollars were used to fund the destruction of public lands for the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility, why won’t the federal government tell us how much power the project is producing?
Engineer and award-winning photojournalist Jim Pelley lives in Ocotillo. A series of videos shot nearly each day since the wind project went online December 5, 2012 raises serious questions. Turbines are not turning , or scarcely moving, in nearly all of the videos shot in December and January. Wind speed readings and weather reports further suggest wind speed measurements are far below the minimum needed for the project to produce any power at all—let alone the levels claimed by developer Pattern Energy.
When the project went online December 5, Pattern claimed that with wind forecasts looking “favorable” it expected to power more than 125,000 homes. http://news.yahoo.com/video/controversial-ocotillo-wind-farm-goes-025000610.html. But Ocotillo residents have long voiced concerns that their area lacks sustained strong winds needed to power the massive, controversial wind project on public lands that has been opposed by tribes, environmental groups and most residents.
After viewing videos bolstering concerns over lack of wind, East County Magazine sought public records to learn how much power has been produced. The shocking result? Federal and state authorities claim they don't know--and further, that public officials and the public have no right to find out.
We asked the California Public Utilities Commission for records to show how much power has been produced, if any, by OWEF each day since the project went online. The CPUC referred our request to the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land.
In response to our request, R. Brian Paul, Renewable Energy Projects Manager for the BLM California Desert District in El Centro, replied that “we did a preliminary review of our files and would note the following. We do not believe the BLM possess the information you have requested because the right-of-way (ROW) grant issued on May 11, 2012 for the OWEF does not require the project applicant, Ocotillo Express (OE) LLC. a subsidiary of Pattern Energy Group LP, to report the amount of power generated to the BLM. A copy of the ROW grant is available on the construction compliance website (www.ocotilloeccmp.com).”
That’s right. This project is funded by taxpayers on public land, yet there is apparently no requirement for the federal government to make sure that it is producing any power at all, let alone enough to make it viable economically or prove that it produces more power than was used to build it.
The BLM representative referred our request to Pattern Energy. Pattern has not responded to our request for wind speeds. Paul also suggested that we contact SDG&E. SDG&E’s media representative failed to respond to our inquiry.
Apparently, these corporations and government officials believe that you, the public, should be left in the dark regarding the power (or lack of it) produced with your tax dollars on your public lands.
According to federal records, Ocotillo is considered only a marginal wind resource at best, as are areas in San Diego’s East County proposed for wind energy development. But even many areas with far stronger wind speeds are yielding disappointing results.
Spain, among the first nations to invest heavily in wind power, has halted its subsidies for the industry after discovering that subsidies failed to cover the cost of producing power, Bloomberg reports. Spanish wind giant Iberdrola, with near-junk-bond ratings, sold off many of its underperforming wind farms.CBN news reported that each of Spain’s wind industry jobs cost $1.3 million to create and destroyed nine jobs for every four created. (Spain’s turbines proved an ecological disaster as well as a financial debacle, killing an estimated 6 to 18 million birds and bats a year, according to the Spanish Society of Ornithology, Save the Eagles reported.)
In Great Britain, the new Energy Secretary has concluded that wind farms are inefficient and is launching a review the London Telegraph recently reported. A believer in global climate change but a skeptic about wind energy, he cites a study done in the Netherlands that suggests wind projects may actually require more C02 than they save due to low output and the need for backup gas-fired power plants for when the wind doesn’t blow: An article in London’s Daily Mail suggests that the wind power industry could be the “greatest scam of our age.”
A wind farm outside Reading, England, performed so poorly, working at just 15 percent of its claimed capacity, that it cost more in subsidies than it produced last year. During freezing, windless weeks in winter when electrical demand was at peak, Britain had to import nuclear power from France.
Holland, once enamored with wind power, recently became the first European Union nation to slash its subsidies for wind. In Denmark, which built more turbines per capita than any other country, electricity rates are now the highest in Europe.
The Daily Mail article details three “lies” told by the wind industry to win support from politicians.
First, the industry claims turbines are efficient, but the article concludes that in reality, wind turbines are “ludicrously inefficient.” The industry vastly exaggerates the output of turbines by “deliberately talking about them only in terms of their `capacity’ as if this was what they actually produce. Rather, it is the total amount of power they have the capability of producing,” the story notes.
Second, the industry claims wind is an affordable power source when in fact it is “preposterously expensive” and would not make sense to build without subsidies. “What other industry gets a public subsidy equivalent to 100 or even 200 percent of the value of what it produces?” the article asks.
Third, the industry claims wind helps save the planet by cutting CO2 emissions. But any power produced must be offset against C02 emissions pumped out by gas-powered backup plants, which the industry is arguing must be built everywhere that there is a wind project. (Locally, the Quail Brush peaker plant has been proposed for this purpose.) Moreover turbines are often built in coal-fired plants and require fossil fuels to ship them long distances and construct the projects. Each project requires miles of roads, mining and smelting of metals, carbon-intensive cement, and bulldozing of foliage that absorbed or sequestered C02, such as pine forests in Alaska and peat bogs in Scotland.
A wind farm built off the coast of Kent, England, promised 400 megawatts capacity to power tens of thousands of homes, but actual output would be only 80 MW, a tenth of that supplied by a gas-fired power station, for which ratepayers were forced to subsidize, the Daily Mail reports.
In a Wall Street Journal piece titled the Multiple Distortions of Wind Subsidies, former Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas states that wind turbines “generate a social cost many times the price tag of the subsidies themselves.”
Gramm writes that in West Texas, where wind power is the biggest part of energy production of anyplace in the U.S., “negative energy-price distortions have occurred 8% or more of the time for the last five years.”
During a hot Chicago summer, on July 2012 wind energy had a 99.8% failure rate, supplying just four megawatts out of a supposed 2,700 megawatts capacity.
A study of 47 wind energy facilities in Scotland found they averaged only 22% efficiency – far less than the 30% a year promised by the industry, the London Telegraph has reported.
A study by Argonne of wind turbines in Illinois, a high wind resource area compared to our region, concluded that wind power may not reduce carbon emissions as expected, due to reliance on fossil-fuel powered backup plants, Forbes reports.
Closer to home, in Nevada a rebate program proved a fiasco, as wind companies took advantage to sell turbines that produced very little wind, the Las Vegas Sun reported. The State’s Public Utilities Commission ignored warnings that it should set standards. The article concludes, “The electricity produced by NV Energy’s $46 million wind rebate program has fallen far short of expectations. In a startling example, the city of Reno’s wind turbines — for which the city received more than $150,000 in rate-payer funded rebates — produced dramatically less electricity than the manufacturers of its turbines promised.” City officials quickly realized manufacturers’ claims were wrong. As first reported by the Reno Gazette-Journal, one turbine that cost the city $21,000 to install saved the city $4 on its energy bill. Overall, $416,000 worth of turbines have netted the city $2,800 in energy savings. Nevada’s CPUC is now considering adopting a minimum standard of 10 mph of sustained winds for future rebates.
In Ocotillo, weather records show an average wind speed of 8.6 mph for 2012. But the pattern was spiked, without constant winds during most months of the year.
Pattern Energy put up wind testing towers for approximately three years, but submitted less than one year of data to the federal government to qualify for subsidies. Did the company cherry-pick only the most windy months to pocket millions of dollars in subsidies for a wind project without adequate wind?
“Remember, these wind turbines barely start generating power at 9-10 mph and achieve maximum power (2.3 MW) at 26 mph,” says Pelley, an aerospace engineer.
Pelley has issued a challenge that thus far the government, SDG&E and Pattern have ignored. “I say show the numbers, show us how much power they have averaged in the lsat month of operation.” As for why these organizations have refused to produce evidence that the project is producing significant power, Pelley suggests a motive: “This would be pretty embarrassing to them.”
Bill Pate is an attorney while filed a lawsuit seeking to challenge the project on behalf of a group of residents. The suit was dismissed because the judge ruled that the group, formed after the project was approved, lacked standing. The judge never ruled on the merits of the arguments, which contended the project lacked adequate wind resources. Pate contends that the vast majority of turbines in Ocotillo are sited in areas marked as poor to marginal wind resources on a map from AWS Truepower. Turbines with blades fully extended are 439 feet—not tall enough to reach better wind resources 656 feet off the ground, as identified by AWS, Pate told ECM.
“Wind turbines are the LEAST efficient means of generating electricity,” Pate told ECM. “The national average net capacity for wind turbine generation is between 20 to 23%--and these figures are derived from wind farms with at least Class 4 and higher resources, usually Class 6 “excellent” and above.” Ocotillo is a class 2 or at best, 3.
Yet according to Pattern’s filing with the California Public Utilities Commission, the Ocotillo project is predicted to attain a capacity factor “well above the national average,” Pate stated. “Scientifically, how can this wind farm achieve above average results with below average resources?”
Pattern makes money regardless of whether the turbines work or not, thanks to subsidies and tax credits. SDG&E also stands to profit by raising utility rates ultimately, Pate suggests, noting that the utility has not disclosed how much it is paying for any power produced by the project.
He believes a better way to provide power is through point-of-use generation, and knows this from experience having been general counsel for a concentrated PV system for a college campus and solar projects for a police station, parking garages and more.
Pattern not only got funds from the federal government, but also from the North American Development Bank/Border Enviornmental Cooperation Commission – a group with a board that includes Secretary of State Hilary Clinton , Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson. The entity is supposed to fund border region projects that enhance environmental conditions and quality of life – a mission statement many in Ocotillo believe was violated by this project.
Tom Budlong, a former private real estate lender with a mechanical engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote to the financial institution urging that it deny Pattern’s funding request, but the funding was provided.
Budlong voiced fears that the project was “risky and inadvisable”, fearing that Pattern might ultimately “abandon Ocotillo Express, the project, and the loan obligation.”
Doing so would be easy for Pattern, Pate suggests, leaving taxpayers holding the bag. “Why did Pattern form a shell corporation, Ocotillo Express LLC who acts as the sole recourse on this government loan?” he asks. “ Ask Pattern how much it has applied for to the US Treasury for a Section 1603 "Cash Grant in lieu of Tax Credit?" That's right, upfront cash straight from the US Treasury in the hundreds of millions, kind of like Solyndra. Of course this money doesn't act as a true tax credit in the traditional sense where actual income is needed to benefit; a.k.a production, output and revenue are of no consequence when the payment is cash upfront.”
Some San Diego and Imperial Valley Congressional representatives have seriously questioned the viability of the Ocotillo project and/or the wisdom of wind subsidies. Now Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Government Oversight, has announced plans to form an Energy oversight subcommittee, the Hill reported on January 2.
Issa (has previously questioned Energy Department grant and loans to wind industry corporations. “The American people have a right to expect that their tax dollars are being used responsibly and judiciously. We owe it to them to seek out waste, fraud and abuse and hold those responsible for mismanagement accountable,” Issa has said.
Kevin Emmering at Basin and Range Watch, an environmental organization that has opposed the project due to its destructive impact on desert habitat and environment, had this to say about Pattern Energy’s rush to built the project in order to get federal tax credits. “They obviously did not need for it to `work’ to have it be profitable…When they put of the MET [wind testing towers] on public lands, the information is proprietary. They are not required to share the wind speed data. They can keep quiet about it and it is legal,’ he wrote in an email to residents in Ocotillo battling the project. “They told everyone that the wind there is economical, knew it was not, got the tax goodies and now you guys are stuck with it.”
The Ocotillo project encompassed 12,400 acres on class L lands where visual, cultural and recreational resources are supposed to be protected. Take permits were authorized allowing killing of endangered bighorn sheep and tribes’ pleas to protect the remains of their ancestors, a spiritual landscape and ceremonial sites were not satisfied despite state and federal designations requiring protection. Groves of century-old ocotillo cacti were bulldozed, replaced by towering turbines that disrupt residents with red lights flashing on and off all night, every night.
Emmering offered up an interesting solution to partially rectify the impacts of a project that has not been proven productive.
“It would create a lot of jobs to take the turbines down,” he observed. “I have never heard of the BLM reversing a Right of Way decision like this, but there is a first time for everything.”