What I know about wind power

by E. Carr Everbach

Associate Professor of Engineering

October 10, 2001

Last spring, I was asked by some students to look into the feasibility of Swarthmore College's obtaining some or all of its electrical power from wind turbine sources. At first I was skeptical, but as I investigated, I became more convinced that, as a community, this is a step we can make, and should. I presented a faculty lunch talk on September 26, 2001, to help advance the dialogue on this topic.


My main point was that Swarthmore College, through its purchase of electrical power produced from dirty sources like coal, oil, and nuclear, is indirectly doing harm to people and the environment. By supporting the importation of foreign oil, it contributes to the economic volatility, social inequities, and war-promoting instabilities of the international oil trade. In this respect, the situation is no different from that of a consumer who indirectly supports child labor in foreign lands by purchasing shoes of comparable quality but lower price than those produced domestically. Hence I argue that it is against its founding principles for Swarthmore College to base its operation solely on dirty power.


Some argue that virtually every product or resource used by the College results in some harm or environmental degradation somewhere. If our hands cannot be perfectly clean, why try to make them cleaner? My view is that, although the procedures and technologies for an environmentally sustainable world do not yet exist, we should strive nevertheless to promote them. So the College (and every citizen) should be contributing to the building of infrastructure, for example, by supporting the construction of wind turbines, even though oil may be cheaper. (Actually, oil is not cheaper, if its health and environmental costs are taken into account, as well as direct and indirect government subsidies). Shouldn't Swarthmore College wait until the US government, or private foundations, or somebody else, makes wind power cheaper than oil before we switch? I believe it is part of our educational mission to set the example, not follow the pack. That leadership, on social issues ranging from slavery to pacifism, helps set us apart.


Here are the facts as I have been able to determine them. The College currently buys 100% of its electrical power from PECO-Exelon Corp, whose production sources are roughly 52% coal, 27% nuclear, 9% oil, 6% big hydro, 6% natural gas, and less than 0.5% renewables. In the days before deregulation, Pennsylvanians were required to buy their power from their local power company (e.g. PECO), but since 1999, the College has had a choice. Indeed, for 1999 and 2000, the College found that it could buy its power more inexpensively from PPL Corp, and signed two successive one-year contracts to do so. Unfortunately for PPL, the price of energy skyrocketed in early 2001 (remember the California debacle?) and PPL lost hundreds of millions of dollars. It declined to re-bid for Swarthmore's power at the low price we were looking for, and so we returned to PECO-Exelon as the supplier of last resort. Incidentally, the money we saved (in comparison to what we would have paid PECO) during our two years with PPL simply stayed in the endowment, earning the 13% return that the endowment enjoys (or alternatively, the money stayed in the operating budget, helping finance the things we do without our having to dip further into the endowment).


How much do we pay PECO for our electricity? The answer is $69.40 per megawatt-hour (MWh), but that number includes the costs of high-tension transmission ($3.50 per MWh), local distribution ($7.70 per MWh), and PECO's financing of its various nuclear power plants (a whopping $20.20 per MWh through 2010), as well as demand charges ($9.70 per MWh) that kick in when we have a high peak use (daily 1-3 pm and annually in September-October). Since we would have to pay all of those charges even if we switched suppliers, the baseline price of the electricity is $28.30 per MWh. The average wholesale price for electricity in 2000 was $28.20 per MWh in our "power pool," which includes New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and eastern Pennsylvania.


Swarthmore College will use an estimated 12,000 MWh this year, costing $832,800.00, but once the new Science Center is finished in 2004, the total will likely climb to 15,000 MWh, costing $1,041,000.00 at present rates. (Actually, our electricity expense was already up to $1,057,000 for 2001, which was a couple hundred thousand dollars over budget, and points up the rising cost of fossil fuels over time). It is not only the Science Center, however, that is responsible for our using more and more electricity each year: the increasing quality of our campus amenities demands increasing energy use. This year, McCabe will use an estimated 1,500 MWh, Clothier 630 MWh, Dupont 863 MWh, Mertz 38 MWh, the Field House 384 MWh, and LPAC 1,400 MWh, with the remainder of the 12,000 MWh from other dorms, classrooms, and offices in other buildings not listed.


In the United States, the electricity industry produces 2% of GNP, but contributes as pollutants 70% of the total SO2 (causes acid rain), 30% of NOx (causes smog), 30% of CO2 (contributes to global warming), 18% of all mercury released, as well as high level radioactive waste and air pollution in the form of particulates smaller than 10 microns in diameter. Based upon aggregate emissions data from our "power pool," each year Swarthmore College contributes to the production of 9311 tons CO2, 63 tons SO2, 26.6 tons NOx, and unknown quantities of radioactive waste and air-borne particulates. What's so bad about that? Pennsylvania has the most acidic rainfall and the 4th smoggiest air of any state, and itself emits 1% of the world's CO2 (more than 84 countries emit). In the Philadelphia metro area, each year 997 deaths (on average) are attributable to power plant pollution (mostly particulates), as well as 654 hospitalizations, 19,000 asthma attacks (40% of which afflict children), 593 chronic bronchitis diagnoses, and 158,000 lost work days. Partly these levels are due to PECO's use of outdated coal-burning power plants that are grandfathered against even the 1972 Clean Air Act standards, and this list doesn't include the harm and environmental degradation resulting from mining, transportation, nuclear wastes and solid wastes (e.g. landfilled fly ash).


If Swarthmore College's percentage of the total output of PECO (23,593,639 MWh for 2000) is indicative of the harm to which we contribute indirectly each year, then it amounts to 0.5 deaths/year, or one death on average every other year.


Electricity consumers in the US may be addicted to cheap power. One delivered megawatt-hour of electricity cost (in real dollar terms) $1000 in 1900, $400 in 1950, $100 in 1980, and $69 now. Electricity costs $35-$40 per MWh to generate with a new coal plant, but if the costs of health programs (especially miners' black-lung disease treatment) are factored in, the figure climbs to $55 per MWh. In comparison, a large wind turbine with a design life of 20 years costs $1.5M. Amortizing this figure over 20 years at 6-8% interest gives $131,000 to $153,000 per year. Adding annual operation and maintenance leads to an estimated annual cost of $149,000 to $183,000. But how much electricity can one get out of such a typical wind turbine?


A turbine's annual energy output depends critically on the mean annual wind speed at 50 meters height above ground level. In fact, electrical power output is proportional to the cube of the windspeed, so small increases in wind speed make for much more cost-effective wind farms. For a 1.5 MW turbine, the energy produced is usually 4,700 to 5,200 MWh each year, which works out to $30-$40 per MWh. This cost is comparable or superior to that of new coal plants, depending on whether or not public health effects are taken into account.


Pennsylvania has better wind than Germany, which has a much higher percentage of its energy needs supplied by wind farming than we do. The land upon which the turbines sit can be used for agriculture, and the newest turbines are not hazards for birds and do not produce disturbing low tones, as early ones did. True, wind turbines are made of metal, so there is some environmental degradation associated with mining and shipping, but the environmental negatives are dwarfed by the negatives associated with dirty power technologies.


Carnegie Mellon University recently took the initiative to buy 5% of their total energy load, or 4,778 MWh, from wind power sources. They will pay an extra $80,000 this year, amounting to an added cost of $17 more per MWh than the cheapest power they could obtain. If, through conservation efforts, Swarthmore College could save 5% of its current electricity use ($50,000.00) and direct the savings to purchase wind power, it would be able to have 15% to 20% of its total power come from wind. In doing so, Swarthmore would contribute to the building of new infrastructure in the form of wind turbines, mostly located along the mountainous ridges that cross central and eastern Pennsylvania. Moreover, domestic wind power, though more expensive currently than fossil fuel power, is price-stable over time, shielding us from spikes in energy prices resulting from wars or international cartels. A commitment to phasing out our use of dirty power over 10 years would demonstrate the moral leadership and educational mission for which the College was founded.


There is no separate budget for the extra costs associated with purchasing wind power, however. The costs would come out of the operating budget, and hence would trade off against other moral goods we could imagine: increased faculty salaries, increased financial aid for international students, "living wage" commitments to staff, better protecting the endowment, etc. The dialogue should begin concerning how important we believe our purchase of wind power to be. The College Budget Committee will decide this Fall the parameters of the 2003 budget. Will wind power be among the priorities?

 (see the slides of the faculty lunch talk, including a more in-depth discussion of how wind power might be financed)

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last updated 10/18/01