North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced June 9 new benchmarks for significant increases in the use of offshore wind energy. Executive Order No. 218 “reaffirms,” in the words of the governor’s office, “North Carolina’s commitment to creating clean energy jobs, increasing economic opportunities, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the expansion of offshore wind power.”
But for all its good intentions, the governor’s offshore plan is built on sand. Wind power presents major environmental and efficiency drawbacks. As documented in May by the International Energy Agency (IEA), wind power has a gargantuan appetite for mineral resources relative to nuclear energy and natural gas.
At the core of wind technology are the magnets within a wind turbine’s motor. These magnets require copious sums of rare earth elements, especially neodymium. The extraction of neodymium imposes heavy environmental impacts and has been reported to cause nearby underground water sources to become undrinkable. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the average wind turbine needs 171 kilograms of rare earths per megawatt of capacity.
The resource demands don’t stop there. According to the IEA report, offshore wind needs more than 15,000 total kilograms of minerals, mostly copper and zinc, to generate 1 megawatt. Onshore wind isn’t much better, requiring 10,000 kilograms.
Nuclear energy, which is North Carolina’s leading source of electricity and is carbon free, requires about 5,000 kilograms for the same power generation. Natural gas, North Carolina’s No. 2 power source, requires less than 2,000 kilograms.
Despite the substantially larger demand on Earth’s minerals, wind power remains far less reliable than nuclear or natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), nuclear energy across the country performs at a capacity factor of 93.5%. Natural gas’ capacity factor is 56.8%. Wind’s capacity factor is only 34.8%. The capacity factor measures the percentage of time an energy source is producing at full capacity, meaning wind turbines operate at full capacity only slightly more than only one-third of the time.
Because it lacks the dense punch nuclear energy packs and has such poor performance relative to capacity, offshore wind takes up massive swaths of ocean to generate power. To average 1,000 megawatt-hours over the course of the year, modeling performed for the John Locke Foundation indicates offshore wind requires 200 square nautical miles. Natural gas requires 2 square miles for the same power generation. Nuclear energy requires only half a square mile. On efficiency, nuclear and natural gas blow offshore wind out of the water.
The good news is North Carolina already has a winning playbook on creating a low-carbon, high-performance economy without Cooper’s inefficient wind buildout. North Carolina is a national leader in zero-carbon electricity production and has drawn plaudits from the World Resources Institute for reducing emissions while still building prosperity.
The state has done this by putting nuclear energy and natural gas front and center. Nuclear energy is the state’s workhorse, providing about 40 million megawatt-hours of electricity annually since 2003. In the past decade-and-a-half, natural gas has become the No. 2 power source, displacing higher emitting coal.
The result is the state has seen carbon emissions plunge nearly 40% in the electric sector since 2005 and drop from all activities by nearly 25%, as shown in the Department of Environmental Quality’s 2019 progress report. Remarkably, North Carolina’s electric sector emits 12% less than it did in 1980, according to the EIA, despite the population having grown by more than 4 million people.
An electric grid anchored by nuclear energy and bolstered by natural gas is the key to North Carolina’s low-carbon, high-performance future. Cooper’s pursuit of offshore wind energy targets would be more damaging to the environment and North Carolinians’ wallets.
This article was originally posted on Cooper’s pursuit of inefficient offshore wind invites environmental damage