The World’s Fastest-Growing Renewable Energy Source is Coming of Age
The Cape seemed deceptively tranquil on a recent visit. Seething passions were just below the surface. The latest attempt to scuttle the project had just been made public: an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act introduced by Senator John Warner (R-VA), which would have required Congressional approval for any offshore wind project in the U.S. If it had been adopted (it was, instead, withdrawn the next day), it would have forced Cape Wind back to the beginning of what had already been a three-year regulatory process.
The permitting process has been a long, hard slog for Cape Wind Associates, which has spent an estimated $15 million trying to get its offshore farm built. With Warner’s amendment lifted (reportedly because of the objections of House Republicans), the next step was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers" draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a staggering 3,800 pages released November 9. The EIS had been expected in September, but it sat for several months, some say for political reasons, on the desk of one Raymond DuBois, an undersecretary of defense in the Pentagon for military installations and environmental programs.
As had been expected, the draft EIS is largely favorable to Cape Wind. "This report is a big step towards greater energy independence," said a jubilant Jim Gordon, Cape Wind’s president. But opponents, led by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, were subdued. "This is a flawed report, written and paid for largely by Cape Wind," said Alliance Assistant Director Audra Parker.
For the record, Warner’s family has property whose view would be affected by the Cape Wind Project. So does Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), whose famous "compound" is in Hyannis, near Ground Zero. Everybody on the Cape has an opinion about the project, though it’s not generally expressed with the usual bumper stickers and lawn signs. Instead, there are intense activist groups on both sides of the fence, and public opinion polls that indicate a population that is dramatically split on the project.
The tide has been turning somewhat against the project after a concerted media campaign by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The Alliance has some environmental trappings, but its founder, Doug Yearley, is chairperson emeritus of mining giant Phelps Dodge Corporation and a board member of Marathon Oil (a winner of the Toxic Action Center’s "Dirty Dozen Award"). To be fair, he’s also a member of the World Wildlife Fund’s National Council. The Alliance raised $1.8 million in 2003 through donations from such high-profile Cape residents as Paul Fireman of Reebok, but it spent even more, $2.4 million, on what the Boston Herald called "a small army of hired lawyers, lobbyists and publicists."
Even with the draft EIS released, there will still be a long slog. There will be public hearings, the issuance of a final EIS (expected in mid 2005), more comments, then a permitting decision by the Army Corps. The state has a role also in the form of the Office of Coastal Zone Management. Even if a permit is issued (it can be approved with conditions or denied outright), there’s a good chance the Alliance would then file a lawsuit.
There are articulate voices on both sides. "This project in this place is inappropriate for any number of reasons," says the passionately persuasive Audra Parker. "We’re supportive of renewable energy, but this is risky technology—the first offshore wind project in the U.S.—and do we really want to turn our priceless Nantucket Sound into a scientific experiment?"
The Alliance raises the specter of Cape Wind as a stalking horse for at least three more large-scale wind farms in Nantucket Sound. It says the five million people who visit the Cape and the islands (Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard) every year will be "confronted by 130 huge towers in the Sound," each 100 feet higher than the famous Bourne and Sagamore bridges. In fliers, the group warns about "a risky new technology and a developer who has never built a wind plant."
Supporters say that Cape Wind can replace 113 million gallons of oil per year, that it will reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions by one million tons per year (the equivalent of taking 162,000 cars off the road) and reduce New England’s wholesale electric prices by $25 million per year. They also say its construction will create 1,000 new jobs.
Bill Eddy, a local Episcopal priest, has been a vocal supporter and founder of the 3,500-member Clean Power Now, which supports the project as strongly as the Alliance opposes it. "The wind farm could contribute 75 percent of our electrical needs and have a noticeable and positive impact on our electricity costs for the life of the project," says the gray-haired Eddy in a booming, pulpit-friendly voice. He also thinks the wind project will improve Cape Cod’s surprisingly bad air quality (it’s 50 percent worse than Boston"s, Eddy says).
Eddy built his own first wind generator in 1976, to celebrate the national Bicentennial. A wind farm on Nantucket Sound, he says, "represents a compelling vision for our future." He quotes King Solomon from the Bible‘s Book of Proverbs, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." Eddy feels betrayed by America’s national leaders, who talk about the need for energy independence, but then refuse to take a stand in supporting key projects. "Sometimes I think they’d rather see Arlington National Cemetery expanded with a thousand new markers for young men who died fighting to protect our oil supply than to have to endure the sight of wind turbines producing clean energy off Cape Cod," he says.
When E visited, the unassuming Mark Rodgers, a spokesperson for Cape Wind, was combative about the well-organized opposition. "The Alliance approach has created a lot of unnecessary fears," he says. "They’ve dramatically outspent us with incessant fear-mongering." The Alliance’s spending has produced results, Rodgers admits. In 2002, 55 percent of Cape residents supported the project, but after two years of Alliance undermining the situation has reversed, and a Cape Cod Times poll shows 55 percent oppose the wind farm. (Rodgers points out, however, that the Times has vehemently opposed Cape Wind, and that its reporting on the poll failed to disclose the 20 percent who simply refused to answer the newspaper’s question.)
Rodgers says that alarmist wind opponents can point to grandiose proposals by the New York-based Winergy to construct as many as 2,000 turbines off the coasts of New England, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, ruining the view for millions. "They’ve gone up and down the coast and announced plans for wind farms everywhere," Rodgers says. "It’s easy to send out press releases, but much harder to actually do the hard work of licensing wind farms. Their approach has created a lot of unnecessary concern." Dennis Quaranta, whose experience comes from developing a fish farm in Long Island Sound’s Gardner Bay, says that Winergy doesn’t plan to operate wind farms, but will bring in management teams after it obtains the necessary permits. But it’s unclear if any of the company’s projects have moved very far.
ieves the release of the Cape Wind EIS will pave the way for the wind farm to begin construction in 2007. "The document, put together by the Army Corps with input from other agencies, shows that there are compelling public interest benefits from this clean energy project," he says. But a lot of wind will be blown before then. Both supporters and opponents of Cape Wind make comparisons to the Horns Reef wind farm off Denmark’s west coast. There are indeed many similarities. The projects are of comparable size (though Cape Wind will be larger), and both are in parts of the country heavily used by recreational visitors. But two years after Denmark’s turbines started generating power, the controversy has died down. Despite the Alliance’s determined efforts to make Horns Reef appear to be a disaster, it has been woven into the fabric of a nation firmly committed to wind power.
Denmark: Running With the Wind
On a fast train ride across Denmark from east to west, passengers get used to the sight of rows of tall white Vestas wind turbines turning slowly in the ever-present breeze. The Danes pioneered wind energy development dating back to the pioneer and inventor Poul la Cour in the 1890s. A Danish engineer, Johannes Juul, was the first to connect a wind turbine with an AC generator to the electrical grid. Denmark-based companies also helped spark the modern wind movement in the 1970s. In 2003, Danish manufacturers had nearly 40 percent of the world turbine market, which grows at the astounding rate of 20 percent per year. Ninety percent of the turbines manufactured in the country go for export. Wind is the third-largest contributor to the Danish economy, after pharmaceuticals and Lego blocks, and provides 20,000 jobs in all of its dimensions. Denmark itself has 3,100 megawatts of installed wind power, but that figure will undoubtedly be outmoded by the time this article goes to press.
Denmark is a small country, with just 5.4 million people, but it is a mighty force in the wind industry. Just one industrial giant, Vestas (which recently merged with its largest competitor, NEG Micron) has 35 percent of the international market and employs 8,500 people. Its turbines are being installed all over Europe (including largest customer Germany, as well as Spain, Great Britain, Portugal and Greece), Canada, Australia and many other countries. When tax incentives are in place, the U.S. is also a large-scale Vestas customer.
Blavand is a beachside resort town at Denmark’s western tip, a summer mecca for hordes of German tourists who rent the colorful thatched-roof summer houses that line the dunes. On a blustery but sunny afternoon in October, they thronged the town’s main shopping street and made pilgrimages to the top of its 100-year-old lighthouse.
The 120-foot lighthouse, with its 170 worn wooden steps, is a great vantage point for birders who come to see grebes, gannets, skuas and the occasional shearwater or storm petrel on their migratory route through Scandinavia. But it’s also the best place to see one of the world’s largest offshore wind farms, Horns Reef.
Unfortunately, on cloudy days there’s not much to see: The wind farm includes 80 two-megawatt turbines, located 8.5 to 12 miles out in the North Sea, and from a beach littered with German World War II military bunkers it’s an indistinct cluster of what appear to be toothpicks sticking out of the water. As Bill Eddy (who accompanied a Cape Cod delegation to Blavand) has observed, it "occupies only a small portion of the horizon, perhaps 20 degrees .Horns Reef is smaller than I thought."
Jan Toftdal of the Danish Tourist Board, who escorts visiting journalists around his picturesque region, admits that the wind farm was controversial when first proposed. The project went forward without much local input, he says, and there was some concern it would wreck the tourist-dependent economy.
"But now people are very accepting," says Toftdal, who has visited Cape Cod as a guest of Cape Wind supporters. "We have not seen one single tourist saying anything negative about it. There was recently a survey of people on the beach, and the most common response was "What wind farm?" They just don’t even see it."
The Cape-based Alliance has tried to spin this in another direction, touting the views of "economic expert" Chresten Andersen, who told Massachusetts audiences that it is "widely known" in Denmark that wind farms are undesirable neighbors. But that would appear to be contradicted by the facts on the ground in Blavand, where the tourist economy is booming and housing prices are rising.
In her office in downtown Copenhagen, decorated by a scale model of a Vestas turbine, Hanne Jersild of the Danish Wind Energy Association shakes her head when asked about declining property values. "There is simply no analysis to show an impact," she says. "When Horns Reef was built two years ago, there was talk about it, but the opposition has melted away." Now, she says, Horns Reef will be considerably expanded with another 200 megawatts of wind power within two years. Thanks in part to a "depowering" scheme that makes it advantageous to replace older, less-productive turbines with more efficient models, Denmark is likely to increase its wind capacity so that it can meet 25 percent of the country’s energy needs by 2008. The Wind Energy Association’s goal is 35 percent of national needs by 2015.
In place of fear, there is now mostly optimism about this expanding industry, particularly in an environmentally conscious country where 20 percent of all travel is by bicycle. "The development of the wind industry here has been very rapid in the last 15 years," says Jersild. "China is a big potential market for us, and we have large markets already in Germany, Spain and Great Britain." Denmark is becoming something of a specialist in offshore wind development. "The marine environment is challenging, because of greater construction costs for the foundations, and wear and tear on the equipment, but offshore wind turbines are more productive," Jersild says. Thanks to more persistent wind, "an offshore turbine typically produces some 30 to 40 percent more energy per kilowatt than an onshore turbine."
Peter Helmer Steen is associate director of Energistyrelsen, the Danish energy ministry, and he says the government has encouraged investment in wind research since the 1970s. The idea from the beginning, he says, was that local ownership of wind turbines should be encouraged, "so that you don’t have windmills in Jutland owned by investors in Copenhagen. We recognized that people who are part-owners would be more willing to accept the noise and changes to the landscape." More than 100,000 Danish families are members of wind energy cooperatives, which have installed 86 percent of the country’s turbines.
Denmark is an energy exporter, with the capacity to produce 170 percent of its domestic needs. It sells North Sea oil on the world market, surplus electricity to the Scandinavian countries (as much as 50 percent of production, says Steen) and natural gas to Sweden. Many of Denmark’s existing power plants are coal-fired (with coal imported principally from South Africa), but the approximately 35 percent of the grid dependent on coal is offset by 27 percent from renewables (largely wind power, but also including biomass and electricity from organic waste).
In addition to wind powe
r, there are plants creating electricity from biomass and straw, and an efficient cogeneration system that distributes waste heat from power generation and incinerators to warm more than 300,000 homes in Copenhagen alone. Denmark hopes to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint 21 percent, in part through a carbon dioxide emissions trading system that begins this year. "Perhaps Denmark could be a model for the rest of the world in meeting the Kyoto climate goals," says Steen.
Can Denmark really meet 35 percent of its energy needs with wind by 2015? "It depends on how rapidly we develop commercial offshore wind farms," says Steen. "We want to see more competition for the contract to deliver large-scale, 250-megawatt wind farms. Production costs are decreasing rapidly [a 75 percent reduction between 1973 and 2003], so it may be feasible."
For his part, Vestas CEO Svend Sigaard says that for the last dozen years wind power has been surpassing the annual 20 percent growth rate internationally, achieving nearly 35 percent growth. He admits the U.S. market has been "quite low" because of the absence of tax credits, and that most current North American Vestas projects are in Canada. "The U.S. market over the last six years has been very on and off," Sigaard says, "and it’s difficult to plan for the fluctuations in the regulations. But 2005 will be a better year for us in the U.S."
Vestas has had some setbacks at Horns Reef, due to manufacturing errors in transformers and other equipment (not built by Vestas) that have needed on-land repairs. "We’ve learned quite a lot from the experience," says Sigaard, who is cautiously optimistic about the 35-percent-by-2015 figure. "It’s certainly possible, considering the ongoing replacement of our smaller turbines and the 1,000 megawatts in offshore projects that are under development," he says.
Not all of Denmark’s offshore wind farms (it has eight) are in remote locations. The Middelgrunden project, capable of producing 100,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year, is located just outside Copenhagen harbor, and consists of 20 two-megawatt turbines arrayed in a two-mile arc. Far from a visual blight, it’s actually hard to see at all unless you find a rare high vantage point in this low-rise city. But when you finally do get a look at it, the white towers topped by gently spinning propeller-like blades present a visual picture of environmental progress.
Like public transit, which is plagued by self-appointed "experts" who try and stop every proposed project, wind power has opponents like Glenn Schleede, a former senior vice president of the National Coal Association. His mantra: Wind power equals huge machines producing very little electricity. Wind advocates, he says, greatly underestimate "the true cost of wind energy, as well as the adverse environmental, ecological, scenic and property value impacts."
But the American Wind Energy Association answers him point by point. "The cost of electricity from new wind plants is competitive with the cost of new conventional power plants, when the federal wind energy production tax credit is taken into account," the association says. "It is true that few wind plants would be built without this incentive. But it is also true that the traditional energy industries [including nuclear and coal] are generously subsidized in a variety of ways."
Do wind farms affect property values? Not according to a 2003 study by the Renewable Energy Policy Project (REPP). The group gathered a large database and examined more than 25,000 property transactions. "If there were any systematic harm to property values from wind power projects, it would have shown up in the data," says REPP Research Director George Sterzinger. In the majority of transactions, property values actually rose in the period studied.
The libertarian Cato Institute complains that wind power is "not cheap and not green." It charges that renewable energy is, on average, twice as expensive as "the most economical fossil-fuel alternative," meaning dirty coal. But such estimates fail to take into account the cost of health effects caused by polluted air and global warming.
Another charge is that wind power is intermittent, and therefore not as dependable as fossil-fuel energy. In California, says Cato, wind power operated at only 23 percent of its average capacity factor. Cato compares that to nuclear power, with a 75 percent average capacity factor. But to make wind energy appear inefficient it’s necessary, again, to ignore the external costs of nuclear power production—including storing nuclear waste and protecting nuclear plants from 9/11-style attacks. Pacific Gas and Electric forecast in the early 1990s that wind could ultimately become the least-expensive electricity generation source. The cost of wind energy is also dropping faster than the cost of conventional generation, AWEA says, about 15 percent with each doubling of installed capacity worldwide.
Wind opponents, when they’re not creating facsimiles of how bad offshore wind projects will look, point to the fact that birds collide with wind turbines. This is indeed tragic, but cell towers and other obstacles are a large part of the problem. A Western EcoSystems Technology report points out that as many as a billion birds are killed by collisions with manmade structures annually in the U.S. alone.
Although as many as 40,000 birds die annually after hitting windmills, and that’s a significant number, some 60 to 80 million die from colliding with vehicles, and as many as 980 million from hitting buildings and windows. Communications towers take out four to 50 million birds a year, and power lines kill many thousands more. The Exxon Valdez oil spill killed an estimated 375,000 to 500,000 birds. Further, newer, slow-moving turbines "are designed to provide little perching and no nesting structure," the report says, reducing bird proximity.
The Center for Biological Diversity says that wind turbines at the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area (APWRA) in California, which is located on a major bird migratory route with high raptor density, "kill more birds of prey than any other wind facility in North America." Estimates range from 800 to 1,300 raptor deaths annually. But even the litigation-prone Center isn’t proposing to shut Altamount down. Instead, it proposes that "turbine owners take reasonable measures to reduce bird kills and adequately compensate for impacts to imperiled bird populations."
Altamont was installed in the early 1980s, and wind developers have since become considerably more bird-friendly, designing less-lethal turbines using repellant devices and colors, and placing them away from migratory routes.
Also of concern is the issue of bat collisions with wind turbines, a phenomenon that has not received sufficient study. A 2003 report based on observations at the Buffalo Ridge Wind Resource Area in Minnesota (354 turbines operated by Xcel Energy) concluded that 849 bats were killed in 2001 and 364 in 2002, for an average of 2.16 per turbine per year.
Can zero-emission wind power be used to produce hydrogen for fuel cells as part of a completely clean energy loop? There’s some evidence that it can.
According to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, the Bush administration’s plans to use nuclear power to generate hydrogen are off base, and wind power presents a better option. "Electricity from wind is currently four cents per kilowatt-hour," the group says. "This is a verifiable, experienced cost. Wind energy and photovoltaic systems coupled to electrolyzers used for hydrogen separation are perhaps the most versatile of the approaches and are likely to be the major hydrogen producers of the future." Princeton researcher Joan Ogden, a booster of solar and wind-based hydrogen, adds that nuclear hydrogen is dependent on "difficult technology that is much further from commercialization than many other hydrogen-production options."
There are, however, certainly realistic obstacles to overcome before wind-based hydrogen can become a reality. A report by Science for Democratic Action concluded that "there are no real cost advantages to integrating fuel cells into the electricity system on a large scale." Bill Leighty, director of the Leighty Foundation in Juneau, Alaska, has some sobering second thoughts on the idea of transmitting large amounts of wind-generated electricity via a hydrogen pipeline from North Dakota, for example, to Chicago, a possibility examined in a study underwritten by his foundation.
"Hydrogen transmission does not appear to offer an economically attractive alternative to gigawatt-scale transmission of Great Plains wind energy via high-voltage [electric lines] because of the extra costs of conversion from electric to hydrogen energy at the Great Plains source," said a key sentence in Leighty’s paper. "Capital, operations and maintenance, and energy conversion loss costs are significant, though energy storage as compressed hydrogen gas in the pipeline is a valuable benefit."
Leighty says wind-generated hydrogen is dependent on what the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Letter describes as "the emergence of a large market for pure hydrogen for [fuel-cell-based] transportation and for distributed generation."
But what if that market does develop? Claus Moller of the Danish Wind Energy Association says that the concept of hydrogen from wind is being actively pursued in Denmark, with small-scale demonstration projects and long-term feasibility studies underway in research institutes. If economics of scale come into play to dramatically reduce the cost of wind-powered hydrogen electrolyzers, reports a paper by Harry Braun of the Hydrogen Political Action Committee posted on EV World, then electricity could be generated at a cost of one cent per kilowatt-hour, resulting in liquid hydrogen produced for the same cost as gasoline at $1.95 a gallon.
Braun calls for 12 million wind systems to be mass-produced and installed within 24 months and coupled to an interstate hydrogen pipeline. "It is possible for the U.S. to be energy independent, with a pollution-free and inexhaustible energy resource within five to 10 years," he says.
The Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown offers a plausible scenario for wind-based hydrogen. "Surplus wind power can be stored as hydrogen and used in fuel cells or gas turbines to generate electricity, leveling supply when winds are variable," says Brown. "Wind, once seen as a cornerstone of the new energy economy, may turn out to be its foundation. The wind meteorologist who analyzes wind regimes and identifies the best sites for wind farms will play a role in the new energy economy comparable to that of the petroleum geologist in the old energy economy.
"With the advancing technologies for harnessing wind and powering motor vehicles with hydrogen, we can now see a future where farmers and ranchers can supply not only much of the country’s electricity, but much of the hydrogen to fuel its fleet of automobiles as well. For the first time, the United States has the technology and resources to divorce itself from Middle Eastern oil."
An Unlimited Future
As the fastest-growing source of energy in the world, with the fewest long-term drawbacks, wind power would seem to have an unlimited future. Lester Brown describes wind power as "the missing link in the Bush energy plan." Bush has called for the addition of 393,000 megawatts of electric generating capacity by 2020, and he’s proposed financial aid to businesses that construct new nuclear power plants, as well as streamlined plant licensing. But no nuclear plant has been ordered in 30 years, and mammoth financial incentives may not be enough to offset the huge waste and liability questions.
But Bush’s generating goals could be reached with wind power alone. Just three Great Plains states—North Dakota, Kansas and Texas—have enough wind potential to meet America’s entire energy needs. Farmers and ranchers support wind projects because of the financial boon that comes with leasing their land. Wind projects completed just in 2003 will generate $5 million annually in payments.
Wind energy designers are starting to think big. A project called Rolling Thunder, in South Dakota near the Iowa border, would generate 3,000 megawatts when it comes online in 2006, making it five times larger than any previous wind farm and one of the largest energy developments in the world today. At the same time, the federal Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) says it will buy 830 megawatts of wind power from seven plants—five to be built in Washington and two in Oregon. Already the nation’s biggest supplier of hydroelectric power, BPA will be the largest wind energy supplier.
The pieces are in place for a massive expansion of wind resources worldwide at a time when concern about oil supply and location is proving to be massively troubling. All the signs are positive, but will wind power achieve its true potential? The answer, of course, is blowing in the wind.