Randy Swisher: A Force for Wind

Randy Swisher has been involved in the fight for renewable energy since 1975, when he served as executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). He has also worked for wind as a legislative representative for the American Public Power Association, energy program director for the National Association of Counties and a House Interior Committee energy and water specialist. Swisher, who holds a Ph.D. from George Washington University, has taught courses in energy policy at Georgetown University, and at its law center. He has been the executive director of the highly visible American Wind Energy Association since 1989.

E Magazine: I wanted to ask you about the economics of wind energy. Wind prices seem to be coming down significantly, so how do they compare to conventional sources?

Randy Swisher: Wind competes very well with the cost of generating electricity from a new coal or natural gas power plant. The economics of any one project is going to be different, with the biggest determinant being wind speed. On the west Texas plains, wind is damned cheap. A wind farm in Alabama would be pretty darned high-cost power. It matters where you site a wind farm. According to the Internal Revenue Service, which tracks these things because of the production tax credit, the average cost of wind in 2003 was 3.24 cents per kilowatt-hour. A new coal plant generates electricity somewhere between three and four cents per kilowatt-hour, depending on the technology and the cost of coal.

How important is the production tax credit for wind power development? It has now gone through three cycles of extension and expiration.

The credit has been one of the foundation stones for wind project financing in the last decade. When a developer is conceiving a project, all the analysis and potential equity ownership is predicated on the availability of the credit. If you take that away, you go back to square one in terms of the economics. It’s a big deal. You can’t just price the power a bit higher and move on. It’s complicated by the fact that no one really expects the credit to disappear; it’s one of the more popular provisions that comes before the Congress. So a wind project developer would be silly to just say, "Oh, we"ll just go ahead and develop this project without the credit."

Why doesn’t Congress just re-authorize it for a longer period of time?

That’s the kind of rational, eminently sensible question that comes from people who do not work with Congress on a day-to-day basis.

Is there strong NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) opposition to wind power?

Our sense is that as wind development happens on a wider scale, you are inevitably going to run into more NIMBY opposition, particularly in some regions. We don’t see a lot of NIMBY concerns in Texas, Wyoming or the Dakotas. But in other regions, like New England, there is a lot of concern about the landscape and about any development at all. Green Mountain Power in Southern Vermont spent a lot of time working with the community and environmental groups before siting its Searsburg project.

The Cape Wind project in Massachusetts is located in Horseshoe Shoals, which has an excellent wind regime, is not in the path of any shipping lanes, and is in relatively shallow water to keep construction costs down. The number of offshore sites that provide those kinds of advantages is somewhat limited. Jim Gordon [of Cape Wind Associates] went with that site because it made good sense, but he recognized there would be some concern from wealthy land owners. He thinks that, in the end, there really are no environmental issues that are prohibitive at that site. The research supports that conclusion, so it comes down to visual impact. Are you willing to accept the tradeoff of having that project five miles offshore, barely visible to the naked eye? While there has been a lot of noise about it, visual impact alone is hardly the kind of compelling reason to stop such a project, given all the benefits it brings in terms of environmentally preferable generation of electricity.

Is offshore wind always going to be more productive than onshore wind?

Not always. The reason to go offshore is because winds are stronger, but of course the installation costs are higher. Offshore wind is a bit more expensive to develop, but there are some parts of the country, such as New England, where there is some pretty significant opposition to basing wind farms on land. The Cape Wind and Long Island Power Authority projects are attractive because you need to go offshore to build on the scale necessary to obtain optimum economics. Europe is definitely moving towards a concentration on offshore wind, but the situation is somewhat different in the U.S. where you have mile after mile of relatively open land in windy parts of the country.

Is the industry concentrating on large wind farms rather than smaller cottage projects?

It’s a mix. Sometimes you have a municipal utility with relatively limited demand, and a smaller wind installation makes sense. One of the trends in the upper Midwest is toward farmer-owned or community-owned projects. Those projects tend to be smaller as well.

Do you think we will ever have the kind of national consensus on wind power that they now have in Denmark, together with a willingness to overcome these "viewshed" objections?

It is fully my expectation that the U.S. will be the largest market for wind power over the next 20 years. And along with that there will develop exactly the kind of consensus you’re describing. The economic, environmental and energy benefits associated with that course of action are so compelling, that a lot of this NIMBYism will not prevail. There will still be conflict over individual project locations. Wind is still pretty new in some parts of the country, and some of the fearful comments are amazingly naéve and ill-informed. As people become more informed, such judgments will lose credibility.