Large-scale, land-based wind farms are not the only pieces of the wind energy puzzle. Although they currently make up the greater part of our generating capacity from wind, several other under-tapped resources will contribute to the mix. The potential for offshore wind, for example, is tremendous. Although offshore turbines are more costly to install, the best wind is found above the water. In fact, most of the country’s category six and seven wind (seven is the top rating, equivalent to “superb”) is located off the East Coast, West Coast and on the Great Lakes. Conveniently, this is where most of the country’s population is, too.
Other advantages to offshore wind are that the turbines are easier to transport by water than by land; there’s no need for overland high-voltage lines; there are more suitable sites and fewer zoning and visual issues; and offshore wind is steadier than land wind, including during the day, when demand is greatest. Although the U.S. has no offshore wind installations yet, they are in the works. Bluewater Wind, for example, is working with four states in the Northeast to build offshore wind parks. Its Delaware project is expected to provide electricity for 100,000 homes. The turbines will be 11 miles offshore and difficult to see from the coastline, even on a clear day. Wind energy experts expect offshore wind to contribute about 50 of the 300 GWs of capacity the industry aims to install by 2030.
Community—or midsized—wind is also likely to be a significant contributor. This is wind power for smaller investors, such as farmers, ranchers, consumer-owned utilities, school districts and colleges (see sidebar, “Building Wind Communities”). The beauty of community wind, in addition to being able to take advantage of smaller sites, is that it contributes to a less centralized—and a more secure—model for our energy needs.
And small wind will play an important role in a new energy picture. Defined as wind produced by turbines that are rated at 100 kW or less, most are owned by individuals—homeowners, farmers and business owners. Small wind currently contributes 55 to 60 MW of capacity in the U.S. Although that’s a small fraction of what’s coming online from utility-scale projects, small wind is an attractive option for anyone who wants to fix their energy costs.
“Think of it as prepaying for your electrical costs for 25 or 30 years,” says Ron Stimmel, AWEA’s small-wind advocate.
A brand-new credit for small wind, similar to the one that’s been in place for solar energy, was enacted with the recent energy bill. It gives homeowners back 30% of the total system cost, up to $4,000. The small-wind turbine market grew by 14% in 2007. Projections for the next couple of decades vary widely. Stimmel says it’s likely to be north of one GW and even as high as 10.
Getting More Out of Wind
“When we first started to think about [the 20% by 2030] target in 2006,” says Walker, “people thought it was a pretty ambitious goal. It’s now seen almost as a base case or even a floor because it excluded the whole transportation sector as a market. When we add electric vehicles to the mix, then it may still be 20% of our electricity capacity, but the market is going to be a lot bigger.”
That’s because wind, in addition to displacing fossil fuels used in the electric power sector, can also be used to charge electric hybrid vehicles and displace the use of gasoline in the transportation sector. By charging cars at night, when much of the wind energy is produced, we”ll be turning our car batteries into a national electricity storage bank. And that will free up natural gas, which, as oilman-turned-wind-advocate T. Boone Pickens says, would be better used to power larger vehicles, like trucks.
It’s also feasible that wind power can displace the use of oil in heating and cooling systems. Heat pumps, including the ones used in geothermal systems, require lots of electricity. Continued progress toward the wind industry’s goal, of course, depends on consistent policy making in Washington. Walker says that production tax credits (PTCs) are essential. “It’s a boom or bust industry,” he says. “When the PTCs are in place, you’ve got a two-billion-dollar industry. When they expire, you’ve got a half-billion-dollar industry. Turn it on again and you’re back to two billion. Leave it on for three years and it’s a 20-billion-dollar industry.” (See sidebar, “The Big Push.”)
We also need a stronger transmission system. Electricity, whatever its source, is delivered over high-voltage transmission lines. “There’s no question that the main constraint that might prevent wind from getting to 20% would be if we don’t have the vision to expand our interstate power grid—which at the moment has been more or less neglected, like our bridges and other aspects of our infrastructure,” says Walker.
Wind power, despite its enormous potential, does face some obstacles. One is a product of its own success. The rising demand for wind turbines has driven their cost to twice what it was a couple of years ago. Increases in materials as well as the decline in the value of the dollar are contributing factors. With much of the equipment imported from Europe, the unfavorable dollar-to-euro exchange rate has hurt would-be purchasers.
Harley Lee, president of Endless Energy and wind power developer, says, “What’s interesting is that the cost for wind turbines was dropping 3-5% like clockwork for many years. Since around 2001, however, it has turned around and we’ve lost those years of cost declines. Now it has gone up quite a bit so our project costs have also gone up. It’s gone from one million dollars per MW to two million per MW.”
Fortunately, more and more equipment is being manufactured in the U.S. Where 70% of wind power equipment used to come from Europe just a few years ago, it’s down to about 50% today, says Walker. And several new domestic turbine factories are in the works. Local opposition is one of wind’s biggest hurdles. Mostly, this involves visual and noise concerns. Lee, who has been trying to get approvals for a wind project in Redington, Maine, for many years, recently saw his 90 MW project denied. Several hiking associations and the National Park Service felt that hikers would not enjoy looking at the 30 turbines planned for the site, even though they would be built miles away from the trails.
“Now we’re trying to figure out a way to turn the situation around,” he says. “We had nine-to-one public support, we had two Department of Environmental Protection permits, we had local user approvals. But since that project was denied there is a new law for making permitting more predictable, so we”ll give that a test,” says Lee.
Noise (or “sound” as the industry prefers to call it) is less of an issue, unless one lives very close to a turbine. But some say the audible hum may be the least problem. Wind Turbine Syndrome has people complaining of headaches and nosebleeds from the low-frequency sound that you can’t hear. In some cases, it has forced people to move from their homes. Thus far the evidence is inconclusive, but setbacks—the distance between residences and turbines—have been extended in some countries. In a pre-release draft of her book Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment (K-Selected Books), Dr. Nina Pierpont documents dozens of cases that involve people living in close proximity to large (1.5 to 3 MW) industrial wind turbines. Their symptoms include migraines, motion sickness, vertigo, anxiety, sensitivity to noise and visual and gastrointestinal sensitivity.
Christine Real de Azua, assistant director of communications for AWEA, says that the industry is awaiting the publication of the book, peer reviews and further research. For now, however, she says, “There is no reliable scientific evidence that infra- and low-frequency sounds have adverse effects on people and the body.” Walker concurs and says it has not been an issue with any of Enxco’s projects.
Wind is not without its environmental issues, either. Bird deaths were a big concern early on with fast-turning turbines and the lattice-style towers that were attractive nesting places. New tubular tower designs and slower-turning blades are mitigating the problem. The newest turbines, including those with vertical-blade designs, run at only 12 revolutions per minute, which make them easier for birds to see and avoid. Turbines kill bats in large numbers, too, though not for the same reason. Bats, already in decline in many regions, play crucial roles with insect control, pollination and seed dispersement. Studies show that most of the bat deaths occur because bats’ lungs expand dramatically when they fly into low-pressure areas caused by turbine blades. Then the capillaries around the lungs burst, filling the lung sac with blood. Collisions with the blades are less of a concern with bats, thanks to their advanced natural sonar.
The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, an alliance of government, industry and conservation groups, is studying the problem and will be testing methods to alleviate it. One possibility is “curtailment.” Because most bat fatalities occur on low-wind nights, the idea would be to shut down turbines during these periods. Loss of electricity production would be minimal. Eventually researchers hope to come up with ways to keep bats from flying too close to the blades.
Where the Wind Blows
With wind power looking as promising as it does, why doesn’t the U.S. ramp up its support of the industry and use its financial resources to back a proven winner? After all, most forms of energy are familiar technologies at this point, be they nuclear, coal, gas or solar. Put some good heads together, choose the energy sources with the best potential, and invest accordingly. Walker cautions, however, that it’s a question of balance—something between the silver bullet and silver buckshot approach. “It’s always a question as to how big a role you want government to play in the selection of technologies,” he says, “versus letting the market do it.”
He continues, “Wind power reduces greenhouse gases because there are no emissions;
you’re not using water; and you’re conserving resources that can be used elsewhere. This is not necessarily captured in a competition for a power contract with somebody who is proposing a gas plant or a coal plant.”
Ultimately, he says, the market brings surprises, most of them positive. And wind power production is poised for expansion. “One of the important parts of public policy is to make the fine distinctions between being too specific and too broad by supporting everything,” says Walker. “At the very least, support the proven winners and give them broad policy support.”