Article

Wind farms promising, but stymied by economics, sentiment

CONCORDIA — In some ways, Raymond Kindel is on the leading edge of energy technology. Horizon Wind

Energy has an option on his and other north-central Kansas farmers’ land to install a wind farm, and he’s pleased as can be.

“I don’t see any drawbacks to it at all,” says Kindel, 52, a lifelong farmer and cattleman. “The wind is here; we can use it. And there is no by-product to dispose of when you are done. It’s just an all-natural thing.”

He’s not alone in his enthusiasm. If you tried to jump into the wind generation business tomorrow, you’d find you may be getting in too late: demand for turbines is so strong there are none available right now.

“All suppliers are sold out through 2007,” says Wayne Walker, a project development director at Horizon who is overseeing the Cloud County project. “But we have already purchased production slots.”

In spite of all the enthusiasm, however, the Cloud County project is at a virtual standstill. Supporters gush about the virtues of wind energy, but here’s the awkward truth: Nobody is willing to buy the Cloud County power.

“If I had a buyer now, I could have the project completed by next year,” Walker says.

Consistently windy

Kansas, no matter what you might have heard, isn’t the windiest place in America. It isn’t even close.... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

Energy has an option on his and other north-central Kansas farmers’ land to install a wind farm, and he’s pleased as can be.
 
“I don’t see any drawbacks to it at all,” says Kindel, 52, a lifelong farmer and cattleman. “The wind is here; we can use it. And there is no by-product to dispose of when you are done. It’s just an all-natural thing.”
 
He’s not alone in his enthusiasm. If you tried to jump into the wind generation business tomorrow, you’d find you may be getting in too late: demand for turbines is so strong there are none available right now.
 
“All suppliers are sold out through 2007,” says Wayne Walker, a project development director at Horizon who is overseeing the Cloud County project. “But we have already purchased production slots.”
 
In spite of all the enthusiasm, however, the Cloud County project is at a virtual standstill. Supporters gush about the virtues of wind energy, but here’s the awkward truth: Nobody is willing to buy the Cloud County power.
 
“If I had a buyer now, I could have the project completed by next year,” Walker says.
 
Consistently windy
 
Kansas, no matter what you might have heard, isn’t the windiest place in America. It isn’t even close. Under the U.S. Department of Energy’s system for measuring raw wind energy, some of the state is “marginal,” much is “fair,” some is “good.” None is “excellent” nor “outstanding,” much less “superb.”
 
But how hard the wind blows is only part of the picture when it comes to harnessing the wind. Reliability is essential. When the two are considered, Kansas emerges as one of the more desirable locations in the country. Add accessibility, and we’re considered to be in the top three states.
 
But Kansas finds itself in an odd position. In spite of its potential for wind power, it is viewed by some as being dead last when it comes to exploiting that resource. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked Kansas 50th in promotion of energy efficiency. And attempts to get legislation passed that would encourage “clean” energy went nowhere this year.
 
“They absolutely refused to do anything,” said Rep. Josh Svaty, D-Ellsworth, of the legislative leadership overseeing utility regulation. With energy prices spiking, he assumed there would be some interest in looking at any remedies that might be viable.
 
“For the first time, we are getting a lot of calls about energy,” he said. “People are really concerned and would like us to do something. The number of bills passed out of the House utility committee? Zero. Not a single bill. I’m not saying not one good bill. We’re talking not one bill. Nothing.”
 
It’s coal that powers Kansas
 
In Kansas, odds are the electricity lighting your house came from burning coal. In 2002, coal accounted for 75 percent of electricity generated in the state (nuclear reactors generated 19 percent; another 5 percent came from natural gas, petroleum and hydroelectric). Just 1 percent came from renewable sources.
 
And it is the burning of coal that gives many pause. The amount of carbon dioxide — a so-called “greenhouse gas” that is helping raise the temperature of planet Earth every year — pumped into the air by power plants is staggering.
 
Consider the Jeffrey Energy Center in St. Mary. Owned by Topeka-based Westar Energy, it is the largest power plant in the state. It has three generators, each rated at 720 megawatts. When running at capacity, exhaust gases hurtle out of its 600-foot-tall stacks at more than 60 mph — 140,000 cubic feet per second (enough to fill a box the size of your yard and 16 feet tall).
 
Those exhaust gases contain a lot of carbon dioxide. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, burning coal to generate electricity creates just more than 2 pounds of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt hour. By that measure, when the Jeffrey Energy Center is running full blast, it is pumping 4.5 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the air — every hour.
 
This isn’t just a Kansas phenomenon. Nationally, coal-fired power plants generate almost 5 million tons of carbon dioxide every day.
 
(The burning of petroleum products — primarily gasoline — generates even more carbon dioxide than coal. The federal government estimates that of the carbon dioxide generated by Americans, petroleum accounts for 42 percent, coal for 37 percent and natural gas for 21 percent.)
 
And some of that carbon dioxide is building up in the atmosphere — about 3 billion tons every year. Scientists quibble over what the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were in the middle ages (estimates range from 150 to 280 parts per million), but what is not in dispute is that in the past 40 years, it has risen from about 316 to 370. And with rising carbon dioxide has come rising temperatures.
 
Every megawatt of power generated by a wind turbine reduces carbon emissions by a ton (assuming the electricity would have come from a coal-fired plant). But wind power is no silver bullet.
 
Wind power has its own critics. Many oppose it on environmental grounds.
 
“We are absolutely totally opposed to them in the Flint Hills or in any native tallgrass prairie,” says Rose Bacon, a rancher who lives near Council Grove and was on the governor’s Wind and Prairie Task Force, which examined the effect of wind generation on the Flint Hills. “It does affect the ecology.”
 
Before the White Man spread west, North America had 400,000 square miles of tallgrass prairie; less than 4 percent now remains. About two-thirds of that is in the Flint Hills.
 
“The Flint Hills are such a tiny remnant of what we had,” Bacon says. “We are gradually losing prairie anyway. We don’t have it to lose.”
 
Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute, an agriculture research organization at 2440 E. Water Well, says that although wind energy has immense ecological promise, the value of native tallgrass prairie must not be overlooked.
 
“I disagree with putting wind machines over the last expanse of native prairie,” he says. “We need to maintain that last great prairie vista, the feel of the grasslands. It increases our imagination about a time in our past. It gives us a sense of rootedness to our history of coming to this continent.”
 
Bacon says the geology of the Flint Hills is fragile. Successive layers of limestone sediment laid down eons ago helped create its distinctive features.
 
“One of the advantages of the Flint Hills is we have very excellent quality water,” Bacon says. “That is because the rain we get percolates through those layers of rock, filtering it. It is as pure as water anywhere.”
 
Springs emerge from hillsides where water encounters harder layers of rock. Development upsets this balance, she says. Access roads cut through rock layers. And what isn’t cut easily can be broken by trucks hauling the massive wind tower sections.
 
“These are major roads,” she says. “They have to carry 80 to 100 tons. If you fracture those layers, you change the flow of the water. You may dry up a spring. Not only will it change how springs function, but it will have a major impact on the riparian areas along the creek.”
 
The Flint Hills also provide habitat for the prairie chicken and other animals. Bacon says wind development will threaten their survival.
 
And then there is the issue of those towering turbines. From ground to propeller tip can be 400 feet — about 100 feet higher than the top of the dome on the Capitol. They spoil the view.
 
Asked to compare the environmental harm done by burning fossil fuels to erecting wind generators in the Flint Hills, Bacon doesn’t hesitate.
 
“To me, the damage to the prairie is much more significant,” she says.
 
What about global warming?
 
“I’m not even going to go there,” she says. “Scientists don’t agree on that.”
 
Besides, she adds, the tallgrass prairie acts as a carbon sink — it draws carbon dioxide out of the air.
 
Differing opinion
 
Actually, truly pristine prairie isn’t a carbon sink, according to professors at Kansas State University.
 
“Native, undisturbed tallgrass prairie is at equilibrium, losing as much carbon as it fixes each year,” wrote Clenton Owensby, professor of range management in the department of agronomy, in an e-mail response to a question on the subject.
 
Charles Rice, professor of soil microbiology, explained the issue further. Cultivation of soil allows for a gradual depletion of the amount of carbon in the soil.
 
“Ag soil that has been tilled will have lost about half the carbon in 50 to 100 years,” Rice said. Returning the land to native grass will eventually restore the carbon. Where does the carbon come from? It is converted from carbon dioxide the grass draws out of the air.
 
In addition, soils can lose carbon to brush and shrubs that are allowed to proliferate. Regular field burning, which clears brush and improves the growth of native grass, eventually restores that carbon.
 
Rice said his research shows that if the land has lost a substantial amount of its carbon, one acre of native grass can draw 2,620 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air each year. Good management of native pastures can cause the grass to draw 654 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre annually.
 
To put that in perspective — if all 4 million acres of the Flint Hills were carefully managed for a year, they would absorb as much carbon dioxide as the Jeffrey Energy Center could generate in three weeks.
 
But Bacon is firm in her opposition to wind energy.
 
“I think wind is inefficient, unreliable and expensive,” she says, “no matter where you put it.”
 
Wind’s drawbacks
 
She’s right, to a certain extent, on all three counts. Even the most technologically advanced turbine captures only a fraction of the wind’s total energy. And the wind comes and goes like, well, the wind. And that inherent unreliability means other power sources have to be available, adding to the true cost of relying on the wind.
 
But proponents of wind energy argue that these drawbacks are exaggerated. They aren’t concerned that some of the energy in the wind slips past the turbine; after all, it’s free. What matters to them is that some doesn’t, and what doesn’t generates electricity.
 
The fluctuations in wind are undeniable, but electric utilities always have had to deal with power fluctuations. You turn your lights on and off when you feel like it. Wind energy supporters contend that fluctuation caused by ordinary usage outweighs that caused by the weather, provided the system doesn’t rely too heavily on wind energy.
 
“If you put too much wind in your portfolio, that can cause fluctuations on your grid,” says Kirk Lowell, executive director of Cloud Corp., which is working with Horizon Wind Energy to bring a 200 megawatt wind farm to a spot in Cloud County about eight miles southeast of Concordia. “There are all kinds of engineering issues that have to be balanced.”
 
How much the fluctuations degrade the usefulness of the power appears to be an open question. On paper, wind energy is a bargain, but not everyone is jumping to buy it.
 
“Wind power is extremely competitive with new coal plants,” said Walker, project director at Horizon. Power from a new coal-fired plant costs 5.0 to 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour. “Wind can sell power for 3.5 to 4.0.”
 
Yet Westar Energy says it has no plans for adding any significant wind generation to its portfolio.
 
“I’m having a hard time understanding it myself,” Walker said. “I think what Westar would tell you is that wind is not competitive with coal that is online now.”
 
Gina Penzig, a spokesman for Westar, said the company is looking at adding capacity but that wind won’t be part of it. In February 2004, it sought bids on sources of renewable energy; virtually all of the 17 proposals it received were for wind-powered turbines. It rejected all of them.
 
“Based on the proposals and the costs involved, the decision was that it is best to stay with the current generation mix,” Penzig said. “One of the challenges with wind energy is you are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Turbines only turn when the wind blows.
 
“We are constantly evaluating and looking at any developments in renewable energy. If at some point it is the most economical and makes the most business sense to adopt some of that technology, then we would do that.”
 
That’s just what one of Westar’s peers has done. Kansas City Power and Light, which is building a new 800 to 900 megawatt, coal-fired plant near St. Joseph, Mo., is at the same time adding 100 megawatts of wind energy. Construction on the wind farm, which will be located near Spearville, is expected to start any day now.
 
“We, like a lot of utilities, have an obligation to make sure we are planning for the needs of our customers,” said Mike Deggendorf, vice president of public affairs at KCPL. “Wind has reached a point where it is very economical. It’s part of a smart portfolio.”
 
Deggendorf acknowledged that the variability associated with wind is a factor, but it’s just one of many utilities wrestle with.
 
“You have to build in reserve capacity,” he said. “It has to fit within the portfolio.”
 
Moving the power
 
To varying degrees, location always matters, no matter what the energy source. Nuclear plants must have a failsafe source of cooling water. In fact, any generation plant that uses steam turbines must have access to generous supplies of water, and there of course must be a way to deliver the source energy — coal, natural gas, etc. — to the plant.
 
Wind and hydroelectric plants, the other hand, take their plants to the energy source. Both are often small (Grand Coulee has the largest generators in the country — 6,800 megawatts of capacity, more than half-again the size of the next largest plant, which is a nuclear-powered plant at Palo Verde, Ariz. — but there are fewer than 20 hydroelectric plants rated above 1,000 megawatts, while there are 1,169 rated below 100). The smaller the plant, the harder it is to justify the additional expense of new transmission lines, so new small plants typically rely on excess capacity on existing transmission lines.
 
That’s one reason the Cloud County location was so attractive to Horizon Energy, Lowell said. A nearby line has about 200 megawatts of unused capacity, more than enough for the proposed 100 to 200 megawatt wind farm.
 
And new data suggests wind energy there may be even better than initially thought. Historically, wind energy maps relied heavily on meteorological data collected by National Weather Service weather stations, which take readings about 30 feet above the ground. But three years ago, Horizon put up six tall towers — close to 400 feet — to get wind readings. A seventh tower is to go up this spring.
 
“The data is coming back far better than many of the maps have reflected,” Lowell said.
 
For the first time, Horizon has been able to collect wind readings at the actual elevation of the center of the turbine — more than 300 feet above the ground.
 
“We have the wind data figured out,” Walker said. “We feel it’s one of the better sites in the state.”
 
In fact, if the nearby transmission line had more unused capacity, Horizon would be building a 400 megawatt wind farm, he said.
 
Locally, the proposed wind farm is creating its own currents. Richard Underbakke, president of Cloud County Community College, says the college should be offering a wind energy program by this fall.
 
“We’ve got it approved by the state Board of Regents,” he said. “It’s the only program like this in Kansas. It’s one of only three or four in the nation.”
 
The program will provide a working knowledge of wind turbines, as well as training for management of wind farms.
 
Lowell says a wind farm will be positive for Concordia, although he does expect opponents to become vocal as the project gets closer to becoming a reality.
 
“We’ve been forewarned by other developments that outside groups will try to come to our county and try to influence this,” Lowell said. “We are prepeared to deal with that. We didn’t see these groups that claim to care so much about communities when the Fleming warehouse closed. If they care about us, where have they been?”
 
In need of help
 
But the project is at a standstill until a buyer can be found for its power. It remains to be seen if the Legislature will do anything to encourage wind farm development. Wind energy supports say two things are critical to getting wind energy off the ground — requiring so-called net metering and requiring utilities to include some renewable energy in their portfolios.
 
Currently, federal law requires utilities let you hook up a (suitably designed) wind turbine to your household wiring and use the power if you wish. What the law doesn’t address is what happens if your wind turbine produces more power than you can use. Some utilities will buy the power from you, but often it’s at a fraction of the price the utility charges for the power it sells you. Net metering requires that utilities buy back the power at the same rate.
 
Penzig, spokesman for Westar, says the company voluntarily provides net metering now.
 
“We do actually allow metering,” she said. “There are certain technical considerations that have to be followed for safety, more than anything else.”
 
But she stopped short of saying Westar would support legislation requiring net metering.
 
“We would have to look at the bill and determine if it was something that was good for our customers and shareholders,” she said.
 
The other major legislative piece — renewable portfolio standards, referred to in the industry as RPSs — would require that a certain percentage of utilities’ power come from renewable energy. More than 21 states, including Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, have RPS laws.
 
Sen. Jay Emler, R-Lindsborg, is chairman of the Senate utilities committee. He isn’t inclined to support RPS laws.
 
“I just don’t see forcing them to have a renewable portfolio,” he said, suggesting Congress likely will do that soon anyway.
 
Rep. Deena Horst, R-Salina, said she supports encouraging use of renewable energy but not at the expense of tallgrass prairie.
 
“We certainly don’t want to harm our ecosystems,” she said. “I know that is a concern of a number of people who contact me on a regular basis. I do think it’s critical we start looking at some alternative energy.”
 
Rep. Charlie Roth, R-Salina, says he’s been so focused on school finance and gaming that he hasn’t given renewable energy any thought. He did, however, say he doubts he’d support RPS laws.
 
“Typically I’m not much on regulations of that type,” he said. “I plead ignorance on this matter. I choose not to get into the wind energy fight until I know more.”


Source: http://www.saljournal.com/c...

MAR 26 2006
http://www.windaction.org/posts/1880-wind-farms-promising-but-stymied-by-economics-sentiment
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