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Plan to add wind farm land heads to council

On the mesas of West Texas, wind turbines are now as much a part of the landscape as tumbleweeds and big skies, but they are still generally perceived as the kind of projects that require the backing of a daring entrepreneur. That might be changing. Electric utilities, which historically have been averse to investing in technologies they consider risky, are beginning to look to wind farms.

Utility wants city to buy West Texas acres for future power source

On the mesas of West Texas, wind turbines are now as much a part of the landscape as tumbleweeds and big skies, but they are still generally perceived as the kind of projects that require the backing of a daring entrepreneur.

That might be changing. Electric utilities, which historically have been averse to investing in technologies they consider risky, are beginning to look to wind farms as assets worth building and owning. Industry observers say the trend points to growing acceptance of wind as a mainstream source of power, if one still generally considered more supplement than staple.

The Austin City Council is poised to give wind another vote of confidence today. Austin Energy, the city-owned electricity provider, wants to secure rights to build and operate a wind farm on a nearly 5,000-acre swatch in Pecos County. It would be the latest in a string of easements in the West Texas county totaling 22,500 acres that the city has secured for future wind generation. The city would pay $6 million over 30 years to reserve that land, a step Austin Energy says is in keeping with the city's long-term... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

Utility wants city to buy West Texas acres for future power source

On the mesas of West Texas, wind turbines are now as much a part of the landscape as tumbleweeds and big skies, but they are still generally perceived as the kind of projects that require the backing of a daring entrepreneur.

That might be changing. Electric utilities, which historically have been averse to investing in technologies they consider risky, are beginning to look to wind farms as assets worth building and owning. Industry observers say the trend points to growing acceptance of wind as a mainstream source of power, if one still generally considered more supplement than staple.

The Austin City Council is poised to give wind another vote of confidence today. Austin Energy, the city-owned electricity provider, wants to secure rights to build and operate a wind farm on a nearly 5,000-acre swatch in Pecos County. It would be the latest in a string of easements in the West Texas county totaling 22,500 acres that the city has secured for future wind generation. The city would pay $6 million over 30 years to reserve that land, a step Austin Energy says is in keeping with the city's long-term environmental goals.

The facility could be large enough to generate as much as 200 megawatts annually, or as much electricity as about 20,000 homes use in a year.

Actual construction would be at least three years away and require additional approval from the City Council. Austin Energy, which would be among the first utilities in the state to take that step, has yet to provide a cost estimate for the project. Austin Energy officials say they would have more control over wind costs as private companies put themselves in position to command higher prices and as energy prices in general enter a period of uncertainty. But by building and owning a wind farm, Austin Energy and its customers also assume risk if anything goes wrong.

"We don't want to be at the mercy of the marketplace," said Roger Duncan, Austin Energy's general manager. "Our overall strategy is to develop and own our own wind-generating capacity, and we think we'll get more certainty about prices that way."

Austin Energy has found itself paying roughly double for wind since the utility began buying it from private providers a decade ago. Then, when the nascent industry was casting about for investment, the city was able to secure relatively cheap 10-year contracts. At times, the cost actually dipped below what the city paid for power from more traditional sources.

Now, Duncan said, demand for wind has driven up prices.

The city's GreenChoice program, which sells wind energy to customers who sign up for it, is now about 20 percent higher than the city's standard electric rate.

The wind generation proposal fits in neatly with an Austin Energy plan the City Council is set to consider next month that would aggressively add more wind and other renewable sources of electricity. About 11 percent of the city's electricity comes from renewables, mostly wind; Austin Energy is proposing to increase that mix to 35 percent, which would put the utility among the nation's most aggressive renewable energy providers. The plan would raise bills an estimated 20 percent by 2020, according to Austin Energy estimates.

Utility officials say the plan would make Austin among the nation's greenest cities, keeping with the City Council's goal of making Austin an environmental leader. They say Austin Energy also needs to add more renewables to lessen the effect of potential federal restrictions on coal emissions, which would increase energy prices substantially.

Some of Austin's largest businesses, including Dell, Samsung and Freescale Semiconductor, say the plan is too aggressive and should include stronger cost-control measures.

Stan Rosinski, program manager for renewables generation at the Electric Power Research Institute, said wind is popular because it's relatively cheap - and generally the cheapest way to meet politically mandated renewable-energy goals.

But wind should not be seen as a "magic bullet" because it still presents some technical difficulties, Rosinski said.

For instance, West Texas wind blows mostly at night, when demand for electricity is lowest. And it requires the state's natural-gas plants to be ready as backups when the wind isn't blowing. Excess wind power cannot now be cost-effectively stored for use when demand is high.

Still, Rosinski said, U.S. wind production doubled between 2006 and 2008 .

"Third parties really pioneered the industry, and utilities, being risk-averse, haven't been early adopters," said Jeff Anthony , director of business development for the American Wind Energy Association . "Now you're seeing about one out of every six megawatts being built being owned by utilities... whether that's a good move or not is really dependent on the individual utility."

An Austin Energy-owned wind farm might not go to the City Council for final approval until 2013 or later, and it would depend on whether the state can keep on schedule the construction of $5 billion transmission lines to carry wind power from West Texas to other parts of the state.


Source: http://www.statesman.com/ne...

FEB 25 2010
http://www.windaction.org/posts/24780-plan-to-add-wind-farm-land-heads-to-council
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