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Wind farms gain popularity as natural gas costs rise

But it's not perfect, since windy periods don't necessarily match the peak demand for electricity. "It's not just that you can turn on a light as a customer, but that you can turn it on when you want," he said. Utilities have to plan electrical generation around highest demand, he said. "We have to cope with the wind blowing when the wind blows and maybe not necessarily when we need it," he said. "That's just the reality."

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Today's huge, gleaming turbines that turn wind into electricity are several generations away from granddad's little windmill.

Wind farms -- acres and acres of towers topped by turbines that resemble propeller blades -- are sprouting across the United States as utilities seek alternatives to generating electricity through coal or increasingly expensive natural gas.

More than 2,400 megawatts of wind generation, enough for more than 650,000 average American homes, went in across the country last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group.

The first U.S. wind farm was built in the 1980s in California, which still holds the top spot in wind energy in the nation. A report in March set California's capacity at 2,150 megawatts, followed by Texas at 1,995 megawatts.

"The wind weenies have been around for a long time; we have a lot of passion for the technology," said Tom Ashwill of the wind energy technology department at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, which held a workshop in April on wind turbine design, manufacture and materials.

New Mexico, which built its first wind farm only a few years ago, now ranks No. 6 in the nation at... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Today's huge, gleaming turbines that turn wind into electricity are several generations away from granddad's little windmill.

Wind farms -- acres and acres of towers topped by turbines that resemble propeller blades -- are sprouting across the United States as utilities seek alternatives to generating electricity through coal or increasingly expensive natural gas.

More than 2,400 megawatts of wind generation, enough for more than 650,000 average American homes, went in across the country last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group.

The first U.S. wind farm was built in the 1980s in California, which still holds the top spot in wind energy in the nation. A report in March set California's capacity at 2,150 megawatts, followed by Texas at 1,995 megawatts.

"The wind weenies have been around for a long time; we have a lot of passion for the technology," said Tom Ashwill of the wind energy technology department at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, which held a workshop in April on wind turbine design, manufacture and materials.

New Mexico, which built its first wind farm only a few years ago, now ranks No. 6 in the nation at 407 megawatts, according to the wind energy association.

Wind power has become more competitive because of increases in the cost of fuel used by conventional power plants, coupled with a federal production tax credit that benefits wind energy, the association's Christine Real de Azua said.

"It's in a competitive range in terms of cost, and this is the first time we're seeing this for a clean, renewable energy source," she said.

As the cost of natural gas climbs, wind becomes very competitive, said Jeff Buell, a spokesman for the Public Service Co. of New Mexico, or PNM, a utility that buys electricity from a wind farm in eastern New Mexico. PNM bought enough wind energy in 2005 to serve about 77,000 average New Mexico homes.

"It's grown because it works," Buell said.

But it's not perfect, since windy periods don't necessarily match the peak demand for electricity. "It's not just that you can turn on a light as a customer, but that you can turn it on when you want," he said.

Utilities have to plan electrical generation around highest demand, he said.

"We have to cope with the wind blowing when the wind blows and maybe not necessarily when we need it," he said. "That's just the reality."

But Real de Azua said one of the attractive economic features of wind power is its predictable cost -- once a wind farm is built, the cost of the electricity it generates remains stable because it's immune from fuel price volatility.

And, she said, "the big value is that it can provide energy and help conserve fuel, which is a very valuable thing when prices are high and there is a shortage."

PNM customers can buy electricity produced by the wind through the utility's Sky Blue program. As of Dec. 31, the program had 8,510 customers -- 8,129 of them residential -- compared with 6,950 on Dec. 31, 2004, the program's first full year.

Nearly half of PNM's Sky Blue customers chose to be charged for 90 percent of their electricity at the higher Sky Blue rate instead of in smaller blocks of kilowatt hours, Buell said.

"We're comfortable in inferring a pretty strong level of commitment to the program," he said.

Wind produces about 1 percent of the electricity in the United States, compared with 10 percent to 25 percent in Denmark, Germany and some areas of Spain, the wind association says. The group expects wind to account for 6 percent of the nation's electricity by 2020.

A report from the European Union statistics agency this month said wind-power capacity had reached 33.6 gigawatts by the end of 2004, closing in on the EU's goal of producing 40 gigawatts by 2010.

Some places aren't as suitable as others for turbines, Sandia's Ashwill said. Maps of average wind speeds in the U.S. show the Midwest has favorable winds from Texas through Minnesota and North Dakota, while the southeast generally lacks the speeds needed to generate electricity.

In New Mexico, winds are best on the east side, adjacent to Texas, where numerous wind farms have been built since 2002.

Wind energy is far more complex than simply putting up a propeller and waiting for it to turn, and the technology is growing as the industry grows, Ashwill said.

Sandia works with the industry on ideas, then builds innovations into subscale blades that can be tested at the lab and Sandia's test site at Bushland, Texas, near Amarillo.

Sandia also works with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which runs the National Wind Technology Center, a research facility near Boulder, Colo., aimed at advancing wind power technology.

Sandia's research includes developing ways to make blades lighter and stronger because the trend is toward bigger blades, he said. For example, Sandia scientists are working with materials such as carbon fiber, which is expensive but stronger and lighter than the Fiberglas now in use.

Because carbon is two to three times more expensive, researchers are developing blades using carbon only in high-stress areas of the blade, which still reduces the weight but is less expensive than an entire blade of carbon fiber, he said.

Ashwill said that will produce "trickle down" savings -- even if carbon costs a little more, a lighter blade can use lighter bearings and can sit atop a lighter tower.

The cost of turbines is rising with demand and higher prices for oil and other commodities. Carbon fiber, for example, is made with some oil-based processes, Ashwill said.

"So you can't get away from the oil price fluctuation, but ... people are willing to pay a little extra for wind," he said.

Sandia this year will begin to study putting turbines offshore -- a concept that only will work with huge turbines that are "super reliable," Ashwill said.

"If you could put wind turbines off the coast of New York or Boston and out there a ways, it's still a lot closer than putting turbines in Kansas and running transmission lines out there," he said. "Transmission lines are a big issue."


Source: http://www.heraldextra.com/...

MAY 28 2006
http://www.windaction.org/posts/2829-wind-farms-gain-popularity-as-natural-gas-costs-rise
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