After a decade-long battle to harness the gusts that blow along the state’s mountain peaks, wind power is finally a force in Nevada.
At least as far as the industry is concerned. And judging by recent events, such an assertion might be well founded it will be some time before turbines rise on Nevada mountaintops.
First, the good news for the wind power industry:
At the urging of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently decided to withdraw opposition to development in Wilson Creek Range near Pioche, about 180 ¯miles northeast of Las Vegas, paving the way for a 450-megawatt, utility-scale project there.
Sierra Pacific Resources, the parent company of the state’s two largest utilities, is expected to announce early this week plans to develop a 200-megawatt wind farm in northeast Nevada.
And Congress seems poised to pass climate change legislation that would attach a price tag to greenhouse gas emissions, effectively raising the costs of traditional sources of energy such as oil and coal – those industries would have to include emissions costs in the price of their products – and making wind and other renewable energy more affordable in comparison.
And now the obstacles:
Although Gates has acquiesced to Wilson Creek, he still opposes development at Goldfield, an old mining town near Tonopah. He is concerned the 300- or 400-foot-tall turbines could affect Air Force radar or training exercises.
Even environmentalists, supportive of renewable energy in general and wind in particular, worry about bird deaths and the effect of roads built on mountain peaks where Nevada’s winds blow strongest.
Federal tax credits that support wind and other renewable energy industries are set to expire next year unless Congress renews them, which it is expected to do.
And there are no credits for transmission of the power produced, which at $1 million per mile from those remote mounts is costly for a fuel that is trying to compete with cheap (at least for now) coal.
The national wind industry estimates 20 percent of the country’s power could come from the resource by 2030. Turbines that produce 15,000 megawatts – enough for more than 11 million homes or more than 1 percent of the country’s power demand – are now in place. Turbines producing 2,500 megawatts came online in 2007.
An additional 4,000 megawatts or more are expected to come online next year, and by 2008 the industry expects the country to approach the 20,000-megawatt mark.
“The wind industry has really come of age here in the United States over the last three years,” said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association, adding that developers have applied for twice as much capacity for wind power on transmission lines as they have for coal nationwide. “Wind has really emerged as one of the primary options available … in the U.S. for new electric generating capacity.”
So far, Nevada has not a single turbine. And if Sierra Pacific Resources wants to use wind to help meet the mandate that it get 20 percent of its power from renewables by 2015, it has a ways to go.
Wind power developers in the state say Nevada holds potential for at least 1,000 to 1,500 megawatts of wind power – enough for about 1 million homes. And although the wind speeds here are a mere breeze compared with those of the Midwest plains states, the wide-open deserts of Texas, the cliffs of California or the shores of Massachusetts, developers say they are strong enough to support commercial development.
“We have several sites throughout the state of Nevada, and this one is very good,” Tim Carlson, a developer who has for years been trying to build the state’s first wind project, said of Wilson Creek. “And we hope this will be one of many wind projects we can do in the state.”
Carlson’s Wilson Creek development would probably feature about 200 turbines, each producing 2 to 2 1/2 megawatts of electricity. A megawatt can serve about 750 typical homes.
He said he’s investigating four or five other sites in Nevada, including some near Sparks and another north of Ely, where two large coal-fired power plants are also proposed. Both companies proposing coal plants there – New Jersey-based merchant developer LS Power and Nevada’s Sierra Pacific Resources – say they are also looking to develop wind power in the area. Executives at Sierra Pacific say the company will build or buy enough generating capacity to supply about 300,000 homes by 2011 or 2012.
But although a wind farm in a plains state or Texas might have the capacity to generate power 40 percent to 45 percent of the time, in Nevada that number is closer to 30 percent.
“Nevada is not in a situation where you have superabundant resources,” said Tom Fair, renewable energy executive for Sierra Pacific Resources and a former wind power developer. He compared looking for the few pockets of strong wind in Nevada’s mountains to looking for a needle in a haystack. “We have to look hard to find sites that have enough strength of resource to make a project viable.”
Historically, Air Force objections to wind farms have been the major stumbling block in the state.
Carlson credits Reid with going straight to the top to ease those objections.
“It’s one of those situations where his position as leader is helping Nevada,” said Jon Summers, a spokesman for the senator.
Industry insiders say many objections to wind power, including risks to birds, are based on misconceptions.
Early failures such as tht at California’s Altamont Pass, where one of the country’s first wind farms affected golden eagle populations, have haunted the industry. But with proper placement away from sensitive breeding and feeding grounds, new turbines can be safe for wildlife. Newer turbines are larger and therefore spaced farther apart, and the blades turn more slowly.
Wind advocates say buildings, cell phone towers, power lines and even house cats are much more deadly to birds than wind towers.
Still, John Hiatt, conservation chairman for the Red Rock Audubon Society in Southern Nevada, says the organization is worried about the effect of wind farms, especially in Clark County, on raptors.
And other wildlife, including deer, sheep and elk, could be affected by the industrializing of Nevada’s mountain peaks. To get the giant turbine components, such as 150-long blades, to the mountaintops, extensive roads and construction site disruption would be needed.
“There needs to be a really open discussion, a look at all the options that involves everybody, in siting decisions for wind power,” Hiatt said.
In some ways, though, those remote locations might help Nevada’s wind industry.
Those built near population centers or private property have faced objections that views were blocked and property values lowered. Although the industry calls those objections misguided, it will look to remote public land where there are likely to be fewer complaints.
On the other hand, building on public land means extensive federal environmental reviews that could take two or three years for each project.
Even erecting wind speed testing equipment on public land requires federal permits.
And as with all renewables, lack of transmission from remote locations is a major issue. And it is one that might require intervention by the federal government. Jim Johnson, an engineer with the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado, said one solution could be to link all lines the way the government linked interstate highways in the 1950s.
Whatever the shortfalls of wind power, advocates point out that it and other renewable power sources have major advantages over traditional fossil fuel plants: Their fuel is free and neither the wind nor the sun are going anywhere. The prices of natural gas, coal and fossil fuels fluctuate and they are finite resources.
And because the cost of fuel is passed on to consumers, it’s in the public interest to pressure utilities to invest in renewables, according to Ron Lehr, former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and now the western representative of the American Wind Energy Association.
“You want to add some of these fuel-risk-free options to your portfolio,” Lehr said about utility companies. “If you build a coal plant, you could be betting your company.”
THREE RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
1. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has withdrawn opposition to development in Wilson Creek Range near Pioche, paving the way for a 450-megawatt, utility-scale project there.
The problem: Gates still opposes development at Goldfield, an old mining town near Tonopah, based on concerns the 300- or 400-foot-tall turbines could affect Air Force radar or training exercises.
2. Sierra Pacific Resources is expected early this week to announce plans to develop a 200-megawatt wind farm in northeast Nevada.
The problem: Even environmentalists, supportive of renewable energy in general and wind in particular, worry about bird deaths and the effect of building roads to the wild mountain peaks where Nevada’s winds blow strongest.
3. Congress might pass climate change legislation that would attach a price tag to the emissions from fossil fuel power plants, making wind and other renewable energy sources seem more economical in comparison.
The problem: Federal tax credits that support wind and other renewable energy industries are set to expire next year unless Congress renews them as expected, and at about $1 million per mile, transmission from those windy, remote mounts is costly for a fuel that is trying to compete with cheap coal.
By Phoebe Sweet
11 November 2007
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