It isn’t a question so much of whether wind power is a practical way to produce more electricity and lower the nation’s dependence on imported petroleum. It’s how to get that wind power into the grid – the system of lines, towers, transformers and cables that end at a wall outlet or light switch.
Utilities are in the forecast business, said Mike Martin, general manager of Lebanon Utilities.
Wind power has a place on the nation’s electric grid, Martin said. What he wonders is where that place will be at different seasons. Wind is … well, fickle.
Managers of electric utilities don’t like fickle. Fickle means unpredictable. Fickle means a possibility that nothing will happen when a customer flips a light switch.
According to Martin, there is an increasing demand for renewable energy resources in an utility’s portfolio. “Within the next four or five years we may see wind power generators here,” Martin said. But other sources will be more important, because they are more dependable.
Depending totally on wind is not realistic, he said
“What if the wind doesn’t blow?” Martin said.
“Everything has to balance,” Martin explained, raising one hand while lowering another. Electricity providers must determine their demand and find a supply a day in advance – with a little extra, just in case.
Utilities must have a certain percentage of generating power in reserve, called a “spinning reserve.” It doesn’t have to be used. “If that load doesn’t develop, you don’t have to dispatch it,” Martin said.
“The most important thing to remember is, it has to be balanced every second,” Martin said. Utilities call an excess of power “overfrequency.” Having too much is not as risky as being “underfrequency,” when too little power is available.
Needing less power than is available is good, Martin said. Needing more than can be tapped is potentially catastrophic.
“Something goes down on the grid every day,” Martin said. The spinning reserve usually balances the grid “in a matter of seconds,” he said. If there isn’t enough frequency, the grid begins to shut down. Such a crash is rare, he said.
“Spinning” up a coal plant takes time. Coal-fired generating plants can be scaled up or down. If they are on-line, with turbines ready to spin, additional electricity is available relatively quickly.
A cold start for a coal-powered plant is not as easy as trying to start a car with a weak battery in sub-zero weather. Sometimes, the car will start. The coal plant won’t.
Nuclear plants must operate full-throttle all the time, Martin said. They are not scalable.
Ryan Brown, of the Indiana Office of Energy & Defense Development said, “the key to wind is both the resources and access to high-voltage transmission lines.”
Farmers in Boone County’s northwest quarter may find harvesting wind to be more profitable than corn, soybeans or wheat. Two high voltage transmission lines run through western Boone County.
Brown hasn’t heard of anyone interested in building a wind farm in Boone County. “But that’s not to say that someone wouldn’t, in the future,” he said.
Boone County is about as far south in Indiana as a practical wind resource is found, Brown said.
“There are challenges between land uses,” Brown said. “When you build a wind farm on land, you aren’t going to have industrial or residential development.”
The turbines that generate electricity from wind power are atop towers 150 feet to 300 feet high, Brown said. One turbine produces enough electricity for 300 to 600 typical American homes.
By Rod Rose
7 March 2008
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