As wind rises in Texas, obstacles loom; Alternative source of power faces economic and environmental challenges
Wind power in Texas was mostly a curiosity in 2000 when the state first opened its wholesale electric markets to competition. About 300 turbines were spinning away in rural West Texas, creating a mere 200 megawatts of power.
Today the state has 5,300 megawatts on line, 25 times more than in 2000 and enough power to light more than 1.5 million homes.
Texas topped ecofriendly California as the largest wind producer in the U.S. in 2006 and is on track to pass some countries in installed wind generation in the coming years, including giants China and India. With another 44,000 megawatts in wind projects on the drawing board, the forecast is for continued growth for years.
But challenges, both economic and environmental, may be looming.
The capacity to move power from West Texas’ growing fleet of wind turbines to the state’s energy-hungry cities is tapped out, leaving many turbines idle.
Solving the problem will require spending billions of dollars to build hundreds of miles of new transmission lines, the costs of which will be shared by all Texas electric customers.
And two projects under construction along the Texas coast south of Corpus Christi may test the green credentials of Texas wind.
Because the projects are along major migratory bird routes, some groups worry the projects could lead to massive bird kills when the turbines begin to spin late this year.
Others, however, including some environmentalists, say the two companies have studied the problem extensively and appropriately.
“Delivering electricity is a very complex system, and wind adds another level of complexity,” said Jone-Ling Wang, managing director of global power for Cambridge Energy Research Associates. “In Texas, the success of wind means the challenges will be great, too.”
The wind boom was sparked by a 1999 law obligating Texas utilities to offer renewable power to customers. It’s been sustained by improvements in wind turbine technology, the profit potential of the state’s wholesale market and growing public clamor for clean power sources.
“It’s a clean, infinite power source that has brought new life to many West Texas communities,” said Vanessa Kellogg, director of project development for Horizon Wind Energy, a Houston-based wind developer owned by Portuguese utility Energias de Portugal.
But wind power has two major drawbacks that continue to make it more costly than fossil-fuel-burning alternatives: reliability and location.
First, the wind doesn’t blow continuously, particularly during the hottest part of the day in the summer, when electricity demand is at its peak.
That means a grid operator can’t count on a 100-megawatt wind farm the same way it can depend on a 100-megawatt natural-gas-fired plant.
Pairing wind projects with fossil-fuel plants is a way around the problem, but it’s not cheap. To reliably meet 1 megawatt of power demand with wind requires 1 megawatt of wind-generation capacity and as much as .89 megawatt of natural-gas capacity, according to a recent Cambridge Energy Research Associates report.
Second, the best wind locations are usually far from the cities that need the power, adding costs for transmission lines.
Pay for itself?
In April, the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, released a study outlining several scenarios for accommodating growing wind resources. The one with the most industry support could handle up to 17,956 megawatts of new wind power by building 3,000 miles of new lines at a price of about $6.4 billion.
The industry argues introducing more wind power to the grid will pay for itself in just a few years by reducing the need for more expensive gas-fired plants, which would put downward pressure on wholesale prices.
“The fuel cost savings alone would be something like $1.6 billion to $1.9 billion per year,” said Paul Sadler, executive director of the Wind Coalition, an Austin-based industry group. And that assumes a natural gas price of $7 per million British thermal units, about $5 less than the current price.
“We would be pound foolish not to build out our infrastructure with those kinds of benefits,” Sadler said.
Doubts about price
But others worry the cost projections are too optimistic.
Testimony filed with ERCOT on behalf of Texas Industrial Energy Consumers said ERCOT’s study does not include higher right-of-way prices in urban areas, legal fees or financing costs.
The Cambridge Energy study notes that adding wind to the wholesale power mix doesn’t dramatically reduce prices because wind’s impact will be weakest when demand is at its highest.
And while wind does not carry the same environmental baggage as coal or natural gas plants, a wind project in Altamont Pass in Northern California has been blamed for thousands of bird deaths, including eagles, because of its location and design.
Susan Sloan, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association, says the Altamont situation has not been repeated elsewhere. But no laws set requirements for measuring a project’s impact on birds, and in Texas and other states there’s often no way for the public to have input on a project. That leaves some uneasy.
David Newstead, head of the Coastal Bend Audubon Society in Corpus Christi, said he’s not convinced that a pair of projects along the coast in Kenedy County will be as benign toward migrating birds as predicted by its developers – the international investment firm Babcock & Brown and Spanish energy firm Iberdrola.
Newstead is part of a coalition of organizations, including the neighboring King Ranch, that has filed suit in federal court seeking to stop the projects.
Effort fell apart
Newstead said representatives of environmental organizations were invited to be part of a technical advisory committee, “but I got the impression the advisory committee involvement was being used by the developers to imply all the groups were in support of the project.”
A collaborative effort between industry and environmentalists to develop voluntary guidelines fell apart in December, when it was revealed at a meeting that the Wind Coalition’s board had voted on a set of rules that didn’t include many of the principles the environmentalists wanted.
Kellogg, with Horizon Wind, took part in the discussions and agrees the two sides didn’t see eye to eye, but that it was important to get a set of guidelines in place, given the growth of wind power in Texas.
“The industry tried hard to reach a compromise, but you shouldn’t hold up the development on an entire industry that ultimately will help birds,” Kellogg said.
Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Texas director of Public Citizen, said the developers have worked hard to ensure bird safety – at least partly because that issue could undermine other wind power development.
Radar warning of birds?
He said developers have promised to install radar technology that will let them spot migrating birds and will shut down the turbines when it appears they pose a danger.
“Sure the industry is concerned, and that’s why they’ve been moving as far as they have with their studies and technology,” Smith said. “They know it could backfire.”
And wind has momentum in its favor. New federal laws regulating carbon dioxide emissions seem inevitable, which will greatly change the economics of the power industry to wind’s advantage.
Sadler said politicians are eager to pose with a wind turbine as a prop.
“What I don’t understand is why people feel the need to put more restrictions on wind,” Sadler said.
By Tom Fowler
31 May 2008
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