In the push to stop global warming, many experts are hearing a mighty rushing wind.
Clean and abundant wind power in vast stretches of America is not only far cheaper than solar, but as oil prices soar, it’s proving to be less expensive than natural gas, a prime source of the nation’s power.
At present, wind provides only 1 percent of U.S. electricity, but a federal report predicts the wind could be providing 20 percent of American power by 2030.
”Wind is ready to go,” says Christine Real de Azua of the American Wind Energy Association.
But perhaps not in Florida. Though pleasant breezes sweep in from the ocean, several experts say the quality and location of those winds make it difficult, if not impossible, to generate much wind power here at a reasonable cost.
Florida Power & Light, whose parent is the largest supplier of wind power in the nation, insisted for years it wouldn’t build a wind farm in Florida because the state’s breezes weren’t strong enough. That changed last year when, under pressure from Gov. Charlie Crist and the public to move toward green energy, the utility announced plans for a small wind project near the Atlantic coast in St. Lucie County.
That effort has been mired in zoning disputes with neighbors who do not want their coastal skyline marred by windmills as tall as 40-story buildings. What’s more, the strength of St. Lucie winds is less than half that of major wind farms in the American West.
”The power it’s going to produce is so tiny,” complains Julie Zahniser of the Save St. Lucie Alliance. “It’s political. Governor Crist wants to be seen as this green Republican, and FPL wants to make him happy. . . . The wind hasn’t changed. The technology hasn’t changed.”
Ryan Wiser, a renewable-energy expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, says a project with St. Lucie-strength winds would not be attempted in the West. “Why would you pick a place like the Southeast?”
Still, as oil and gas prices soar and Americans become more concerned about global warming, wind is now often viewed as the great savior. Vast stretches of the West – particularly the Plains States and Texas – now have fields of huge wind turbines that stretch for miles.
”It took us three generations to get the bugs out,” says Bob Thresher, director of the National Wind Technology Center in Colorado. The turbines kept getting bigger, the parts turning with less friction. Costs to produce a kilowatt hour of power dropped from 40 or 50 cents per kilowatt-hour in the 1980s to today’s 6 to 9 cents/kwh, not counting the tax subsidies.
CHEAPER THAN SOLAR
Wiser at Lawrence Berkeley says wind energy now costs roughly a third to half the cost of solar, factoring in the tax credits for each.
The California Energy Commission calculated last year that wind in top locations could produce power for 6.7 cents/kwh, compared with 9.6 cents/kwh for a natural gas plant. These wind prices, which include all construction and maintenance costs, seem more attractive in light of today’s energy market. In the past year, natural gas prices have soared by 32 percent, according to FPL, meaning wind power in good locations might be about half the price of natural gas.
The best place for wind is North Dakota, according to the American Wind Energy Association. No. 2 is Texas, followed by Kansas, South Dakota and Montana. (Florida is not in the top 20.)
Virtually all the best wind places are remote. ”Where the wind is best is far from the urban centers that need the power,” says John Reilly, an energy economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That means more expense for adding transmission lines.
Wind’s other problem is timing. While there are exceptions, wind is often at its best at night and during the fall, winter and spring, says Wiser. Utilities’ greatest need is during the afternoons and summers, when air conditioners are humming. That means solar’s afternoon peaks are “more advantageous to electric utilities.”
Even so, many areas have come to embrace wind. It’s cheap, and financially stressed farmers enjoy the $3,000 or $4,000 a year they typically get for renting land to wind producers. A turbine generally takes up one acre out of 50 – turbines can’t be too close or they block each other’s wind – and that means there’s still plenty of land left for farming.
”We rarely hear about [protesters in] North Dakota,” says Lisa Linowes of Industrial Wind Action Group. From her home in Lyman, N.H., Linowes has become a crusader against wind farms ever since a company proposed putting huge turbines on a ridge near her home. She’s become a cheerleader for many groups opposed to wind in their backyards, most of whom are in the East and Midwest.
The reality is that wind – as clean and as green an energy source as Mother Nature can dish up – has run into vehement opposition in some places. Some environmentalists complain the turbines kill birds. More often the critics are people who think wind is fine – as long as the tall turbines are somewhere else.
Off Cape Cod in Massachusetts and off Long Island, wind merchants have been trying – and failing – for years to build turbines in the water offshore. In both cases, the plans were opposed by the wealthy owners of shoreline mansions.
FPL’s sister company, FPL Energy, knows all about these fights. For years, it tried to get approval for the Long Island project before it finally gave up.
FPL Energy is ”one of the most efficient wind operators in the country,” says Jay Apt, executive director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center. “They’re very good at it.”
FPL Energy has 55 wind farms in 16 states including the nation’s largest, the 735-megawatt Horse Hollow field in Texas. Last week, it announced a new $2 billion wind farm to be spread over 250 square miles in North Dakota.
The company has mounds of data about the costs of producing wind power in different places, but it refuses to reveal any of it. When The Miami Herald asked FPL about costs, it replied crisply: “Wind is proportionally less expensive where the resource is more abundant.”
Wind was not FPL’s first choice for diversifying its power sources in Florida. Last year, the utility tried hard to get approval to build a new coal plant. Gov. Crist didn’t like the idea. On June 5, 2007, regulators flatly rejected the 1,960-megawatt coal plant.
BOWING TO PRESSURE
Two days later, the utility announced it understood which way the political winds were blowing and said it planned to construct the first wind farm in Florida. ”This is a great first step in seeking more renewable generation resources in Florida,” said FPL President Armando Olivera.
”I am very pleased,” Crist responded.
”I’m thrilled,” said a representative of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Buried in the press release was a statement reiterating FPL’s longtime position: “While wind in Florida is not consistently strong and reliable enough to produce a large amount of electricity, FPL will explore ways to best use this resource.”
Several months later, in a little-noticed filing with the Public Service Commission, the utility was unusually blunt about how poorly it viewed Florida’s winds when the PSC staff asked why FPL wasn’t doing more with wind, when wind power was so much cheaper than solar. That seems particularly true in Florida because experts say solar here produces considerably less energy than in the American Southwest, where solar is thriving.
FPL responded that the noted cost difference between wind and solar in Florida ”may not necessarily be the case.” The utility said it could be expensive to buy wind turbines designed to withstand hurricanes. It noted that even offshore, wind often does not have the strength for a viable wind project “and is reduced on the coast and further reduced inland.”
What’s more, the utility had a study showing “wind resource limited to winter seasons (October through March) whereas FPL load peak is in the summer.”
FPL answered Miami Herald questions by e-mail: “Wind power is a vital part of any serious effort to address global climate change. . . . The St. Lucie site has wind speeds high enough to generate ample electricity with zero greenhouse gas emissions.”
FPL and experts agree that to generate wind power in Florida, the turbines have to be on the coast, and that’s what the utility proposed at St. Lucie.
At first, some of the nine turbines in the $60 million, 20-megawatt project were planned for FPL-owned oceanfront land on Hutchinson Island, where it has nuclear reactors. Others would be on nearby oceanfront public park land. The plan drew howls of protest from environmentalists and other local residents.
In February, even though the project still lacked zoning approval, the state Department of Environmental Protection announced it would help fund the wind project by giving $2.5 million to FPL, which had a profit of $836 million last year.
As opposition continued over use of public land, FPL scaled back the project in March to six turbines, all on FPL’s own property. Environmental and neighborhood groups remain adamantly opposed. ”This is like building a solar farm in a rain forest,” said Zahniser of the Save St. Lucie Alliance. “And there are 36 endangered species at that site. . . . We see this as ruining precious resources in Florida for absolutely no benefit.”
Three months have gone by. The county commission has yet to approve the project. ”We hope the St. Lucie wind project gets a fair hearing,” FPL said in an e-mail.
The utility has kept up the pressure. It conducted a survey showing that four out of five St. Lucie residents favor the project. Critics said the phrasing of the questions misled people.
The utility notes that this is a small project. “The roughly $45 million total cost of the project works out to about 33 cents a year for the average FPL customer, or less than the price of a postage stamp.”
”It’s political,” insists Zahniser. “Do you know how many light bulbs you can swap out with new energy-efficient light bulbs for $45 million? This is a false green scam that diverts valuable time and resources away from true solutions.”
In April, FPL released a study conducted by a sister company, WindLogics, that said FPL’s St. Lucie project had a ”capacity factor” to power turbines at about 20 percent of their rated power. Apt at Carnegie Melon contrasts that with North Dakota, where turbines work at almost 50 percent capacity.
Based on those numbers, Apt calculates North Dakota wind power has an unsubsidized cost of 6.5 cents/kwh, compared to about 15 cents/kwh in St. Lucie.
Thresher of the National Wind Technology Center describes the state’s challenges this way: ”Florida’s flat and low. . . . And it’s at a latitude that rarely gets strong winds.” He thinks the St. Lucie location might be “marginally cost effective . . . but Florida is not a good regime for wind. It’s a little better offshore.”
Offshore power is widespread in Europe, but it needs good winds to justify the extra expense of building and anchoring turbines in the water, which raises the cost by ”50 percent or more,” said Thresher. In Europe, that expense means builders are developing turbines with blades 200 feet long – “That’s a beast, and they’re working on ones that are a lot bigger.”
FPL dodged several questions about the feasibility, cost and strength of offshore turbines. ”We are not proposing any offshore wind projects in Florida at the moment,” the company said.
At the moment, many wind projects around the country are on hold because the wind energy tax credit of 2 cents/kwh is set to expire at the end of the year. FPL and other wind users believe its essential and needs to be renewed, and most members of Congress are thought to favor the credit, but it has yet to pass.
Even if it does, it won’t be as good as the tax credit solar gets – 30 percent of the construction. Thresher at the National Wind Technology Center says there was a time when wind projects received a similar 30 percent tax credit. “A lot of junk got built that didn’t work.”
COST A CHALLENGE
Thresher says the challenge for wind is going to be improving the cost. Since 2002, wind costs have been creeping up. One reason: Demand for turbines is so high that there’s a shortage, driving up prices. What’s more, many parts are built in Europe, where the Euro exchange rate drives up dollar costs.
Eventually, more turbine parts will be built in the United States, says Thresher, but the great price reductions that wind has shown in the past will not be easy to repeat. Thresher thinks the best that can be hoped for is 10 percent to 15 percent drops in the West, where wind is plentiful.
”I think it’s doable,” says Thresher. “But it’s not going to be easy. The easy stuff has been done.”
But Thresher and many others know what will really elevate wind projects is action by Congress, expected to come after the November elections, when power plants belching greenhouse gases will be forced to pay stiff penalties.
Under that scenario, a study by Black & Veatch consultants shows that the cost of wind power will remain steady while the cost of coal and natural gas could climb steadily until they are almost twice as expensive.
By John Dorschner
29 June 2008
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