Tybee Island – The wind gusted to 25 mph at the far end of this beach town’s famous pier. A dozen kite surfers below skimmed across the foam-flecked ocean. Shirtless and sunburned fishermen praised the cooling powers of the southerly breezes.
The wind proved a recreational godsend. Could it also prove a commercial success?
Georgia Tech researchers, who recently completed a study on wind energy off Tybee and Jekyll islands, think so. Southern Co., which commissioned the report, will further study whether a wind farm could generate enough electricity to be financially feasible.
Environmentalists and a smattering of Georgia tourists gushed about the possibility of a nonpolluting renewable energy source – even if the horizon is dotted with Statue of Liberty-sized turbines.
“It’d be clean energy and it wouldn’t hurt anything,” said Jack Lamb of Milledgeville, fishing for shark off the pier. “And if it was that far out, most people won’t know what it was. It’d look like a buoy.”
Wind energy’s time may not yet have come, but it’s getting closer. Electricity generated by wind jumped 45 percent last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Roughly 4.5 million U.S. households can now run on wind power.
The U.S. Department of Energy recently reported that wind turbines could generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030. Houston – aka Oil Patch Central – started last week using wind-powered electricity for one-fourth of its municipal power needs.
Paul Wolff, a member of the Tybee City Council and the Georgia Wind Working Group, a public-private advocacy group, said Georgians have no choice but to embrace wind energy, given the geopolitical, environmental and financial burdens of oil, coal and nuclear power.
“I am hopeful that Georgians are intelligent enough to realize our very lifestyle, which is blissful in many ways, is threatened,” he said. “We can’t continue with the philosophy that we can use energy until it’s gone. We need to take charge of our own destiny.”
Many obstacles remain before wind electrifies Georgia homes, none greater than the fact that offshore wind farms don’t exist in the United States, as they do in Europe. Construction costs have jumped 50 percent the last three years.
Congress hasn’t renewed tax credits deemed necessary to boost production, unlike Washington’s subsidized embrace of ethanol and alternative fuels. Southern Co., which owns Georgia Power, prefers coal and nuclear power. Only 4 percent of its power, mostly hydro-electric, is generated by renewable fuels.
“We need to see them looking beyond traditional energy sources and to improve on their renewable energy portfolio,” said Mary Carr of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “We need the Southern Co. to get serious about offshore wind.”
Feasibility tests approved
The utility recently received approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior to move forward with leasing three plots off Tybee to further test the feasibility of a wind farm.
“More data is needed before any determination on whether a wind farm can be placed out there,” said Liz Philpot, a research engineer with Southern Co. “There are so many issues that have not been resolved, including regulatory issues. … We’re doing what we can.”
Another federal permit is needed before Southern Co. can build a 300-foot meteorological tower to more accurately gauge wind speed and directions. Possible effects on right whale calving grounds and turbines’ effect on migrating birds also will be researched. The wind study could take three years and $3 million, Philpot said, adding that a pilot project wouldn’t get under way for at least five years.
Nothing, though, is expected to happen without tax breaks and, probably, a federal mandate to use renewable energy. Washington allows a 1.9 cents per kilowatt hour tax credit for wind-energy projects, yet the subsidy is set to expire in December. In 1999, 2001 and 2003, when Congress temporarily killed the credits, the number of new turbines dropped dramatically.
“We think all options need to be on the table, including renewable energy, nuclear and clean coal,” said Southern Co. spokesman Jason Cuevas. “So any tools available to help improve and spur development of alternative sources we typically support.”
The European Commission, concerned about global warming, set a goal of producing 20 percent of the region’s energy from renewable sources by 2020. No such federal mandate exists here, although 25 states, but not Georgia, require that a percentage of future electricity come from renewable sources.
The Southern Co., along with other utilities and railroads, succeeded last year in helping to kill federal legislation requiring that utilities use more renewable energy. Cuevas said the South wouldn’t generate enough alternative energy, solar and wind in particular, to meet the mandate.
TVA turbines effective
The Southeast isn’t windy enough to produce energy, or so goes common wisdom. Yet 18 turbines sit atop Buffalo Mountain near Oak Ridge, Tenn., and help feed the Tennessee Valley Authority’s power grid.
Facing southwest, to catch the most wind, the turbines rise 260 feet high along two miles of ridge. They generate enough juice for 3,780 homes.
Three years ago, an alliance of Georgia’s electric cooperatives erected a 200-foot tower atop Rocky Mountain near Rome to collect wind data. While a dozen ethanol and bio-diesel factories dot Georgia’s landscape, wind, solar, tidal and other renewable-energy sources struggle for acceptance and financing.
A Navy platform 40 miles off Georgia’s coast registered wind speeds of 15-17 miles per hour, “which may provide enough energy to power an offshore wind farm,” Georgia Tech reported in 2004.
A year later, Southern Co. put up $580,000 to study offshore wind with Tech. Researchers winnowed possible sites to a half-dozen off Tybee and Jekyll islands. Each location must accommodate maybe 80 turbines – with rotors as long as a football field.
A site 10 miles southeast of Tybee, where the turbines would appear no larger than a beach-goer’s finger nail, might prove best.”It is not a pristine ocean view, but the turbines would be no more visible than channel markers,” said Tybee councilman Wolff. “So we might as well be generating energy.”
Cape Cod farm fought
Public outcry over environmental and aesthetic qualities of the so-called Cape Wind farm – 24 square miles of turbines off the Massachusetts coast – has helped stymie the project for seven years. Lawsuits and regulatory scuffles continue to delay the placement of 130 turbines 6.5 miles from Cape Cod.
On-shore farms, particularly in the windy Plains states, are the only proven wind-to-energy sources in the United States. Texas, with 5,300 megawatts of wind-generated power, enough to light more than 1.5 million homes, leads the nation. Oil baron T. Boone Pickens recently announced he’ll build the world’s largest wind farm in west Texas – 2,700 turbines supplying 4,000 megawatts of power costing upwards of $6 billion.On-shore wind, though, comes with its own problems. West Texas is prime energy-generating territory, but the state’s biggest users, like Houston and Dallas, are hundreds of miles to the east. The state must spend at least $3 billion to upgrade its transmission system, according to a recent study.
Off-shore wind farms would be closer to major U.S. markets. In Europe, 20 farms provide energy to the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. But they cost about twice as much as on-shore ones.
“Wind energy can work,” said Bill Bulpitt, senior research engineer for Tech’s Strategic Energy Institute. “But the stars have to be aligned in a number of ways.”
By Dan Chapman
9 July 2008
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