Lexington, KY – Kentucky faces many barriers to the development of renewable energy, including the low cost of energy, lack of a state renewable energy standard, and a regulated utility structure that, by law, favors price without consideration of other renewable energy benefits. Principle among these barriers is a lack of understanding among our citizens and policy makers about the great potential of practical renewable energy development to create new industries and new jobs in Kentucky.
It is unfortunate that an article about wind energy (Winds of Change by Zoe Strecker, Business Lexington, July 8, 2010 – Read the article>) drew very different conclusions from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study on which the article was based and gave readers the sense that wind energy is a promising technology for Kentucky. In fact, Kentucky ranks sixth from the bottom in commercial wind energy potential.
The article notes that every state surrounding Kentucky has put more effort into developing wind resources than we have. The reason is simple: all the states surrounding the commonwealth have much greater wind energy potential than we do. West Virginia, for example, has the potential to generate 30 times as much wind energy as Kentucky. And, as noted recently in this and other publications, the majority of the renewable energy in the KU/LG&E system comes from wind farm contracts near Illinois’ largest city, Chicago, known as The Windy City.
There is no doubt that a few Kentucky landowners may benefit from small wind mills to power their home or farm, and they may have an interest in installing these regardless of the economics of doing so. But we will never see the kind of large-scale utility wind farms that are going up offshore and in states like Pennsylvania and Texas.
For wind energy to be economically attractive, the wind needs to blow at more than 6 meters per second (m/s), at least 30 percent to 45 percent of the time. A rule of thumb is that if the wind does not make you uncomfortable, it is not going to make you any money.
Using wind speeds of more than 6 m/s and an availability of at least 30 percent, NREL concluded that Kentucky can generate between 7 and 700 MW of wind capacity if very tall wind turbines are installed to capture all possible energy available on high-wind land. Since most of the energy is available above 80 meters, turbines in Kentucky would have to be at least 100 meters tall, which would make them among the tallest currently in use.
The fact that there might be 48,000 MW of wind energy blowing in Kentucky, as stated in the original article, is of no practical significance if it cannot be economically turned to electricity. Almost all of that wind energy is available less than 30 percent of the time.
Most of the land suitable for commercial wind energy in Kentucky has other uses. The NREL maps of wind speed shows that almost all of the promising wind potential is in the prime horse country of the Bluegrass. What is the likelihood that farmers and our community are going to be enthusiastic about installing large wind turbines on horse farms, especially when considerable community effort is focused on curtailing development of horse farm land?
In 2007, when one of us gave the keynote speech at the Kentucky Governor’s Conference on the Environment, we concluded that solar energy and biomass were the most promising renewable energy resources for Kentucky, but that we would never see commercial wind development in this state. With the new data for 80- and 100-meter wind turbine potential, it is clear that the original conclusion still stands: there is almost no potential for commercial wind power development in the commonwealth without drastic increases in Kentucky’s low residential and commercial energy prices. The renewable technology puzzle will be solved in the marketplace, as investors try to find the best mix of technologies to bring renewable generation on-line in our region. There is no reason for the public sector to support wind energy.
Solar energy, in the form of distributed photovoltaic panels (PV) and hot water systems on roof tops will one day meet a portion of our energy needs. However, the price of PV, which currently has a decades-long payback period, will delay the widespread deployment of solar energy for some time.
Biomass and waste-to-energy projects, both for the production of electricity in existing or new power plants and for the production of liquid fuels, remains Kentucky’s most promising source of renewable, sustainable, carbon-neutral energy. Biomass from forests and farms will provide badly needed rural jobs. The technology for using biomass as an energy source is mature, and the costs of creating energy from biomass are not much higher than for fossil fuels. Biomass energy will have a much lower impact on energy prices paid by Kentuckians than any other renewable resource for the foreseeable future. As soon as a national renewable energy standard is in place or a price is placed on carbon emissions, we can expect the biomass industry to blossom.
In Kentucky, wind is for flying kites. Our green energy future depends on solar energy and the use of our biomass resources.
Tom Kimmerer, PhD, is senior scientist for Lexington-based Moore Ventures LLC, and Jonathan Moore, P.E. is the company’s principal engineer.
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