WATERLOO – Discussions about any drawbacks of wind energy, according to experts in the field, begin and end with a simple question:
“When will the wind blow?”
The answer to that question is the foundation of the quandary surrounding wind power, the experts note.
“The main disadvantage is the fuel source – that being wind is a variable fuel source,” said Diane Johnson, general manager of Waverly Light & Power, which has two wind turbines to complement its energy portfolio. “That means the wind doesn’t blow all the time, so you can’t rely on a turbine to provide day-in-day-out power.”
Often, calm conditions occur when energy needs peak, which speaks to that drawback, Johnson said.
“Specifically, in our part of the world, we find wind generation tends to happen at the opposite time we have our highest loads,” she said. “You get a significant amount of wind in the evening, but we usually have our highest demand in late afternoon on a hot summer day. So, what that says, for most wind production facilities, is that somehow behind that you have to have a fuel source that isn’t variable that can kick in when the wind isn’t blowing. That’s the down side of wind.”
Small wind has proven particularly useful on farms and in small-manufacturing facilities, but the unpredictable nature of wind is a challenge, said Jake West, a wind specialist with Perry-based VanWall Implement Corp., a John Deere dealer which also sells turbines to hog-farming operations in Iowa.
” The owner wants to help out ag producers, his customers, with the wind turbines as a way to allow his customers to lower his cost for electricity and be an incentives,” West said.
West said low wind speeds are a problem for turbine operation, especially in certain parts of Iowa.
“If you look at the Iowa Energy website, they have a wind map,” he said. “Typically, in Waterloo and Northern Iowa, the area is good for wind. North-central is another good area. Southeast Iowa is sometimes not as practical.”
But, even with those disadvantages, wind power can work, he said.
“Alliant may be charging customers 12 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity; we’re allowing them to hedge that,” he said. “If you believe your cost of electricity is going up, it may be best to explore a wind turbine to hedge that rate increase for the next 20 years. There are so many factors involved.”
Dependable transmission also ranks high among wind energy’s toughest hurdles with Mark Douglas, executive director, Iowa Utilities Association.
“With our wind resources, we’re one of the leaders in terms of wind generation,” he said. “We are exceeding our potential, because our potential is seventh or eighth, but we’re second (to Texas in output). But the real challenge right now for further expansion of large-scale wind farms is transmission.”
That means infrastructure, he said.
“You have to have the big highways that will carry the power across the state and maybe further east,” he said. “That’s the discussion now – can Iowa be an exporter of wind to the Illinoises, Indianas and Ohios those places east of us? To do that, we’re going to need to expand our transmission system. Even to grow within the state, we’re going to need interstate transmission. There are some areas of constraint, where we’re getting to the point where we’re maxing out certain areas. That’s one of our biggest challenges, but it’s a tremendous challenge now from the regulatory standpoint.”
Much of the solution will have to come from the federal government, he said.
“You get into jurisdiction issues when you go state to state to state and try to decide who really pays for it,” he said. “Is it Iowa that pays for transmission to another state? That’s all discussion at the federal, as well as regional, level. It’s going to be awhile.”
Wind also blows up against some natural obstacles, Douglas said.
“If you’re amongst trees or downtown, you’re obviously going to have some challenges,” he said.
Tom Wind, owner of Wind Utility Consulting in Jefferson, added that wind cannot have natural or man-made obstructions in order to generate power.
“You’ve got to have the right circumstances,” he said. “You’ve got to be in a windy spot in the country where there’s not a lot of trees around. Across two-thirds of Iowa, the wind speeds are probably good enough out in the country on higher ground.”
Douglas pointed to some irony in another issue: birds.
“You may have some environmentalists, especially wildlife folks, especially fowl,” he said.
There are other factors to consider, as well, Wind said.
“The price of electricity you’re paying, some utilities have higher rates or some have more favorable policies,” he said. “It’s probably a combination. The federal government has incentives for wind power, so you need incentives, you need wind speed and higher-than-average rates, plus favorable policies. It takes a combination of things to make it work. That’s what I do. I do feasibility studies.”
There’s a noise issue, as well, especially for turbines built in populated areas, Wind said.
“They’re not real noisy, but towns may set a standard for lower noise level, so you have to find a turbine that can do that,” he said. “It’s a little difficult to find the right combination for everything to make it work.”
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