CLARKSBURG – The wind energy revolution hasn’t really taken root in West Virginia yet, despite its environmental benefits.
The American Wind Energy Association reports total U.S. installed wind capacity through September 2017 was just under 85,000 megawatts: West Virginia’s six wind projects, however, account for only 686 of those megawatts and generate just 1.9 percent of in-state energy production.
AWEA says the Mountain State ranks 25th nationally. By comparison, Texas, ranked No. 1, has 136 working wind projects with nearly 12,500 turbines generating 22,637 MW.
The six wind project sites in West Virginia are AES Laurel Mountain, located in Randolph and Barbour counties; Mountaineer Wind Energy in Tucker and Preston counties; Beech Ridge in Greenbrier; Mount Storm and New Creek, both in Grant County; and Pinnacle in Mineral County.
AWEA said West Virginia’s 376 wind turbines producing enough energy to power 132,000 homes. They represent a total investment of $1.4 billion in West Virginia and pay out somewhere between $1 million and $5 million a year for land leases, AWEA said.
But for the environmentally-minded, those six projects save 1.4 billion gallons of water a year and allowed us to avoid 2.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
“It is completely green energy,” said Wayne Delapas, the new site manager at AES Laurel Mountain in Belington. “There’s no exhaust, no fossil-type fuel that’s used to power them. We basically use the wind.”
Wind turbines are mounted on towers at least 100 feet above ground so they can reap the benefit of the faster, less turbulent wind. The turbine blades resemble propellers, with two or three blades mounted on each shaft.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says when the wind blows, a pocket of low-pressure air forms on the downwind side of the blades and pulls them toward the pocket. That causes the rotor to turn, creating something they call “lift.” NREL says the force of the lift is much stronger than the wind’s force against the side of the blade, which creates “drag.” It’s the combination of lift and drag that causes the rotor to spin; the turning shaft spins a generator, making electricity.
The Laurel Mountain farm, located in Randolph and Barbour counties, operates 61 GE turbines, each one of them rated for 1.6 MW for a total of 97.6 MW of power.
Delapas said each turbine has equipment that triggers it to point in whatever direction the wind is coming.
“The turbines … actually sense wind direction, they have a wind vane and anometers on top that sense wind speed and lets the turbine know it can start capturing wind energy,” he said. “Then the vane points in direction the wind is blowing, maximizes efficiency,” he said.
“Once the wind hits a certain speed … in our case, it’s 4.5- to 5 meter-seconds of wind … the turbine will start generating power from that wind. The electricity, once it’s gathered, runs through a gearbox.
“The gearbox speeds up the ratio of the turn, which, in turn, feeds a generator. The generator transmits the electricity that’s generated … to the transformer, then (it’s) fed back to the substation, which is here on site.”
Delapas said the electricity generated by Laurel Mountain’s turbines either goes into FirstEnergy’s power grid or is routed into battery storage – its 16 battery containers each can store 2 MW.
He said Laurel Mountain produced about 39,000 MW total in January, about 11,000 MW through battery storage and the rest directly into the power grid.
“We’re basically using the natural resource of wind, which is a very clean and green resource with no emissions, and gathering power that can be used in homes and businesses out in the community,” Delapas said, pointing out wind farm sites aren’t selected randomly: Extensive studies are done, usually over a one- to two-year period, before any decisions are made.
“They study wind speeds to see if a site is viable, if it’s strategically placed,” Delapas said. “This place is on the Laurel Mountain ridge line, so our windy season usually runs from August/September through about May, after that we get low wind in the warmer months.”
Delapas said he’s new to the industry, but he’s aware that years ago, before the turbines were installed, people feared the farm would be an eyesore or disrupt their view of nature.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” he said. “There was also a misconception that it kills a lot of birds. That’s not to say a bird has never flowing into a structure, but since I’ve been here I haven’t seen one do it. There’s another misconception that the power generated here is sold out of state. A lot of the energy produced here goes into the grid and it’s used in state.
“There’s a lot of resistance, especially in the Legislature, because of a misconception as to how wind energy is impacting the coal industry,” he adds. “Wind energy is actually a very small fraction of the energy produced in West Virginia, so it’s impact on coal plants is very minimal. Some studies have been done … showing the impact is very, very small. (People worry) because of the coal industry, and how deeply rooted it is in West Virginia.”
AES Laurel Mountain tries to maintain a community presence through scholarships to high school students in both counties, as well as offering tours for students and community groups to educate them about the company and what wind is.
While they’re in a position to add more turbines, if necessary, Delapas said the company currently has no plans.
Dominion Energy and Shell Wind Energy Inc. each own a 50 percent share in Mount Storm, in Grant County, which includes 132 wind turbines along a 12 mile stretch. Dominion Energy’s rapidly expanding renewable generation fleet currently has more than 3,000 MW in operation or under development.
Located adjacent to the Mount Storm Power Station, it’s capable of producing up to 264 MW of power. At peak production, it can meet the energy needs of 66,000 homes.
A Dominion spokesman said the electricity generated by Mount Storm’s wind turbines “flows across power lines from Mount Storm Power Station and over a new, 500,000-volt transmission line completed to increase the supply and reliability in Northern Virginia.”
“It is part of our corporate initiative to invest in renewable energy with operations across the mid-Atlantic and in the west.” Robert Orndorff, Dominion Energy State Policy Director said.
Appalachian Power is awaiting regulatory approval in Virginia and West Virginia to acquire two wind farms, one in Ohio and the other, Beech Ridge II, to be developed in Greenbrier County.
Invenergy, the company that would develop the site, currently operates Beech Ridge 1, a 62-turbine project north of Rupert.
The Chicago-based company said Beech Ridge II, the West Virginia property Appalachian Power wants to acquire, will be a 50 MW wind facility with 20 GE turbines, rated at 2.5 MW per turbine. It’s an expansion of the 100.5 MW Beech Ridge Energy Center, which Invenergy said has been in commercial operation in December 2010. Beech Ridge II is on track to achieve commercial operation “as early as the end of 2018 or as late the end of 2019,” said Zachary Nelson of Invenergy’s Renewables Department.
Greenbrier County caught Invenergy’s attention because of the region’s competitive wind speeds, one of the most critical components to siting a wind farm, Nelson said. The local power grid’s ability to accommodate the additional power with minimal network upgrades is also crucial, he said, adding the Greenbrier facilities required “minimal network upgrades” to accommodate the power being injected onto the grid. Wildlife considerations have been just as important, he noted.
“Through careful study in advance of building the projects, the turbines were sited, installed and are operated with as little impact to wildlife and habitat as possible,” Nelson said. “The project teams regularly monitor wildlife to make sure the impacts remain as low as possible.”
Nelson points out that over the past decade the cost of wind energy has become dramatically more affordable due to decreased capital costs and more efficient turbines, and as a result wind energy is now considered one of the most cost competitive forms of energy. Developing wind farms requires significant capital investment, with the majority of costs attributed to purchasing turbines and related ancillary equipment, like substations and associated equipment, along with construction costs.
Beech Ridge I and II are located next to coal sites “and are great examples of how renewable energy sources can coexist with traditional energy sources,” Nelson adds. “While other regions of the country could be considered a bit more optimal for the development of a wind farm due to topography, West Virginia’s unique topography challenges are certainly ones Invenergy is well versed in.”
Invenergy and its affiliated companies have developed more than 12,800 megawatts of wind projects that are in operation, construction or contracted. In West Virginia specifically, he said Invenergy is “looking at some early-stage wind development projects that have similar competitive wind speeds” as the Beech Ridge projects.
Appalachian Power’s Jeri Matheny said having an “all-of-the-above” energy portfolio makes a lot of sense for a utility, “so that’s what we’re pushing.”
“You’ll see us adding wind and solar, but it doesn’t change our commitment to coal,” Matheny said. “We’ll be using coal for decades and we’ll be using gas as well. Those will be major sources of energy for Appalachian Power, but adding wind and solar is important to adding diversity, so we’re not depending on one form of generation.”
Appalachian Power generates about 495 MW through wind generation. If the acquisition is approved, they’ll add another 224 wind-generated megawatts, for a total of 720 MW.
The company also plans to purchase the output of a 15 MW project called the Depot Solar Center in Rustburg, Virginia, operated by Coronal Energy.
Matheny said renewables currently account for about 2 percent of the company’s overall power generation.
“Adding wind and solar makes sense, you can add to it as you need it,” she said, adding that renewable energy allows the company “to add small amounts at lower cost, whereas building a gas plant is a big investment ratepayers would have to absorb.”
If the state Public Service Commission okays the acquisition, Matheny said Appalachian Power will still use the same amount of coal to power its three West Virginia coal-fired generating plants – Mountaineer, John Amos and Mitchell – but adding other sources will reduce the percentage of coal.
“It just makes sense to diversify,” she said.
“The problem with wind and solar is that you have to use the electricity when it’s generated,” she adds. “You can’t always choose when it is generated, so battery storage combined with renewable energy is a game changer. It allows you to store the electricity produced on a sunny day to use at night or on a cloudy day.”
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