May 13, 2019
Louisiana, Opinions

La.’s wind projects are thwarted, while Texas steams ahead

By Susan Buchanan, Contributing Writer | The Louisiana Weekly | 13th May 2019 |

Texas is the nation’s leader in commercial wind power, while Louisiana remains on the sidelines. Harnessing the wind has taken off in the last decade. But the Pelican State’s wind speeds, regulatory framework, abundant natural gas, and opposition from farmers and others, along with the industry’s technical obstacles, have kept projects from launching. Ironically, companies in Louisiana, however, provide expertise and equipment to wind installations in other states.

Natural gas-fueled 60 percent of Louisiana’s electricity last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nuclear power contributed 17 percent and coal 11 percent, while biomass, other industrial gases, hydro-power and small-scale solar output made up the rest.

To the west, Texas deregulated its electricity market in 2002 and mostly operates on its own grid. Moreover, Texas is in a central U.S. wind corridor, running south from Minnesota. Wind-powered 18.6 percent of the state’s electricity last year, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT said.

“In Louisiana, several wind development projects have been publicly announced in recent years that potentially would assemble sizable acreage,” attorney Patrick Ottinger with Ottinger Hebert, LLC in Lafayette said last week. “But none of them has launched commercially yet.” Ottinger is an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center.

A big project that would have brought power from a proposed wind farm in Oklahoma to Louisiana was canceled in mid-2018 after it wasn’t approved in Texas, Ottinger said. Giant transmission lines were an issue. American Electric Power’s planned $4.5 billion project was called the Wind Catcher. Southwestern Electric Power Company’s or SWEPCO’s share in it was slated at 70 percent. SWEPCO is a unit of AEP, headquartered in Ohio.

Separately, however, SWEPCO, for years has been buying wind energy generated out of state for customers in Shreveport and northwest Louisiana. “SWEPCO’s three-state customer base, including Louisiana, is served by 469 megawatts of wind power purchased from facilities in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas,” SWEPCO spokesman Peter Main said last week. “In 2009, we began using wind power with a long-term purchase of 80 megawatts from a wind farm in Texas,” he said.

“Wind speed and consistency aren’t as good in Louisiana as in some other parts of the country, making it hard for potential projects to compete,” Main said. “For renewable energy, solar may have better opportunities in Louisiana.”

Louisiana’s Public Service Commission doesn’t mandate the purchase of renewable energy. The Texas Renewable Portfolio Standard, however, calls for utility companies to jointly create new megawatts of renewable energy. An RPS is a legislative requirement that utilities in a service area use renewable resources to produce a percentage of their electricity.

Texas operators have benefited from a federal production tax credit for any wind facilities that start construction by December 31, 2019. The Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit or PTC, taken by wind farms, credits every megawatt hour produced at a stepped-down rate, depending on when construction started. The credit’s duration is ten years after the time a facility begins service. Wind plants entering service in 2021 are eligible for $19.20 per megawatt hour in inflation-adjusted credits, while those starting service in 2023 will get $9.60/MWh.

Louisiana and much of Mississippi are part of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, linking electrical power in 15 states and Canada’s Manitoba province. Nearly half of MISO’s power comes from coal and after that from natural gas and oil. MISO’s wind power generation is growing yearly, however.

“A lack of understanding among Louisiana’s landowners and their advisors about wind power has impeded project development, particularly in agricultural areas,” Ottinger said. Rice farmers, for instance, fear turbines would interfere with aerial applications of pesticides and fertilizers. One wind project in Louisiana couldn’t obtain enough lease rights because chemical applicators didn’t want to fly near turbines, he said.

“Louisiana and Mississippi lag behind Texas because it’s much windier in West Texas,” Brian Snyder, LSU assistant professor of environmental sciences, said last week. “Louisiana may have wind power in the future, but it might not be from the sorts of wind systems used now.” Interest in airborne, wind-energy systems is growing. “They resemble giant kites, flying 300-plus meters in the air, where winds are steadier,” he said. “One day, Louisiana might use these kinds of designs. But that’s a long way off.”

For offshore wind power, the cost is a concern. “Installing wind turbines offshore is very expensive, and it has only made sense in a few places in the world, mostly in Europe, where wind speeds are high and electricity is expensive,” Snyder said. “In Louisiana, offshore wind speeds are modest at best, and we have much cheaper electricity.”

Offshore installations face other obstacles. For one thing, the wind is variable. “Sometimes a large turbine will generate five megawatts; sometimes no megawatts,” Snyder said. “To operate, an oil-and-gas platform needs energy pretty much constantly. If a wind turbine were installed, a backup power system would have to be installed too.” Paying for the turbine and the backup would cause costs to balloon.

“Until a technological breakthrough occurs, we won’t have wind power in the Gulf,” Snyder said. “We can dream that one-day wind turbines will be airborne over Lake Pontchartrain. But I’m not holding my breath.”

Ottinger said offshore wind development has more potential in Louisiana than onshore. “Some observers believe that siting could be done on abandoned oil-and-gas platforms,” he said. “Locating wind turbines on abandoned platforms in the Gulf has been discussed for a decade or so, but no one has done it yet. One problem is the excessive weight that wind turbines would exert on platforms.”

In 2016, the nation’s first offshore wind installation, Deepwater Wind’s Block Island farm, began operating off the Rhode Island coast. Other installations off the U.S. East Coast, including Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts, are in various planning stages. Envisioned, offshore farms in Galveston, Texas and farther west on the Texas coast have been slowed by costs and vulnerability to hurricanes. Meanwhile, in Europe offshore wind installations are operating in eleven countries.

Do oil companies drilling in the Gulf have plans for wind? “We aren’t using wind power currently in the Gulf of Mexico,” Chevron spokesman Chris Merrifield said last week. “But we are committed to evaluating opportunities across a range of alternative and renewable energy sources, including wind, solar and biofuels, and energy-efficiency technologies.” Chevron owns the 11-turbine Casper Wind Farm on a former refinery site in Wyoming. At peak capacity, the farm can power 13,000 homes yearly.

At Shell, “we’re currently focused on the progressing development of our joint-venture, offshore wind projects in the U.S. Northeast and have no present plans to build offshore wind projects in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico,” Shell spokeswoman Kayla Macke said last week. “In a broader sense, we see great opportunity for the global offshore wind industry, and we’ll continue to evaluate opportunities that are in line with our strategy to grow in key markets with strong wind resources and strong demand for renewable energy.”

Louisiana firms have participated in wind projects in other states. Steel foundations for the Block Island Wind Farm off of Rhode Island were built by Gulf Island Fabrication in Houma and designed by Louisiana-based Keystone Engineering. This past November, LM Wind Power, a unit of GE Renewable Energy, launched its Technology Center Americas at NASA’s Michoud complex in New Orleans East to test techniques for turbine-blade construction.

U.S. electricity generation from wind surged from six billion kilowatt hours in 2000 to about 275 billion kWh last year, led by Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas and California, according to the EIA. Wind turbines last year provided 6.6 percent of the nation’s utility-scale, electricity generation.

Wind operating costs have declined with technological advances. In 2023, the projected cost of electricity will be higher when it’s produced from offshore wind, however, than from onshore wind, coal or natural gas, the EIA predicted in February.

This article originally published in the May 13, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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