Wind farms could one day power New Orleans, but high cost, other issues cause for concern
Credit: By Jessica Williams and Caitlin Looby, Staff writers | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate | Jul 31, 2019 | www.nola.com ~~
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For years, solar power has been the rallying cry of New Orleans City Council members aiming to chart a more sustainable energy future for New Orleans.
Its advocates have long said that solar panels – which now adorn a smattering of city rooftops and will soon populate a 200-acre site in New Orleans East – are cheaper and better suited to the coastal city than the giant windmills that create energy in other parts of the U.S.
But other renewable energy advocates, federal officials and representatives of the wind-power industry recently told a council committee that wind power ought to get a closer look, even if costs would need to fall sharply to make a wind farm in the Gulf of Mexico a viable future power source for New Orleans.
“We know that New Orleans is considering a higher penetration of renewable energy and that solar has been the focus of that conversation … but we also think there is a broader (role) for wind to play,” Jaime Simmons of the Southeastern Wind Coalition told the council’s Smart and Sustainable Cities Committee earlier this month.
The future, as they see it, would involve the construction of massive, 600-foot-tall wind turbines off the Louisiana coast, along with underwater transmission cables that would route the electricity back to land and power thousands of homes in the city.
The “Texas, Louisiana and Florida (coasts) have some of the highest wind capacity in the U.S,” Andrea Heckman of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said during the council presentation. “The Gulf has good shallow water and a broad continental shelf to allow for offshore wind development.”
The bureau has already sold leases worth almost $500 million off the U.S. East Coast to more than a dozen companies aiming to put turbines there. BOEM has not awarded any such leases in the Gulf, but Heckman said that could change if interest grows.
Costs are a big concern, with current prices for wind power roughly five times higher than for power produced by conventional plants.
Block Island Wind Farm, a five-turbine development that produces 30 megawatts of power off the coast of Rhode Island, was completed in 2016 as the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. The farm charged an initial rate of 24 cents per kilowatt hour; that price is now up to 27 cents per hour.
Power from gas-fired plants that went into service this year costs anywhere from 5 to 9 cents per kilowatt hour, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The cost is a primary reason why Entergy says offshore wind is a no-go.
“Today, in Louisiana, wind is not a cost-effective renewable resource,” the company said in a statement, adding that onshore wind – which in some areas can cost about the same as gas-fired power – could become viable in Louisiana in a decade or so.
Hurricanes also present “extreme challenges” to offshore Gulf projects, it added.
At the council’s urging, Entergy has focused on solar in recent years, praising it as cost-effective. A proposed 20-megawatt New Orleans East solar plant and deals with outside firms for about 70 more megawatts of solar power were announced earlier this month. The exact cost of those projects per kilowatt hour wasn’t clear Tuesday, but the EIA estimates that solar projects entering service next year will generate power at a cost of about 5 cents per kilowatt hour.
If the council required Entergy to derive at least some of its power from wind energy, offshore turbines could be a viable option, said Simmons, whose nonprofit group encourages wind development.
The council intends to create a “renewable portfolio standard” later this year that would require Entergy to add a certain percentage of renewable power to the city’s grid by a certain deadline, but there has not been any discussion about requiring wind power.
While prices for offshore wind power are currently well above other power sources, costs are expected to drop as the technology used to build the giant turbines improves, industry experts told the council.
A proposed 800-megawatt wind farm south of Martha’s Vineyard, for example, will cost about 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour when it comes online in 2021, officials with the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources said in August.
As for hurricanes, the blades produced by LM Wind Power, which built Block Island’s blades and has a technology center in New Orleans East, are tested to withstand storms that reach Category 5 strength, according to James Martin, who heads LM’s Technology Center.
“These things literally bend like a fishing rod when they have 200 mph pushed against them,” he said.
Still unclear, however, is the impact the turbines could have on the environment.
Researchers have found that the Block Island Wind Farm is positioned in an area frequented by migratory birds. That’s a cause for concern because the birds could collide with the spinning blades.
Any negative effects could be compounded for birds traveling through the Mississippi Flyway, a migration route used by more than 300 species that stretches from the headwaters of the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico.
“Louisiana and the Gulf Coast are areas (whose) importance (to birds) is above and beyond other areas of the country,” said Dean Demarest, a biologist from U.S. Fish and Wildlife who focuses on wildlife in the Southeast.
Demarest suggested that sensitive areas for birds, fisheries and water quality should not be used for the turbines, as construction would disrupt sediments and produce turbid waters.
He said companies might also consider shutting down the turbines during bird migration times.
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