Bottling the Wind
By Sharon H. Fitzgerald
As America continues to push for renewable, domestic sources of energy, the wind sector more than ever before is piquing the interest of communities lucky enough to be located where the free wind blows.
America’s more than 40,000 wind turbines nationwide boast 51,630 megawatts of cumulative capacity (enough to power 13 million homes), and more than 8,400 megawatts of capacity are under construction in 29 states and Puerto Rico. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the sector has added more than 35 percent of the country’s new generating capacity in the last five years — second only to natural gas and more than nuclear and coal combined.
What’s more, the sector boosts American manufacturing. According to AWEA, about 470 facilities in the United States make components for wind turbines as well as manufacture towers, blades and assembled nacelles, which house the generating components of a turbine.
One initiative that has supported wind energy’s growth is the federal Production Tax Credit for renewable energy, in place since 2005 and slated to expire on Dec. 31. The PTC incentivizes more than $15 billion annually in private investment in U.S. wind farms. Thus, it’s no surprise that energy lobbyists are pushing hard for PTC’s extension, which will probably be considered by the full Congress during the lame-duck session after the November election.
Despite the recent tax-credit uncertainty that has slowed some wind projects, new wind farms are nonetheless popping up across the country, and existing farms are enjoying success. In Washington state, for example, wind power regularly eclipses hydropower output these days.
“We have been in the last seven years developing three different wind projects in Washington State,” says Brian Lenz, manager of local government and community relations for Puget Sound Energy. PSE serves 1.1 million electric customers and 750,000 natural gas customers in Washington. PSE’s three wind farms produce 773 megawatts of electricity. They are the Hopkins Ridge Wind Farm in Columbia County, the Lower Snake River Wind Farm in Garfield County and the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility in Kittitas County near Ellensburg.
Lenz notes that wind farms benefit the communities they’re in. “In many cases, we’re the largest taxpayer in the community,” he says. Thus, local government tax structures improve, and more money can be funneled into projects such as schools and roads. Wind farms create jobs, too. “In many cases, those are younger workers because it takes a lot of athletics to climb a tower,” he says. Lenz recalls that one PSE wind farm opened on the heels of a major manufacturer, a seafood processing plant, closing its doors. “It balanced out the loss of the 900 seasonal workers, and it kept that economy from seeing a real downturn. Timing was everything in that respect.”
Kittitas County and Ellensburg have seen the advantages of the Wild Horse facility with its 149 turbines. Lenz says communities like Ellensburg that embrace renewable-energy alternatives are sought after by wind-farm developers; on the other hand, he adds, communities with a contingent of citizens who oppose the project many times force wind-farm developers to look elsewhere. Opponents cite the turbines as an eyesore and say the facilities are noisy, although newer turbines do have lower noise levels.
Ron Cridlebaugh, Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce’s economic development director, says Wild Horse has been “highly successful” in his community. In fact, citizens are proud of the project and are fans of the visitors’ interpretive center PSE opened on the site. “So we have thousands of people visit the wind farm, and it’s a great opportunity for anybody who’s a skeptic of a wind farm,” he says. It also brings tourism dollars into the county.
Kittitas County is a member of the Central Washington Resource Energy Collaborative, sanctioned by the state as an Innovation Partnership Zone. The zones nurture partnerships among economic development, research, workforce training and the private sector. It’s hoped the collaborations result in new technologies, marketable products, new companies and job creation. “Our focus is on renewable energy,” Cridlebaugh explains.
To that end, the collaborative sponsored in September the North West Wind Operators Conference and Exhibition. The annual event “brings in the boots-on-the-ground operators” of wind facilities in the region, Cridlebaugh says, and sessions range from lubricant contamination to breakdown prediction, incident response and environmental stewardship. Kittitas County and Ellensburg have also worked closely with the collaborative and PSE to ensure that first responders are trained in what’s called “high-angle rescue.” Cridlebaugh says, “If somebody becomes incapacitated up in a nacelle, then you have to get them to the ground.”
The city of Ellensburg is also in the renewable-energy game. The owner of its own electric and natural-gas utility, Ellensburg launched a renewable energy project about six years ago. The initiative began with a solar facility set up as a community cooperative, and customers bought into the project. “All the kilowatt hours that are produced go back to them in the form of a credit on their utility bill. If you have 3 percent of the investment into the project, you get 3 percent of the kilowatt hours it produces for 20 years,” explains Gary Nystedt, the city’s resource manager.
The next step was wind, and the city is expected to complete installation this fall of its eighth wind turbine. Each turbine ranges in capacity from 1.5 to 10 kilowatts. The city received grants to help set up the turbines as demonstration projects for various technologies, so each turbine is from a different manufacturer. “In addition to that, we put in a meteorological tower to measure wind speeds at each of the various heights of the turbines, as well as direction, air temperature, barometric pressure, the amount of sunlight received and other critical weather tasks that would impact either the solar or the wind project,” Nystedt says. A partner in the project is Central Washington University, which is responsible for data monitoring and the development of a public Web site to report findings.
“All the power being generated is going onto our utility grid,” Nystedt says, adding that the city’s wind project prompted no opposition.
What Developers Look For
Lenz says there’s a lot windy communities can do to help sell themselves as ideal wind farm locales.
Wind developers look for a grid system in place that allows a transmission path to consumers, so local officials should check into that early on. Some communities take the step of enhancing their electrical infrastructure before throwing their hat in the site-selection ring. Developers also look for a strong communications component, either microwave or fiber optics, and they’re interested in the training of first responders.
Identifying potential sites for a wind farm is also a crucial step local officials can take. Farm and grazing lands often work well, and developers might lease the land and pay royalties as well. “Now the land has another ‘crop,’ and the crop allows them to hire more people to expand their operation for a better lifestyle,” Lenz says. “That money is fed right back into the economy, and it’s a significant amount of money.” Identifying wind as a new crop helps “build a base of supporters,” he adds.
While some cities like Ellensburg are tailor-made for wind farms, other communities are well suited as locations for wind-related manufacturers. In fact, communities as diverse as Durham, N.H., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Hutchinson, Kan., and Chattanooga, Tenn., are the home of commercial-scale turbine manufacturers.
Shawn Kirkpatrick, executive director of the Levelland Economic Development Corp. in Texas, would like to see his community’s name added to that list. Levelland is accomplishing the due diligence necessary to lure such a manufacturer. “Here in the South Plains and High Plains in west Texas, there’s a lot of opportunity for wind development and renewable-energy development,” Kirkpatrick says. “We look at it from the standpoint of being a manufacturing and service hub for that industry in our region. That’s our focus. The wind farms will come where the wind is, but we want to be a hub for those manufacturers in the region and the service companies that will be servicing those turbines for the long term.”
That’s one reason why the community developed its Levelland Industrial Rail Park. “A lot of the materials that are used for wind production on the manufacturing side are rail-based commodities,” Kirkpatrick says. “So we are extremely hopeful that as the wind sector continues to grow out here in this region that we will be basing some of the manufacturing operations within our industrial park.”
And to prove the city of Levelland’s commitment to wind, it’s following in Ellensburg’s footsteps. The municipality nabbed a renewable-energy grant, used to install two wind turbines at its wastewater treatment facility, offsetting the cost of power at the facility.
Sharon Fitzgerald is a freelance writer from Murfreesboro, Tenn. She can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
For complete details on the organizations featured in this article, visit:
City of Ellensburg, Wash., www.ci.ellensburg.wa.us
Kittitas County (Wash.) Chamber of Commerce, www.kittitascountychamber.com
Levelland (Texas) Economic Development Corp., www.golevelland.com
Puget Sound Energy, www.pse.com
By Sharon H. Fitzgerald
While a state may enjoy plenty of windy days and be effective at capturing that power, getting the power to end-users is sometimes the greatest challenge. In Texas, Oncor, a regulated energy distribution and transmission provider, has been working for seven years to boost the amount of clean, renewable energy available to businesses and residences. In 2005, the Texas Legislature created Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) to encourage transmission service providers like Oncor to work with developers to grow cleaner, new energy sources like wind. As a result, Oncor is in the process of installing more than 1,000 miles of transmission lines, thus opening up additional acreage to development of wind farms. “The lines will carry all kinds of power from cleaner and renewable sources,” says Catherine Cuellar, Oncor communications manager. In fact, Oncor anticipates that the lines will help pave the way for additional solar-energy development, too. “By the time CREZ is complete, we will have more than 118,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines in Texas, which makes us the largest power grid in Texas,” Cuellar says. “We have about 10 million customers in our footprint.” Oncor is also working on installation of more than 3 million digital, advanced meters for homes and businesses in its service area. The result will be customers armed with more information about their usage and more options from their retailers. For example, Cuellar explains, “Customers would be able to take advantage of time-of-use pricing to use clean, renewable wind power when it’s abundant overnight.” The cost of building CREZ is expected to be about $2 billion once all the lines are in service. Yet Cuellar says that cost will be offset by the alleviation of grid congestion. “That’s the most pressing issue for our state right now, and it’s important for businesses in order for them to continue to grow,” she says. There’s another bonus in store for Texas, thanks to cleaner energy sources and efficient transmission. “We really think Texas is going to be the best place in the world to drive plug-in electric cars,” Cuellar says. “We have the combination of wind power in great supply that’s clean and renewable for virtually emissions-free charging, and we have the advanced meters that enable customers to choose plans that are best suited to vehicle charging.” Already some Texas retailers are offering free overnight plans, meaning electric car owners only pay the delivery charge for the electricity and not the price per kilowatt hour. For more details, visit www.thinkbigthinktexas.com.