Up to 2,500 megawatts (mw) of wind energy capacity are scheduled to come online in the United States this year, bringing new power to the equivalent of 700,000 homes and injecting more than $3 billion of investment into the power generation sector.

Wind power has truly become a reality.

While wind generates only about 0.3 percent of U.S. electricity today, but with continued federal support in 1.9 cents-per-kilowatt-hour (kWh) production tax credits included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to accelerate wind power’s development, this increasingly competitive source of electricity can provide at least 6 percent of the nation’s power by 2020. The country’s mostly rural facilities can provide revenue for farmlands and small communities without consuming any natural resource or emitting any pollution or greenhouse gases.

Perhaps because of its growing success, electricity from wind is increasingly becoming the target of critics within the traditional utility community. They are disturbed by the fact that the wind does not blow all the time, making a wind generator’s power highly variable and thus quite different from other utility generating options. But help is on the way.

New coalition announced

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has announced the official organization of a broad national coalition—called Wind Energy Works—of wind energy advocates that is intended to be the largest pro-wind energy development organization of its kind in the United States. Wind Energy Works will actively and aggressively engage in the public debate over the merits of wind energy, educate the public about the many benefits of wind energy development, and act as a counterbalance to the misinformation being spread by wind energy opponents in communities across the country.

Randall Swisher, executive director of the AWEA said, “Despite all of its benefits, there is an ongoing effort by wind power opponents to mislead the public and hinder or block further wind power development across the country. This new coalition will make the positive case for continued wind power development and inform the public with the facts.”

There is great support in this country for wind power development. A May 2005 Yale University poll found that 87 percent of Americans support expanded wind farms and 86 percent want increased funding for renewable energy research. Nevertheless, opponents have mounted a continuing effort to distort the truth about wind power’s benefits and spread misinformation in an attempt to influence the favorable perception of wind energy, according to AWEA. The Wind Energy Works coalition was created to counter myths with facts.

Complaints and response

Unless you build lines, you may not actually get much contract work from building wind power farms. But as a consumer of electricity, it could be useful to know some of the pros and cons so you may be an informed citizen. Tom Gray, deputy executive director and director of communications for the AWEA, offers these responses to some commonly heard complaints about wind power.

Complaint: The wind doesn’t blow all the time, so it is unrealistic to count on it to supply all of our electricity needs.

Response: Why should we require of wind what we don’t require of any other energy source? We don’t expect coal, or nuclear, or hydro to do it all. Why would we not opt instead for a mixed portfolio of all renewable energy sources, taking advantage of their regional availability and their complementary characteristics? The amount of wind in the United States generating mix, and in many regional portfolios, can be substantially increased with little or no operating difficulty. Wind today stands at roughly 0.6 percent of national generating capacity, and 0.3 percent of electricity production. Grids in California and Texas today operate with roughly 10 times that level of wind energy without difficulty.

Complaint: Electric utilities need “dispatchable” power plants (plants that can be turned on and off as required) to respond to electricity demand.

Response: Critics often suggest that because of its variability, wind cannot serve a given, steady amount of consumer demand. But it is not that simple. In fact, electricity demand is a constantly moving target. The more accurate picture is one of a number of generating plants moving on- and offline throughout the day to meet that constantly shifting target.

At any one time, only some 15 percent of the total generating capacity online actually is “dispatched” to keep load and generation in balance. At relatively low “penetrations” (where wind is providing less than, say, 10 to 20 percent of the electricity on a system in any given hour), its variability is essentially lost within the larger, shifting variability of the system. The rule of thumb is that until wind provides 10 to 20 percent of the electricity on an annual average basis, it can be accommodated without significant added equipment on most transmission grids.

Complaint: When the wind blows, other power plants must be throttled back in response. Such throttle-backs cost consumers and should be included as an extra cost of wind energy.

Response: In fact, “throttle-backs” always save money. The plant that throttles back is the highest-cost, least-efficient plant on the system at the time the wind picks up. The incremental wind power, by definition, costs almost zero and avoids the expense of fuel consumption on these marginal plants.

In addition, the criticism assumes that emissions reductions have no value. If in fact they do have value, then the throttle-backs doubly benefit us all. The plants that are throttled back to make room for the incremental wind energy are almost always the dirtiest as well as the highest cost plants. When the average U.S. utility generating mix is used to generate as much electricity as a single 1 MW wind turbine, 10 tons of sulfur dioxide and 6 tons of nitrogen oxides are emitted each year, as well as 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas.

Complaint: Because it is too costly, wind power must be heavily subsidized.

Response: Wind power is not too expensive for widespread commercial application. New wind farms can and do compete with new generating plants using other technologies. Today, most new generating plants constructed in the United States are fueled by natural gas. New wind farms are cheaper than new gas plants after the existing reserves of natural gas (roughly seven years) are used up and new capital must be spent to discover more domestic natural gas or import it from areas of the world with a surplus.

Profile of a growing wind company

Zilkha Renewable Energy is a Houston-based developer of wind power, with operating and developing projects in more than a dozen states. In the past two years, the company has built or announced construction of more than 800 MW of wind power.

Founded and formerly owned by the father-and-son team of Selim and Michael Zilkha, it has recently been acquired by Goldman Sachs, an investment-banking firm. The company, now known as Horizon Wind Energy, sells electricity around the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Costa Rica. It is committed to building not only the highest quality wind energy projects but also strong working relationships with utilities. It maintains a very low profile to shift the positive marketing and public relations values of its wind projects to customers and partners rather than to itself.

For the Top of Iowa Wind Farm in Worth County, Iowa, Zilkha wanted to build a project that was exceptionally friendly to the local community and that allowed its main utility customer, Alliant Energy, to benefit from the project’s high visibility. Zilkha decided that, instead of building a steel prefabricated building, it would buy an old barn from a local farmer, move it and update it for use as an operations and maintenance facility.

Today, all of the Top of Iowa’s operations are run from this beautifully restored barn, which combines a hayloft converted into a viewing area and housing for a state-of-the-art SCADA system, all within a beautiful example of a traditional Midwestern barn. The NEG Micon SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) allows the Zilkha team to monitor each turbine from one central location and assess individual turbine data and overall data for the entire wind farm.

In Pennsylvania, Zilkha and its partner, Atlantic Renewable Energy, helped engineer a deal between Exelon Power Team, Community Energy and the team companies for the Mill Run and Somerset wind power projects. Under long-term contracts, Exelon purchases the power output from Mill Run and Somerset, whose combined capacity is 24 MW. Community Energy, in turn, acts as a retailer of the electricity to customers throughout Pennsylvania, specifically marketing the Somerset and Mill Run projects.

“Teaming together and working closely with Community Energy and Exelon has helped us do a better job as a developer of wind farms,” Zilkha said. “One of our project goals was to create innovative ways to assure the marketing value of these projects accrues to Community Energy and Exelon, who are well positioned to help build the case for green power in Pennsylvania.” EC

TAGLIAFERRE is proprietor of C-E-C Group. He may be reached at 703.321.9268 or lewtag@aol.com.