Tapping America's Ocean of Wind
By Bill Moore
Two mighty rivers flow across South Dakota. The Missouri River is one of them. The hydroelectric dams along its winding course produce two megawatts of electric power daily, about 60% of which is exported to surrounding states.
The other "river" is invisible and immense. It's power potential dwarfs that of the "Mighty Mo". The best current estimate say it is hundred of times the power output of all the Missouri River hydroelectric plants in the state put together. There is so much untapped wind power in South Dakota - - as well as North Dakota and Nebraska - - that this one state alone could provide two-thirds of America's electricity.
Yet, this vast river of air currents is not being utilized anywhere near its potential. The reasons have little to do with the technology or cost of wind power. Depending on who you talk to, electricity from wind energy is clearly cheaper that that produced by natural gas and -- if you don't count the cost of the $35 billion dollar black lung benefits program - - it is on a par with coal. Include black lung program costs into the price of coal and wind power is the cheapest form of electric power today, in the range of 4-6 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) and forecast to drop to 3 to 5 cents by 2004 at the retail level.
No other energy technology today has seen such a dramatic cost drop in the last twenty years. In 1979, it cost 40 cents to generate a kilowatt/hour of electricity from wind. Large commercial wind farm developers like FPL Energy are now quoting wholesale prices of $25-29 per megawatt/hour. That's 2.5 to 2.9 cents per kWh. This is why wind power is expected to grow 29% this year with total worldwide sales of $5 billion.
A significant reason why wind power is gaining popularity among the electric power generation industry is its reliability. Modern wind turbines now have an availability in the 98-99% category.
Of course, equipment reliability isn't the same as wind reliability. Wind power advocates counter criticisms of wind's unpredictability with the argument that wind is, in fact, predictable and reliable. Granted there are times when the wind doesn't blow and therefore no power is generated. The same is true for nuclear power, which is regularly off-line -- often for weeks at a time -- for periodic maintenance and replacement of fuel rods. Coal and natural gas-fuel generators must also be shut down for periodic maintenance and repair. And unlike the wildly fluctuating price of natural gas, the wind is free. It is also dependable. It will never run out and while it might not be blowing in one location, it is blowing elsewhere. It is simply an energy source that the utility industry doesn't yet understand all that well, but it is one that more and more utilities, both investor and publicly owned, are starting to take seriously.
This is why the South Dakota Public Utility Commission held its second annual Wind Power Conference in Pierre, the state capitol, last week. EV World's editor drove the 425 miles up to Pierre to attend the conference and find out why this valuable resource is starting to look increasingly attractive to both the utility and agricultural industries of the Midwest. After all, what better way to power our electric vehicles of tomorrow with electricity generated by clean, free, sustainable, abundant wind power.
Pierre, South Dakota sits in the narrow river valley cut by the Missouri through the middle of a vast, treeless plateau. The Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through here nearly 200 years ago. A hundred years later, a railroad line crossed the state, passing through Pierre and its sister community across the river, Fort Pierre. The population of the entire state is but 750,000 people, which makes the fact that the US Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle comes from South Dakota, all the more remarkable. Interestingly, the state's other Senator, Tim Johnson - - with whom EV World's editor had the chance speak - - sits on the Senate Energy and Resources Committee.
What became clear during the two days conference is that South Dakota - - and its neighbor and rival, North Dakota - - sit astride an enormous ocean of wind. Together the states have the potential of generating something on the order of hundreds and possibly thousands of megawatts of electricity daily. According to Robert Gough of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, the Native American reservations in the region are capable of generating 250MW of electricity from wind power daily. He puts the electric energy potential of the winds on the American Great Plains, a region stretching from Texas to North Dakota, on the order of 1 million MW daily.
This vast ocean of air is driven by the uneven heating and cooling of the Earth's surface every day, in effect making wind power just another form of solar energy. As FPL Energy's Bob Bergstrom put it, "The wind is predictable, not controllable."
The question no longer is, can we affordably tap into this powerful ocean of air. The question now is, how do we get it from where it is to where it's needed. You have but drive across Interstate 90 from Sioux Falls to Rapid City and you immediately understand the nature of the problem. Few people live here. While they have lots of wind power to potentially export, getting to the markets where it's needed is the biggest challenge now facing the industry. There are literally thousands of miles of high voltage power lines stretching across the state, running from the hydroelectric dams along the Missouri east and southeast towards Minnesota and Iowa and from there to Chicago and beyond. But these lines were designed only to handle the power generated by the Missouri River dams, not thousands of wind turbines. According to Jim Burg, the chairman of South Dakota's Public Utility Commission, the current regulatory climate is so uncertain that few groups are willing to invest the billions of dollars it would take to upgrade existing lines, much less construct thousands of new miles of high voltage power lines, estimated recently at $500,000 to $800,00 per mile.
Nevertheless, the issue is being studied and various electric coops are looking at several selective upgrades in the eastern portions of North and South Dakota.
One of the more ambitious efforts has been proposed by Clipper Energy, LLC. Dubbed "Rolling Thunder," this project would dwarf every other wind project currently being considered anywhere in the world. This 3000MW project plans to build its own High Voltage DC (HVDC) line from South Dakota along an abandoned railroad right-of-way it has acquired to Chicago. According to Ken Hach, Clipper's VP for Development, the Chicago market is important because of the volatile price of natural gas in the region. Dakota wind power would be very competitive and offer Clipper a good return on its investment.
While Clipper Energy is forging ahead with its plans, buying wind power easements South Dakota from ranchers and farmer and tracking down investors, others are still wrestling with the Gordian knot of regulations that confront the power industry from NERC (National Energy Reliability Council) to FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission).
At issue is how to integrate an unconventional, uncontrollable energy source like the wind into a system designed and built around coal and hydro more than fifty years ago. Jim Burg lamented over a late night beer that while he didn't think "net metering" would pass in his state, he thought that possibly requiring transmission system developers to reserve a portion of their capacity for non-scheduled sources of electricity like wind might be acceptable. Two other experts at the table quickly pointed out that this would probably run afoul of FERC regulations. So, Burg - - like so many others - - is left scratching his head, trying to come up with a plan that will encourage wind power investment in his state that the public, the industry and regulators will accept. Clearly this is not an easy chore.
Then there is the issue of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) which lets wind power developers take a 1.7 cent tax credit for each kilowatt of electricity they generate. While some object to yet another government subsidy, one conference speaker pointed out that America gives subsidies to every other energy producer, so why should wind power be held to a higher standard. The current PTC is set to expire at the end of this year and the industry says that if it does, the industry will collapse with it.
In a perfect world, we'd remove subsidies from all our energy resources, oil, gas, coal, electricity, wind and let them compete head-on. But since that's not about to happen anytime soon, the PTC appears to be a key ingredient to the future success of wind power in America.
Senator Johnson commented during his luncheon address that he and others in the Congress are aware of the importance of PTC and plans are in the works to see that it gets extended before it expires. He did add, however, that the current anthrax scare in Washington D.C. has forced much of Congress out of their offices and into temporary quarters, while their staff work from home, further complicating and delaying the legislative process.
So, that's the current situation with wind power in America. The energy is there for the taking. The technology exists to do it economically. Now we just need the will to make it happen. From comments made by Burg and Senator Johnson both publicly and privately, many in leadership positions both at the state and federal level are genuinely supportive of this vast, under-utilized natural resource. Even some of America's biggest investor owned utilities are actively developing wind power in places such as Kansas, Texas, Minnesota and Iowa. Small projects are finally taking shape in North and South Dakota, as well as Nebraska, but these are - - at best - - only demonstration projects producing electricity for a few thousand homes, but it is a start.
What is needed most right now is the strong, unambiguous support of the American people. Since September 11th, more and more individuals in positions of leadership and persuasion have come to the conclusion that if we are every to extricate the nation from economic and political consequences of oil dependency, we must start now. And from everything said during the conference in Pierre, wind can and must play a significant role in that process.
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