Monday, June 8, 2009

The New "Sentinels of the Prairie:" Wind Turbines and the Energy of the Future

Historically the phrase "Sentinels of the Prairie" has been used to describe the enormous grain elevators that dot the landscape in the American Midwest.  But today, the sentinels may indeed be of a different kind: wind turbines.

One cannot understate the potential future importance of wind-generated electricity both to the American (and other locales all around the globe as well) electricity portfolio, but also to the economic well-being of the generally rural landscapes where these gigantic pieces of equipment operate.  Currently, the U.S. derives about 1 percent of its total electricity from wind.

Recently I drove from Denver east to Manhattan, Kansas, a trip of about 500 miles. One travels through the heart of the American Midwest on this trip. About half-way across Kansas, on the north side of Interstate 70 from mile-marker 216 to 228, you see a vast array of wind turbines generating electricity. The project, Smoky Hills Wind Project, consists of 56 Vestas V80 turbines (1.8 MW each) and 99 GE turbines (1.5 MW each) and generates 250 MW.  It is owned jointly by Trade Wind Energy and Enel North America.  For a state such as Kansas, that has struggled to bring additional economic development to rural areas, the wind farms represent economic growth.

To a nation hungry for even more electricity, and only now coming to grips with the environmental impacts of continuing the tradition of fossil-fuel based generation, these wind farms represent a path to a cleaner future. Is wind-generated electricity a panacea? Hardly. Things that seem to good to be true often are.

There are formidable challenges ahead for wind generation, not the least of which are the lack of transmission lines to move this power to population centers and the "inflexibility" of the current grid to "accept" widely disbursed generating facilities (as contrasted to a relative handful of huge fossil-fuel fired plants).

With respect to the lack of transmission, there is the not so insignificant issue of who should control the siting of these lines.  Traditionally state public utility commissions have handled this.  Thus, to build a transmission line from say northern Colorado, where wind is plentiful, and transport it to say Chicago, a population center that needs enormous amounts of power, means convincing several public utility commissions along the route that a transmission line should be built in their state.  There are those who say that transmission line siting always must be handled at the state level, but one wonders in this time when electrons really don't (and never have) respect state jurisdictional boundaries.

Then there is the matter of the grid and its inability to handle multiple sources of generation.  This will cost money to retrofit or to rebuild in places, but is this really a cost or a future investment in energy security?

Most electric utilities have been lukewarm to the idea of more wind generation.  For a 100 years they have often used fossil fuel and the paradigm has been to bring the fuel to the population centers and then make the electricity there.  Since they have generally been able to simply pass on the cost of the fuel to the consumer, the incentive to look for a less costly fuel source has not really been in their business plans.

Consequently, in the age of wind and solar, there must be a change in thinking to generating the electricity where nature allows it (in the Midwest and the Southwest) and then transporting it to the population centers.  

To be sure, there will be winners and losers in this change.  The railroads won't like it; the coal industry including management and unions will oppose it; some local communities will fight the idea of wind farms nearby or of transmission lines running across the horizon.  But there have always been winners and losers in American capitalism.  Does anyone think that the environment and individuals with, for example, asthma are not losers in the present system?

It is impossible to perfectly balance all of the interests in the new energy economy.  Someone will always oppose a new form of business, a new way to generate electricity.

The final picture tells an interesting story about how the U.S. has lost the lead it once had in nearly all things environmental.  The 155-foot blade seen in the picture was manufactured in Denmark.  It was shipped across the Atlantic to a port in Texas.  Once there, a trucking firm loaded it up and transported it to North Dakota where it will put in many years of service generating clean electricity.

All of us share an enormous stake in clean energy generation.  The stake includes some challenges alongside enormous opportunities.  Once "the price is right" in terms of the cost of electricity generation -- meaning that all of the "costs" associated with electricity generation are figured into the price to the consumer -- wind and solar will soar.  

At the end of the 19th century, buggy whip makers were obviously not thrilled about the advent of the car and the railroad.  These new modes of transport threatened the buggy whip makers, and in time automobiles and railroads put buggy whip makers out of business.  But surely there is something to learn there.  When times change businesses must change.  This is one of those times.        

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