U.S. wind development

by Lee Ewing,

U.S. wind development has vast potential, some of which has already been realized with the aid of federal (production tax credit) and state (renewable portfolio standards) regulations and subsidies.  However, current impediments likely create a ceiling to for wind energy capacity, even as the technology becomes increasingly cost competitive.  Addressing these impediments

The U.S. is uniquely situated in many ways to take advantage of this resource.  The middle part of the country, with its flat landscape and steady winds, has been referred to as Saudi Arabia of wind power.  The relatively low population density in these area also allow for easier siting by avoiding the superficial complaints of homeowners.  Wind farms can also be located to make efficient use of land, by partnering with commercial agricultural operations.  Finally, although currently undeveloped U.S.’s extensive coastline offers a significant resource for offshore wind.  Despite this potential and the current rapid deployment of wind turbines, prospective impediments exist that, if not addressed, will limit the ability of wind to cut into this country’s overall resource mix.

Probably the most obvious and most cited flaw of wind energy is its intermittency.  The problem is simple, wind is irregular and so is the power it generates.  Although this can be addressed to some extent by place turbines higher above the ground, there is still significant variability depending on the season, more wind at colder temperatures, and time of day, peak wind generally occurs during the early morning hours.  One solution is to partner wind with other technologies to levelize the overall generation.  Some technologies are better partners than others.  Coal and nuclear, for example, do not work well with wind owing to their ramp-up and ramp-down difficulties.  Conversely, gas fired plants can ramp-up relatively quickly and, with improved economics, offer a solid path forward to balance out wind generation.  Additionally, solar, although also intermittent, can also provide assistance because it generally is at its most potent at different times than wind.  The real key to freeing the penetration of wind energy will be the combination of developing feasible utility scale storage technology and modernizing.  Pumped hydro is currently available, but is limited.  An R&D breakthrough will be required, necessitating the support of government programs such as ARPA-E, as well as private capital in the form of venture capatilists.  In addition, increasing the proliferation of smart grid technologies to enable customer interaction will allow load to better aligned with wind energy generation.

Another issue faced by wind that is less of a prospective problem than one currently faced by the industry, is the location of the much of the resources removed from population centers.  This causes transmission congestion issues due to the inability of wind energy to reach locations where demand is greatest.  The most obvious solution here would be to build new transmission capacity.  However, transmission projects are expensive and face significant regulatory hurdles.

Finally, wind development faces several issues that do not create physical limitations, but that are nonetheless important considerations maximize the successful deployment of wind technologies.  These issues include local resistance due to aesthetic and noise complaint, impacts on birds and bats, and environmental siting issues, such as the protection of sage grouse in the west.

Although the above discussion focused on onshore wind, offshore wind is on the cusp of a breakthrough and deserves a brief acknowledgment of its own.  Block Island Wind Farm is imminently set to become U.S.’s first offshore wind farm in operation, representing what will hopefully be the first step towards aggressively capturing this valuable resource, estimated at 4,200 GW.  Offshore wind offers significant potential benefits due to the quality of wind, the ability to site larger turbines out of site of the public, and the location closer to major population centers.

While a positive event, the U.S. has so far been slow to adopt this technology, particularly compared to Europe, because of a variety of regulatory and cost obstacles.  In addition, some resistance due to shipping ways, impact on aquatic life and commercial fishing, and some opposition by locals concerned about protecting pureness of their skyline.

It is apparent that offshore wind will need assistance to be deployed at any significant scale in the near future. State governments will and must be the primary driver to push offshore when over the significant hurdles it now faces.  Some states have made legislative progress to promote this technology, such as RPS carve-outs for offshore wind, but more direct subsidization, power purchase agreements to provide a stable return, and decreased regulatory red tape to reduce cost will be required.  Offshore wind must be a valuable component of our future emissions free fuel mix, and state governments are in a position to ensure such a future actually occurs.

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