By Amethyst Cavallaro
Online Editor, Power Engineering
Recent events are creating momentum for the wind industry and if the trend continues, it may carry the industry into the mainstream as an integral part of the national energy mix.
Congress extended the renewable energy tax credit to give wind farm construction a boost in 2007 and 2008. Solutions are being brought to light on old problems in the industry and former foes are becoming friends of wind energy. And two recent court verdicts regarding U.S. wind farms may determine the direction in which wind energy will go and the investment dollars that could follow.
According to American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) figures, wind energy currently provides a small share of total U.S. electricity generation (under 1 percent) but is growing fast: it has now become the second-largest source of new power generation for the second year in a row, after new natural gas power plants.
"Wind power now offers a mainstream option with which to meet our growing electricity demand," said AWEA Assistant Director of Communications Christine Real de Azua.
But no technology is perfect and the attitude of Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) has plagued the wind energy industry as well, even as it tries to build on its "clean energy" reputation.
Wind energy enthusiasts have found themselves at odds with the same constituency they intended to leverage in their favor. Conservationists pointed to condor casualties in California, bat fatalities in Appalachia and potential damage to marine life in Massachusetts as just a few examples of the side effects of producing electricity from wind.
But an unexpected supporter of wind emerged recently. A feature in the September-October issue of Audubon Magazine lauded the wind industry's efforts to find "creative ways to ensure that this fast-growing energy source can coexist with wildlife." Then John Flicker, the president of the National Audubon Society, wrote a column in the November-December issue of the Society's magazine in favor of wind energy stating that he "strongly supports wind power as a clean alternative energy source," and sees global warming as a much larger threat to bird species than accidental avian deaths from wind turbine blades.
As an added bonus for the wind industry, a Danish offshore wind report announced in November that the Danish environmental monitoring program on large-scale offshore wind power has received a positive evaluation by the International Advisory Panel of Experts on Marine Ecology. Research on two offshore wind farms, Horns Rev and Nysted, began in 1999 and found that with careful site planning, large offshore wind farms "can be engineered and operated without significant damage to the marine environment and vulnerable species."
Military and air traffic controllers have named wind farms a national security threat over a wind tower's involvement in direct and Doppler interference. A recent report from the Idaho National Laboratory shows that the reflection from the tower's components and the disturbance the blade rotation cause to a Doppler system are in some cases real. The report found these problems can be mitigated by careful site planning and inter-agency cooperation among the Department of Energy, U.S. Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) conducted a study on national security impacts from wind turbines in 2006 that led to inconclusive results. The DOD calls for more research into mitigating the effects of radar interference, but acknowledged that the United States should "allow for construction of wind turbines while maintaining defense readiness capabilities."
"Decades of experience tell us that wind and radar can coexist," said AWEA executive director Randall Swisher. "The American wind energy industry will continue to work collaboratively with government and others on efforts to constructively address challenges and refine solutions. We need to further develop clean, renewable energy sources like wind to reduce dependence on imports and increase our energy security."
Wind has faced hostility from some of its civilian neighbors as well, with complaints pouring in about disturbing the view, noise nuisances and unsightly transmission lines cutting through the land. Those complaints have turned into some of the first lawsuits against wind farms since its boom in construction in recent years. Two of those lawsuits were decided upon in December and the decisions might set the precedent for future lawsuits.
Texas surpassed California in 2006 with the most installed wind capacity in the United States. One of the reasons the state achieved this status is the Horse Hollow wind farm outside of Abilene, Texas, the largest in the world with 421 turbines generating 735 MW. But 18 plaintiffs located near the wind farm collectively sued FPL Energy LLC, the owner of Horse Hollow, and argued that the wind turbines at the farm created enough noise to constitute a private nuisance.
The Abilene jury disagreed and issued a "take-nothing" verdict, finding that FPL Energy had not created a private nuisance with its wind farm. The case was closely watched by energy industry observers because of the potential impact on future wind farm construction. FPL Energy has invested more than $1 billion in its Texas wind farm operations, and a negative outcome in their case could have had a chilling effect on wind investment.
Far from the rolling plains of Texas, the Cape Wind Project, which would be the first U.S. offshore wind farm, is set to be constructed off of Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts, near multi-million dollar estates and surrounded by tourist attractions. Energy Management Inc.'s plan to build the 420 MW farm with 130 wind turbines has raised the ire of local groups. Sentiment against the project has pooled together a persistent group of activists, called the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which has spent millions of dollars in an ongoing fight to stop the wind farm's construction.
The most recent action taken against the project was an appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Court regarding a May 2005 decision by the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board (MEFSB) approving the construction and operation of undersea transmission lines to serve the Cape Wind Project.
On December 18, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously in favor of the MEFSB decision, acknowledging the MEFSB's "eminently reasonable and practical approach" in determining that the transmission lines were needed to serve the wind farm, even though the wind farm itself will ultimately require the approval of federal agencies.
Cape Wind President Jim Gordon stated that "the state's highest court has now confirmed the validity of the original agency decision, which said emphatically that Cape Wind's power is needed, that Cape Wind will reduce air pollution and that the project is a needed part of our state's energy mix."
The court's decision will facilitate Cape Wind's efforts to secure the remaining necessary state approvals to construct and operate the controversial project. The MEFSB approved Cape Wind's application at the conclusion of a 32-month review of unprecedented length that included 2,900 pages of transcripts, 923 exhibits and 50,000 pages of documentary evidence.
The wind energy lobbyists are riding the wave of good news for wind and preparing for a future of growth.
"Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opponents may resort to lawsuits to try to stop wind power projects, but, the fact is, wind energy development enjoys broad public support and is growing fast," AWEA representative Real de Azua said. "It is an energy source that works for our economy, environment and energy security, and these rulings reflect that reality."