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Google Likes Wind. Shouldn’t Arizona?

According to a new research report by the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory (LBNL), the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the "stimulus bill" as most of us know it) did a lot of good for America's wind industry:

  • The Treasury Department's 1603 cash grant program restarted stalled projects and saved or created 50,000 jobs in the U.S.
  • A record-breaking 10,000 megawatts (MW) of new wind capacity was built in 2009, thanks in large part to the 1603 cash grants.

Wind is hip, too - in May Google invested $38.8 million in two North Dakota wind farms.  And last week the company announced that it will invest in the Atlantic Wind Connection - a massive new project off the East Coast (see the map here).

In Arizona, though, solar power gets all the attention (not a big surprise, given the relatively high solar power potential here and relatively mediocre wind potential).  Wind power makes up a far bigger percentage of the total renewable energy generation in the U.S. than solar (9% compared with 0.2%) and in Arizona too (solar generates around 15 MW of power while wind generates about 63 MW) - until the huge new solar energy projects, like APS' 280 MW concentrating solar facility Solana, come online.

Yet the debate about wind as a renewable energy source we should continue to pursue is not closed.  As always, there are pros and cons.

Pros of wind power

  • No water necessary.  Traditional forms of power generation and other forms of renewable energy use a lot of water, which is as precious a resource as our clean air.  Wind farms don't require any water.
  • In America people think wind farms are ugly (witness the recent fuss over the offshore wind farm).  But the same can obviously be said for any other type of energy generating plant, though wind farms need more space than conventional plants do.  And then, maybe it's just a mindset.  The Economist reports that wind farms are tourist attractions.  "In China and Poland people go to wind farms to have wedding pictures taken."
  • No emissions.  Like solar power, wind is a completely emissions-free form of power generation.  And, like solar, the resource base will never run out.

Cons of wind power

  • Solar power plants have been criticized for taking up too much space.  But compared to non-renewable sources of energy, wind power needs a lot of land per megawatt (called the power density) too.  The Palo Verde nuclear power plant, for example, generates 612 MW of power per square mile.  The Roscoe wind farm in Texas generates 2 MW per square mile.  To generate as much power as Palo Verde, a wind farm would be one and a half times the size of Rhode Island.
  • Some people have argued that wind is predictable, but that doesn't seem possible - we can't predict the weather can we?  And we can't rely on wind any more than we can rely on the sun (though, clearly, there are places that are more frequently windy or sunny than others).  In fact, compared to traditional power generating methods (nuclear, coal, natural gas), wind power has a much smaller capacity factor (the ratio of actual output to listed capacity) - 20-40% compared to 80-100%.
  • There is also a concern that birds get caught up in and killed by the enormous wind turbines (rotor diameter ranges from 164-295 feet, about the length of a jumbo jet).  The Economist reports that since June, Cape Wind, which would be part of the Atlantic Wind Connection, has faced legal challenges from opponents who argue that the wind farms could violate the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
  • The massive wind turbines must be located in windy places, which are often in remote locations.  In addition to "visual pollution" and potential harm to birds in flight caused by these massive structures, additional infrastructure is usually necessary to provide access to wind farms for construction and maintenance. 

In Wyoming, a very windy state, outgoing Governor Dave Freudenthal has supported a "first-in-the-nation" tax on the wind industry as a way to compensate for these cost externalities, and as a way to further diversify the state's tax base.  Having experienced Wyoming's incessant and at times ferocious wind potential first-hand early in my working career (it knocked over an empty rail car on my first night in Cheyenne in 1975) taxing this resource is a pretty clever move by my former boss.

As I've always said, the fact that there are downsides to wind power does not mean we shouldn't consider it as part of our energy portfolio.  It does mean we should consider it carefully.

Written on Wednesday, 20 October 2010 14:17 by Gary Yaquinto

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