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Passing a national Renewable Energy Standard (RES) this summer was one of Congress’ main goals before it ran out of time in August. Luckily, however, an RES remains on the agenda for the fall. In fact, you could say it is back by popular demand: senators from both parties are expressing strong support for passing an RES before the November elections, and on September 12th the 26 state governors of the Governors’ Wind Energy Coalition (GWEC) wrote Congress expressing the urgency of passing an RES for their states. This groundswell of support in Congress led Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to declare “we are going to keep working on this. You won’t hear the last of us until we adjourn.”

The letter from the GWEC, which includes governors from both parties across the country, described “job creation, secure energy supplies, and cost-effective carbon emissions” as some benefits of a national RES. This is consistent with the findings of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), which states that an RES of just 15% would guarantee 85,000 US jobs. This 15% standard is less than what is already required by many states that have passed their own standards.  In addition, an RES would attract huge investment in the renewable industry. For instance, according to the AWEA, CEO Lew Hay of NextEra Energy has already pledged that his company would invest an additional $2.5 billion dollars per year in renewable energy if an RES were to pass.

Above all else, pro-RES senators and governors have stressed the urgency of passing a renewable mandate sooner rather than later. This reflects the idea, long voiced by industry leaders such as General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and AWEA CEO Denise Bode, that securing investment in the US renewable energy sector is a time-sensitive issue. An RES will guarantee a market for renewable energy in the US far into the future. However, other countries (particularly China, which recently surpassed the US in annual wind installments) are already making big investments in renewables and securing much of the global investment and jobs. If the US wants to make itself the world’s renewable energy leader and thus gain a valuable export industry, it has to act soon.

One of the best attributes of a national RES is that it would bring the benefits of wind to states that don’t have enough wind resources to support large project development, especially the southeastern part of the country. These regions would likely experience a growth in manufacturing jobs as wind component factories open their doors. The RES would also ensure wind would comprise much of the energy on the grid, even if that energy is not actually produced in the region.

In a recent interview with Yale Environment 360, Christian Kjaer, CEO of the European Wind Energy Association, talked about the best way for the US to match Europe’s considerable progress in generating wind energy:

“I think if there were one word to communicate to U.S. policymakers, it is that you need stability. I’m saying that because the U.S. framework for investing in renewables is very unstable — I mean, it cannot be predicted more than one or two years ahead. And that also means that the United States is not reaping the job creation benefits of wind energy, because a lot of components, a lot of manufacturing is imported because no one’s going to invest in a factory in the United States if they don’t know how the market looks beyond the next two years.”

An RES, by guaranteeing a market for wind energy in the US, would provide exactly the kind of long term stability Kjaer is talking about. So contact your Senator about supporting a Renewable Energy Standard today!

The prospect of offshore wind farms seems like it’s been floating around for a long time now. We’ve heard about the controversy over Massachusetts’ Cape Wind Project and we’ve seen pictures of the offshore wind installations in European countries such as Denmark and the UK. Yet, to date, no offshore wind farms exist in the United States. Essentially, offshore wind has long been one of the “next big things” on the horizon, but has yet to make the jump to reality.

However, 2010 has quietly been a good year for the offshore industry, even though no projects have actually been built.  One good sign came from New Jersey, where on August 19th Governor Chris Christie signed the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act (OWEDA). OWEDA will provide tax incentives and financial support to developers building wind projects off New Jersey’s coast. It will also establish a renewable energy certificate program specific to offshore wind, part of which requires the state to set a target indicating the percentage of its electricity that should come from offshore wind projects. This is some of the first legislation in the country specifically geared toward supporting offshore wind, and thus it may illustrate one possible way for states with limited on-land wind resources (a category that includes pretty much the entire eastern seaboard) to capitalize on their renewable potential. Again, no projects have reached the construction phase, but two of New Jersey’s planned offshore projects—the Bluewater Wind Project and the Fisherman’s Energy project—have built meteorological towers and floated them into the Atlantic on buoys to begin collecting wind data.

Another promising development occurred back in April, when the aforementioned, much-maligned Cape Wind project finally received the go-ahead to begin construction, pending lawsuits. Once built, the project will provide the same amount of electricity as a medium-sized coal plant and reduce carbon emissions equal to removing 175,000 cars from the road. It’s nice to see a project which has always enjoyed tremendous popular support (81% of Massachusetts citizens and 61% of Cape Cod citizens endorsed it as of 2005), finally get cleared.

At National Wind, we’re not about to develop any offshore projects anytime soon (we’ve got plenty of lakes here in Minnesota, but none of them are quite big enough). National Wind’s first priority is to develop the United States’ excellent land-based wind resources, which include some of the best wind regimes in the world. However, we still think offshore wind projects have the potential to be great sources of electricity. They have all the environmental and economic benefits of land-based projects, and with the added benefit of increased wind speeds over water when compared to land. With this in mind, it’s time we take advantage of the rich energy resources our coasts have to offer.

One part of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill that has benefitted wind energy and other sources of renewable energy is a program designed to help clean power projects pay off their loans. Known as the Renewables Loan Guarantee Program, it has already provided $1.481 billion to 10 different projects. In doing so, it’s accelerated those projects’ development and produced new jobs. Unfortunately, the program has also suffered some budget cuts, including a $2 billion deduction in late 2009 and most recently, on August 10th, another $1.5 billion. As a result, the original $6 billion dollar program is now down to $2.5 billion. While there is still a good deal of money left, and the program has already done admirable things, these are significant cuts which will slow down the arrival of clean electricity production in our energy mix and green job growth in our economy. We think these benefits form a strong argument for supporting continuous renewable energy investment.

All is far from lost, though. First of all, Congress has promised to restore the Loan Guarantees funds at a later date; it’s just a question of when they can find enough cash to do so. In the meantime, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and other renewable energy trade associations are hard at work campaigning to get the funds restored as soon as possible. According to a letter they wrote to Senate Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi:

“Failure to Failure to act on the Treasury Grant Program and other tax incentives or to restore funding to the DOE Loan Guarantee Program will jeopardize the renewable energy industries’ efforts to develop clean electric generation and create tens of thousands of jobs.”

Even though the project has lost funding, it has been strengthened in other ways. The program’s application deadline was originally August 24th 2010, but is now extended to October 5th,  allowing more projects to take a shot at the money. In addition, the Department of Energy recently invited companies that manufacture the parts used in renewable energy projects to apply for the grant as well (in the case of wind energy, these “parts” might include things like turbine blades and generators). All of these changes open the funds to a broader range of applicants.

Even outside the range of this one specific program, the general public policy landscape remains a source of optimism among renewable energy advocates.  The Production Tax Credit (PTC) supporting wind energy development is guaranteed by the stimulus bill to remain in place at least through 2012.  Also, while a national Renewable Energy Standard failed to pass during the last legislative session, there is growing national support for enacting one. In light of this,  government policy toward wind energy looks like it will remain very supportive despite the recent cuts.

One new transmission line under construction will carry renewable power as far as Las Vegas

Having good wind resources is only part of what’s needed for a thriving wind industry. Another essential component is transmission: wind farms just aren’t useful if there’s no way to get the power from the farm into the city. One state grappling with this issue is Montana, which has abundant wind resources but has struggled to build enough power lines to put them to use. That’s not to say that Montana doesn’t have a strong desire to embrace renewable energy (it does), but first the state must confront several daunting challenges when trying to complete new transmission projects. For starters, there’s a need to limit the extent to which power lines pass through protected forests and national parks; second, many landowners are hesitant to have lines built on their property when the majority of the power won’t even be used in their state; third, Montana is huge, so transmission projects are lengthy and thus expensive.

Despite this, the Energy Promotion and Development Division (EPDD) of the Montana Department of Commerce recently provided updates on six transmission projects currently under construction in the state. They include lines connecting wind farms in geographically remote areas of the state, and will also link Montana’s renewable energy sources to electricity markets as far away as Las Vegas. When built, the lines will add 12,000 megawatts (MW) of electrical capacity to the grid, nearly all of which will be used for clean energy projects. And in Montana, “clean energy” usually means wind. It has the fifth greatest wind potential of any state and about 50 wind projects in varying stages of planning and permitting. The Montana Department of Commerce says that it would like to achieve 10,000 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity in the near future, up from the 386 MW that are currently installed, in order to help meet the US Department of Energy’s goal of producing 20% of our energy from wind by 2030.

One interesting aspect of Montana’s recent push to boost its grid is an effort by the Western Governors’ Association (chaired by Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer) to fast-track the difficult and time-consuming permitting process for building new transmission. According to Schweitzer, that effort comes out of a desire to get renewable power on the grid, and do it quickly. He’s quoted by one source as saying, “You can’t develop alternative energy sources until you get transmission. You can’t put electricity in a bottle and send it down the river.” The permitting process for building transmission is typically much longer and more difficult than the permitting process for building wind farms. According to the Department of Energy’s National Transmission Grid Study, major transmission projects often experience up to 10 years or more of delays before they can be built. As a result, there are hundreds of wind projects around the country, waiting on new transmission lines to proceed. This fact makes any effort to streamline the transmission process highly commendable.

The US transmission grid, which our own Department of Energy finds to be antiquated, will need significant additions and improvements over the next decade to accommodate renewable energy and improve reliability. Luckily, Montana is one state helping lead the way to solve this nationwide problem.

New wind manufacturing facilities: coming to a town near you

Even though the US has been the world leader in electricity-generating wind capacity for decades, many components of wind turbines—items such as generators, blades, and gear boxes—have historically been manufactured overseas. In fact, as recently as 2005, three quarters of manufacturing for the US wind industry was done on foreign soil. However, in recent years, explosive U.S. wind industry growth has amplified the demand for turbine imports, creating a supply shortage. As a result, a substantial increase in domestic wind manufacturing has occurred. According to the US Department of Energy, 68% of turbine parts are now made in the USA.

What has accounted for this change, besides growth in the industry? Many of the world’s largest wind manufacturing companies are recognizing the potential in the US market and opening new plants in the Midwest in order to be close to areas of high demand. According to the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) 20% Wind by 2030 report card, 65 new facilities have opened in the past two years alone. These new plants are creating jobs and bringing new life to manufacturing towns hit hard by the 2008-09 recession. Also, our workforce is gaining greater know-how: over 100 colleges and universities have now developed course work geared toward teaching students how to build and install turbines.

Being able to produce turbine parts domestically is a huge boon for the U.S. wind industry. It lowers transportation costs, allows the industry to take advantage of  US workers’ long history of manufacturing expertise, and spurs investment in US wind companies. These benefits are the reason that passing a national Renewable Energy Standard (RES) is such a priority for our nations wind industry: an RES would create market certainty and thereby encourage manufacturers to keep building plants in the US. That’s why we’re rooting hard for Congress to pass an RES in fall 2010. Contact your Senator or Representative today!

Watch out everybody, turbines are growing. According to the 2009 Wind Technologies Market Report (WTMR) released this August by the US Department of Energy, a turbine’s average nameplate capacity (the maximum output a turbine can produce), hub height (distance from the ground to the spot where the blades converge), and rotor diameter (diameter of the circle traced by the blades as they rotate) have all increased during the past year. The average turbine now stands 258 feet tall with a rotor diameter of 268 ft. It can also produce 1.74 megawatts (MW) of power under near-ideal conditions, up from 1.66 MW in 2008. These are encouraging signs; the larger the turbine, the more efficient it will be at low wind speeds. Turbines that can produce at low wind speeds are more reliable and thus make it easier to integrate wind into the electrical grid. The manufacturing and engineering skill needed to build big is also indicative of wind becoming more deeply entrenched in the American energy industry.

Furthermore, it’s not just the turbines themselves that are scaling up; the size of an average wind farm is increasing as well. The WTMR finds that the average wind farm constructed in the US in 2009 had a capacity of 91 MW, higher than any other year on record except for 2007. The larger the average capacity of a US wind farm, the more viable wind becomes as a major factor in the country’s energy mix. Also, larger wind farms are more affordable because of associated economies of scale, and more reliable because they have a lower variability of electricity production from high-wind to low-wind periods.

According to the WTMR, the total installed wind capacity in the United States is growing all the time, at an exponentially faster rate as time goes on. An especially exciting statistic is that the U.S. has the potential to install 300 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity if we build an interstate transmission network. Even though the vast majority of that capacity is undeveloped, it’s still a promising number. It means the Department of Energy’s goal of producing 300GW from wind by 2030 is firmly within reach. It also means that 2011 and 2012 are primed to be huge years for bringing more wind energy on line. All of this points to a reassuring bottom line: our energy future is looking much cleaner.

Even though wind energy is a clean and cost-effective source of energy, it does have one slight drawback: no one can control when the wind blows. This occasionally leads to difficulties in matching consumers’ demand for energy with the available supply. For instance, when the wind is strong but demand for electricity is low (i.e., late at night), wind farm operators may have to turn turbines away from the wind to avoid overwhelming the electrical grid. Of course, the opposite scenario can also occur, in which the wind is not strong enough to meet demand for electricity during a peak period.

One potential solution for this problem has been the subject of much attention and research lately, and that solution is the use of batteries. Really, really, big batteries, that is. Batteries could help by allowing wind farms to store energy during periods of low demand and then transfer it to the grid when demand is high. These batteries would also come equipped with computers that could ensure the electricity is released at a fixed rate, making wind power similar to natural gas and other power sources which can start or stop production at a moment’s notice. Such a system would allow utility operators to schedule the supply of wind energy precisely according to need, increasing dependability.

Now, when I think of batteries, I inevitably imagine a sleek-looking pair of AA’s. However, it turns out batteries can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes if you look in the right places. A team at the University of Minnesota recently completed a study in partnership with Xcel Energy to determine whether a battery system could, in fact, be effective at transferring energy from off-peak to on-peak availability. Sure enough, the experiment was a success, but the battery they used (manufactured by NaS) was the size of two 18-wheelers and weighed a whopping 80 tons! And this is just one kind of exotic battery that may eventually be used in conjunction with wind farms; another is a flywheel system in which energy is transferred to a free-spinning rotor on an axis and stored kinetically. Pretty cool, if you ask me.

As you might expect for such bulky batteries (even the flywheels are the size of water heaters, and you need lots of them), the main drawback is that they’re not yet cost-effective. But as the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) Into the Wind blog reminds us, that’s okay, because grid operators can account for the variability of wind by utilizing other sources of flexibility in the grid:

“Every day, grid operators constantly accommodate variability in electricity demand and supply by increasing and decreasing the output of flexible generators – power plants like hydroelectric dams or natural gas plants that can rapidly change their level of generation.”

In fact, AWEA estimates that the US could increase its wind capacity tenfold before battery storage would really be necessary.

In the meantime though, battery storage is a neat trick that would have its uses. For instance, many small towns in isolated areas are not well-served by transmission lines. If the transmission were to fail for some reason, batteries could allow the town to keep an emergency center open until power was restored. It’s safe to say the Energizer Bunny would be proud.

The wind industry is a whole lot more than meets the eye. Behind those turbine towers serenely dotting the skyline is the bustle of manufacturing, construction, and maintenance work which goes into building and operating them. Throughout the Great Plains’ wind corridor, these jobs are helping revitalize small towns that have been hurt economically by the migration of traditional kinds of manufacturing overseas.  Nowhere is this process more noticeably transformative than in the state of Iowa, where the manufacturing of turbines and nacelles (the box on the turbine which contains the generator), account for 2,300 jobs.

Iowa has a rich history of manufacturing in areas that you might expect for such an agricultural powerhouse—its specialties  included farm equipment and food processing machinery. It also had plants devoted to products such as printing presses and coal trucks. This history meant that even though the state had to endure manufacturing slowdowns and concurrent job losses over the past 30 years, it always possessed human capital with knowledge of how to build things.  Components of wind turbines, such as blades which can weigh up to 15,000 lbs, fit into the same class of heavy machinery as much farm equipment. Thus, Iowa was in a great position to supply its wind industry with parts as homegrown as its corn.

Many wind manufacturing companies have chosen to locate in Iowa, including industry giants such as Germany’s Siemens and Spains’ Acciona.  This makes sense given the state’s abundant wind resources and reputation for being on the progressive edge of wind development. Iowa is known for passing one of the country’s first Renewable Energy Standards back in the day when this type of legislation wasn’t yet the norm. The state also offers tax incentives for wind companies who build plants there. All of this has resulted in small town success stories such as those profiled here and here.

The growth of wind manufacturing in Iowa makes it an interesting model for the wind industry as a whole. For one thing, it proves that wind has grown out of any possible classification as a “niche” industry. It powers job growth not just in manufacturing but also in the technical field (installing turbines) and the development field (planning wind farms). Although each field is highly specialized, Iowa shows that when brought together, these jobs can provide a dynamic boost across the whole economy.

Finally, Iowa’s prowess in all things wind is leading to some unforeseen benefits. First, the state has become a leader in wind research and education. Programs at the state’s colleges which train students to become wind technicians consistently find employers swooping in to hire students before they even graduate, and Iowa State recently established a Wind Energy Manufacturing Laboratory to focus on improving productivity and reducing costs at turbine factories. Also, another sign that Iowa’s proactive stance on renewable energy is paying off came July 20th when Google inked a 20-year contract to purchase 114MW of power from a wind farm in Story County.

All of this shows that wind energy’s benefits are constituted not just in the electricity it produces but also in the activity behind the scenes. Iowa (which produces a higher percentage of its energy from wind than any other state) is a great example of wind having a far-reaching positive impact on a region.

Note: As of July 22, 2010, reports indicate that the energy bill no longer includes an RPS.  We encourage you to call your Senators and tell them to urge the inclusion of a renewable electricity standard in the bill. See the American Wind Energy Association’s website for information on who to call.

One of the most commonly tossed-around acronyms in the renewable energy industry is the RPS, which in this case doesn’t stand for “rock-paper-scissors”. Instead, as many readers may already know, it stands for “Renewable Portfolio Standard”. To those not familiar with the concept, a Renewable Portfolio Standard is a government mandate which requires a certain amount of a state or country’s energy to come from renewable sources.

A national RPS—one which applies to the whole United States— is prominent on our radar right now because it plays a large role in the proposed energy legislation making its way through the Senate. It’s one of several energy reform measures being considered, along with a cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon emissions and other pollution restrictions targeted at utilities. The problem is that with the curtain about to fall on the current legislative session, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the Senate about which path to take.The case for a national RPS has been made by several groups hoping to get a last-minute bill to the table. Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Tim Johnson of South Dakota introduced a bill known as SAFEST (Securing America’s Future with Energy and Sustainable Technologies), which calls for a 25% RPS by 2025. Another effort was made by Senators Bryan Dorgan of North Dakota, Tom Udall of Colorado, and Mark Udall of New Mexico, who called for a suggested RPS of 15% proposed by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year to be strengthened and signed into law. However, with the time crunch, it is possible that a bill will not be ready to vote on before the August Recess.

If passed, a national RPS would provide the wind industry and country with many benefits. Let’s cross our fingers that the Senate will find a way to take action on this!

  1. Job creation.  We like to think about wind energy as a harmonious pairing of environmental sense and economic sense, and a study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts last year backs that up. According to the study, over the 10-year period from 1998-2007 the number of jobs in renewable energy increased 9.1%, compared to 3.7% for the economy as a whole. In the wind industry, the job increase over that same span was 23.5%. Also, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a 25% by 2025 RPS would create 297,000 jobs over the next 15 years.
  2. Economic Development. According to the AWEA’s briefing on National Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards, each wind turbine installed generates $1.5 million in economic activity. In addition, the UCS predicts that enacting an RPS would produce more than three times as many jobs as continuing on our current, more fossil-fueled approach.
  3. Consumer Savings . The UCS’s Clean Power, Green Jobs report found that a national RPS would reduce electricity prices up to 7.6%.
  4. Global warming prevention. Climate change continues to receive lots of attention in the media, and we probably don’t have to tell you about the effectiveness of renewable sources in cutting emissions. However, it’s interesting to note that 2010 has featured the warmest January-June period on record. And that wasn’t all from the New York Times’ “Green” blog; here’s an instance of two pictures speaking a thousand words.  
  5. Energy independence.  Passing a national RPS has the nifty side-effect of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. In addition, it should promote economic security by helping keep clean energy jobs in the US, instead of ceding the upper hand to countries such as China (read all about China in our blog below).  According to Senator Klobuchar, “The strength of our nation is tied to the strength of our energy economy. Not only are we still dependent on foreign oil, but other countries are making great strides in developing clean energy technologies.”

Much to our excitement, wind energy continues to grow as a way of meeting U.S. demand for electricity, now accounting for about 40% of the new yearly additions to the country’s electrical capacity. However, as the industry continues to grow, one of the challenges it continually faces is transmitting electricity from rural wind farms to the urban areas that need it.  To put this issue into perspective, the US transmission system is like a highway system with many local roads but few interstates; a fine system on a local level but not as good over long distances. To overcome this barrier, the federal government and the American Wind Energy Association are advocating for the creation of an intrastate electrical superhighway that would connect the country with a spider web of high-voltage transmission lines. The only question is deciding who pays for it — an especially tricky question since long-distance power lines would benefit many people over a large geographic area. The oil- and coal-based power plants that have the lions’ share of US energy production don’t have this problem: luckily for them, they can be built near cities, limiting the need for long-distance transmission.

Luckily, solutions have begun to arrive from the grassroots level. A recent breakthrough was made by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), a regional association of power companies which helps manage the transmission grid in the American Southwest. Several weeks ago, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved their new cost allocation plan which creates a “highway/byway” system of paying for transmission. Basically, the cost to build power lines that carry large amounts of power (300+kV) are distributed among many utilities in the region because the lines will serve wide areas. Smaller transmission lines (less than 100kV) are paid for entirely by local utilities since they are intended mostly for local use. For lines of intermediate size (100-300kV), local utilities pay much of the cost but other utilities around the region chip in too. FERC’s acceptance of this plan clears the way for SPP and other utilities to start building longer transmission lines, especially in the wind-rich Heartland, which is SPP’s primary area of service.

This newly approved highway/byway system will allow transmission lines to be built between Wichita, KS, Spearhead, KS, and Hitchland, TX. Once completed, these lines will span much of southern Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle, one of the most wind-abundant regions in the country. The construction of these power lines will likely be a huge boost to area wind projects whose electricity will now become accessible to new population centers.

New interstate transmission lines on a national scale would help consumers save billions of dollars. For instance, according to one study done by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a $4.9 billion dollar investment in new transmission would pay for itself in less than three years and save ratepayers about $1.7 billion per year for each year after that. Not bad. Further investment in transmission would also act as a huge incentive for the wind industry to expand into more wind-rich locations, bringing all the benefits of new jobs, local income, reduced emissions, and fewer “natural” catastrophes (ie, oil spills) with it.

Federal efforts to plan new interstate transmission lines have been repeatedly thwarted in the past by one question: who pays for the updates? SPP’s cost allocation plan could be the revelation that finally marks the genesis of a nation-wide interstate transmission overhaul. What we need now is for more regional transmission operators to adopt “highway/byway” plans similar to SPP’s. The adoption of such policies would be a good first step toward a much-needed update to our national grid.

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