News Analysis


A Twenty-Fold Increase?

Fortnightly Magazine - May 1 2000

Former coal lobbyist Glenn Schleede plays Don Quixote, crusading against the DOE's 20-year initiative to boost investment in windmills.


Five percent of total U.S. power generation from the wind by 2020?

Wind energy supporters find themselves on the defensive, wondering whether their industry can meet the ambitious expectations for new investment and emissions reductions mapped out by their own allies in government.

This time, however, the crusade is coming from the right - and it aims to bring the government dreamers back to earth.

On March 27, the private consulting firm Energy Market & Policy Analysis Inc., led by president Glenn R. Schleede, sent a 20-page report to the governor of Wisconsin, leaders in the state legislature, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, and various officials of local governments, attacking a plan by FPL Energy to construct an array of windmills for power generation on what Schleede described as a "scenic ridge" in or near the town of Addison, Wis., about 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee. The report accused FPL of backing down on prior claims of the extent of emissions of greenhouse gases that the wind farm would avoid. On a broader note, the report argued that any project benefits would be "truly insignificant" when considered in the context of Wisconsin's total electricity demand and emissions output, and questioned state policies that encourage wind power and mandate a minimum portfolio standard for renewable energy.

And Schleede's March report wasn't his first-ever tilt at windmills. Earlier, EMPA had set its sights on the U.S. Department of Energy. In January, EMPA issued a similar report describing the DOE's 1999 wind energy initiative as "a truly unrealistic proposal." EMPA offered compelling arguments why the nation could never hope to achieve the goals set down last June by DOE Secretary Bill Richardson in his "Wind Powering America" program. Those goals would require installation of more than 5,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2005, and 10,000 MW by 2010. Finally, by 2020, the U.S. supposedly would generate 5 percent of total electricity needs by wind power. But those figures struck Schleede as incredible. He calculated how the DOE's initiative would imply the operation of 132,000 windmills, with each one standing about 300 feet - nearly twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. (Schleede's numbers assumed a unit capacity for turbines of 750 kilowatts and a 27.5 percent annual capacity factor, said to be the industry average for wind energy).

Yet some say that government is not doing enough to promote wind energy. As an example, consider the battle in Iowa over new legislation for electric utility restructuring.

As of April 10, legislation was pending that would create a state-supported fund to encourage investments in Iowa in renewable energy and for reduction of emissions, supported by a state-wide nonbypassable surcharge designed to raise $29 million a year (residential electric customers would pay 87 cents per month). But an amendment introduced on March 22 would allow utilities to meet a state-mandated renewable portfolio standard (RPS) by "displacing" local generation with renewable energy generated anywhere within the continental United States.

Energy efficiency advocates decried this latest legislative tactic. Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), said that Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsak had promised a deregulation bill that would "make Iowa a leader" in renewable energy, but complained that "Vilsak's original proposal has been gutted by the utilities."

Joanna Higgins-Freese, from the Iowa non-profit group I-Renew, was more direct.

"This proposal simply makes a mockery of the goals of the legislature and the governor.... Why should California get the tax revenue and jobs that new renewable energy plants will provide?"

Tom Gray, another spokesman for the AWEA, asked whether Iowa would prove a litmus test for wind energy, replied, "Iowa's situation is very fluid. It's third in the country on wind power installed. Our hope is that it would become a model for RPS laws."

A Twenty-Fold Increase?

The U.S. Census states that there are 3,142 counties or "county-equivalents" in the United States. By combining that data with Glenn Schleede's January report, it would appear that the DOE's wind initiative would have each U.S. county hosting more than 40 windmills, on average.

Schleede came up with his windmill figures by comparing the average generating output of today's state-of-the-art windmills with estimates of power needs for the year 2020. According to Schleede, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in its Annual Energy Outlook 2000 puts U.S. power generation at 4,782 billion kilowatt-hours for 2020. To supply 5 percent of that figure (about a quarter of a billion kWh), according to Schleede, would require 132,000 windmills with a capacity of 750 kilowatts (e.g., the Zond Z-750), based on an assumed industry-wide capacity availability of about 27.5 percent. He acknowledged that such figures could change. For instance, Schleede noted that four demonstration windmills (Vesta V-66 models) began operating near Big Springs, Texas, in August 1999, each with a rate capacity of 1,650 kW - more than double the size of the 750-kW standard. Capacity availability could vary as well, depending on factors such as wind speed and proportion of wind farms located in areas of high wind potential.

(According to the handbook, Permitting of Wind Energy Facilities, published by the Wind Energy Coordinating Committee and cited by Schleede, wind turbines ordinarily will not start to generate electricity until wind velocity reaches "cut in" speed of 9-10 miles per hour, and don't reach rate output until wind velocity reaches 27 to 35 mph.)

Schleede's point was difficult to miss. He notes that EIA currently forecasts only 12.09 billion kWh of wind generation for 2020, representing one-quarter of 1 percent of total predicted U.S. electric output for that year. To meet Richardson's goal of a 5 percent market share, the wind energy industry would have to achieve power production nearly 20 times greater than the EIA's current forecast for 20 years out.

Yet the AWEA remained nonplused. "It's unfortunate that trade media are giving attention to the EMPA report," said Swisher. AWEA added that "capacity factors in the mid-30s and above are routinely being recorded by turbines in the field today, and are expected to improve as wind technology continues to advance."

Back in 1992, the Utility Wind Interest Group, a consortium of utilities supporting wind development, had predicted that wind energy eventually could supply 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs. The UWIG continued, "To provide 560,000 million kWh per year, 0.6 percent of the land of the lower 48 states would have to be developed with wind power plants. This area, about 18,000 square miles, is about the size of four counties in Montana."

Swisher added, "Bill Richardson and DOE deserve credit for a far-sighted and intelligent proposal."

"You Would Never Know It Was There"

When asked whether FPL Energy had backed down on its claim of emissions reductions achievable at its wind energy project proposed for Addison, Wis., spokesperson Gail Trinka had no idea where Schleede's numbers were coming from.

In Schleede's March report, "Is There a Better Alternative for the People of Wisconsin than the Large Wind Farm Proposed for the Town of Addison, Wisconsin?" he had described FPL's project as comprising 33 windmills with a total capacity of 29.7 MW assuming 750 kW for each unit. Schleede said that FPL in March had cut its claims of the project's avoided emissions from earlier claims offered in December. The new figures from FPL, according to Schleede, were 273.2 tons saved from the project each year in SO2 emissions (45 percent less than claimed before), 170.3 tons for NOx (11 percent lower), and 46,6884 tons for CO2 (lower by 48 percent).

Moreover, Schleede suggested that in evaluating the value of the project, any analysis should add back the cost of backup power, given the relatively low capacity factors for wind turbines vs. conventional fossil-fired generation.

When asked for comment, Trinka said she had no idea where those claims or numbers could have come from in avoided emissions. According to her, the only numbers FPL had put forth were figures for avoided emissions for a single 750-kW wind turbine, prepared by the AWEA as a guideline or industry standard. Those numbers were 1,179 tons for CO2, 6.9 tons for SO2, and 4.3 tons for NOx. Multiplied by 33 (the number of turbines proposed for the project), they still wouldn't match Schleede's figures.

She explained that FPL had not yet filed its application for a conditional-use permit by April 10, and was only then "getting close to the point when we'll have an agreement with landowners," so that it was not yet clear how many wind turbines might be constructed, or of what size.

Trinka added, "The leaders of the town have seen the wind turbines in other communities. So if they didn't feel comfortable, I'm sure we would never have gotten this far with the project."

Trinka emphasized the flexibility of FPL's wind farm project: "Suppose 20 years from now that fuel cells come along. Will we really need this wind farm then? Probably not. But at that time, we can restore the land so that you would never know it had been there."



Geothermal Energy Another impossible dream for DOE?

On Jan. 24, in an effort to tap "the vast geothermal resources" of the Western United States, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (R.-Nev.) announced an initiative to expand electricity production from heat locked within the earth.

The new initiative, "GeoPowering the West," would have the DOE granting nearly $5 million to projects located throughout the U.S West. Over $4.8 million would be awarded for geothermal activities in Nevada, California, Texas, Utah, Idaho, and North Dakota, to focus on three major goals for geothermal energy:

  • Supplying at least 10 percent of electricity needs for the West by 2020 through 20,000 megawatts of installed geothermal energy capacity;
  • Supplying the electric power or heating needs of at least 7 million homes through geothermal power by 2010; and
  • Doubling the number of states with geothermal electric power facilities to eight by 2006.

By way of perspective, the top three states in geothermal electricity generation are California (2,500 MW), Nevada (200 MW), and Utah (40 MW). According to Annual Energy Outlook 2000, published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, geothermal electricity generation supplied only 14.29 billion kWh in 1998, or about four-tenths of 1 percent total U.S. electric output.

Comments on the DOE initiative were being taken through April.