Is Wind Energy the Answer?

*published online by MN2020 here:{9C493102-8E68-417F-9E0D-80E400C0323F}&DE=

Among the chorus of voices clamoring for renewable energy development, one claim in particular caught my ear: Minnesota, I heard, should not only be developing renewable energy, but should be concentrating on wind energy above all.  Does that mean, I wondered, that Minnesota is particularly well-disposed to harness wind power relative to other states? It turns out, Minnesota is around the ninth windiest state in the U.S.   It also turns out, there is good reason for anyone to choose wind power over other renewable technologies when given a choice; wind power emits no pollutants or greenhouse gasses during electricity generation.  There are environmental impacts from building and transporting wind turbines, but these are certainly no greater than the negative impacts of other renewable technologies.  And while many people worry about turbine interference with the migration patterns of birds, studies tend to show that avian collision levels are negligible when quantified.  It seems, then, that Minnesota is on the right track. Wind power already provides 4.6% of the energy for our state, second only to Iowa but decidedly below our full potential.  There is more to wind power than just wind, and our state can boast a number of favorable conditions.

The most efficient way to harness wind power on a large scale is through wind farms, or concentrated groups of large wind turbines. In order to benefit from economies of scale, these farms should be big enough to generate at least twenty megawatts of energy, and 50 MW wind farms are not uncommon. Although such utility-scale wind farms require about 60 acres per megawatt of generating capacity, only about five percent of that area is actually occupied by turbines.  The other ninety-five percent can be put to use for farming or ranching.  In fact, “in California, Minnesota, Texas, and elsewhere, wind energy provides rural landowners and farmers with a supplementary source of income through…arrangements with wind power developers.”  The need to make such arrangements is one reason establishing a wind farm can be a complex undertaking.

While wind farms can be built in eighteen months to two years, it only takes about six months to actually install the turbines.  The rest of the time is likely to be spent obtaining construction permits, navigating zoning laws that govern the selected area and measuring the area’s wind flows. Site selection is a delicate matter and requires working with (or around) local regulations designed to protect a range of environmental and social interests including wildlife well-being and noise levels in local communities.  Considerations like potential conflict with airplane routes are also important.  Additionally, before building a wind farm, the developer must identify a utility willing to purchase (and able to access) the electricity that will be generated.  Wind power can deliver a significant amount of electricity to existing power grids, but due to its high variability it cannot stand alone as a means of powering modern society.

In fact, wind power is unique in its dependence on an unpredictable system: the weather.  As the American Wind Energy Association explains, “utilities must maintain enough power plant capacity to meet expected customer electricity demand at all times, plus an additional reserve margin.”  For this reason, utilities prefer conventional energy generation techniques. The three main interconnected power networks that operate in the United States, and the smaller “control areas” that comprise these networks, adhere to strict standards for maintaining a minimal frequency and a minimal backup capacity at all times. But as long as wind contributes only about ten percent of the electricity to a power system in any given hour, the flexibility built into the system can easily cover for its variability.  If wind power contributes ten to twenty percent of the energy for a system, the application of wind forecasting and other careful management techniques can keep it running smoothly.  Only once a system relies on wind for more than twenty percent of the electricity it delivers does the system’s overall variability increase enough to demand significant additional expenditure for regulatory equipment. Thus, the goal is to maximize the use of wind power use in conjunction with energy sources that can ensure system stability.

In order to integrate wind power into existing systems, access to transmission lines must be established to transfer energy from wind farms to energy providers (and ultimately consumers).  Because building new transmission infrastructure is extremely expensive and time-consuming, wind energy is most feasible when access to existing lines can be established.  According to a spokesman for the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, while wind farms can be erected in eighteen months, building a line can take upwards of seven years.  Thus, Phase I of a statewide study recently commissioned as part of the Governor’s Next Generation Energy Initiative of 2006 assessed “the potential ability to install 600 MW of dispersed renewable generation throughout Minnesota with minimal impacts on the transmission system.”  Dispersed renewable energy includes wind, biomass and solar energy.  The study demonstrated that it would indeed be possible to achieve the target 600 MW without greatly impacting the transmission infrastructure.  Looking at wind energy alone, the 2006 Minnesota Wind Integration Study found that Minnesota’s power system could accommodate enough wind energy to account for twenty percent of retail energy sales “if sufficient transmission investments” were made.  So while maximizing our wind power potential would inevitably require transmission investments, it also seems that significant advances could be attained as a first step without altering the transmission.  Working toward this first step, Phase II of the statewide study on dispersed renewable energy generation will investigate the actions that would be necessary to interconnect the wind farm locations identified in Phase I.  It is important to have dispersed but interconnected sites to minimize variability; if geographically scattered wind plants work together, the chances that some of them will be producing power at any given time are greater.

Although southwestern Minnesota is windier than most of the country, other select parts of the United States are far windier.  Nonetheless, Minnesota is one of the most promising candidates for one specific use of wind power.  In a 2006 presentation, Michael Reese of the University of Minnesota discussed the possibility of converting wind power into storable substances—mainly, hydrogen—instead of transferring it to a power plant for distribution.  Wind power can be used to make anhydrous ammonia, the key ingredient in fertilizers.  Thanks to corn production, Minnesota is in the heart of the region with the greatest demand for anhydrous ammonia.  To produce fertilizers locally using wind energy would minimize the environmental impacts from production and transportation. Because transmission lines would be by-passed, it would also be an alternative to battling with the low transmission grid capacity in many rural areas.

Aside from providing open, windy space for wind farm development, and opportunities for innovative uses of wind power such as fertilizer production, Minnesota is additionally well-disposed to concentrate its efforts on wind power because it is already a leader in wind energy policy.  The Community Based Energy Development Tariff is one example of progressive policy in Minnesota.  Also known as C-BED, this legislation “is intended to allow community-based projects easier access to better financing, and empower communities to develop local wind resources and keep the economic benefits of those projects within the community.”  C-BED requires that utilities purchasing from community-based or -owned wind farms offer higher rates for the first several years of their contract, thus easing start-up costs by essentially allowing the wind farm developers to borrow from the later years.  Another initiative is Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard, passed in February 2007.  This standard requires that twenty-five percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by the year 2025.  There have also been several statewide studies (like those mentioned earlier) to investigate the ease with which wind energy could be developed using existing infrastructure.  Our state is definitely moving in the right direction, and we must make sure we continue to generate considerable human energy, on both the community and policy levels, to move toward generating more wind power.

1 Comment

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One response to “Is Wind Energy the Answer?

  1. Great Article. I did not know that Minnesota was such a leader in Wind Power development. I’ve been noticing T. Boone Pickens ambition to create wind farms in Texas. It is an exciting time. I’m hoping to see if Obama’s investment in this country’s energy policies paves the way to renewable energies. Keep writing and putting the word out for the great community projects! It will inspire more!


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