wind power: technology and FERC rulings encourage growth

Maybe it was the Denver altitude, but there was a palpable sense of enthusiasm at the Windpower 2005 conference held in May. More likely it was the fact that wind really does seem to have arrived. When the nation’s largest utilities are not just considering but buying large wind projects, and when the industry’s cornerstone event attracts more than 4,100 registered attendees, windpower is not an “exotic” or “alternative” energy source anymore.

Wind’s zero emissions, renewable nature and domestic abundance have long provided the standard combination of talking points for industry advocates, but now there are even more reasons to love wind. For one thing, technology is advancing rapidly, both in turbine design and in the balance of plant required for interconnection. Turbine designs capable of generating 3 MW and more are moving from desktop to hilltop. Power electronics are likewise providing the means to overcome reactive power issues and pave the way for more wind projects to be connected to utility networks.

Add to that the good news that the growing wind industry could deliver a much needed new source of high-paying manufacturing jobs to the United States, provided the right combination of policy and investment materializes. The third reason to love wind is much more immediate, though: money.

Wind is now being seen as a hedge against volatile fuel costs that are playing havoc with gas-fired plants. This is a novel concept for a generation technology that for years has had to endure the criticism that comes from being more expensive than traditional generation sources. But it’s for real. At the conference, Xcel, MidAmerican Energy, Puget Sound Energy and, of course, FPL, all described major investments they’re making.

Of course, advances for wind power still face some hurdles. On the technical side, however, one of the most headache-inducing issues recently moved closer to resolution. In May, FERC established standardized interconnection rules for both large (more than 20 MW) and small (less than 20 MW) wind projects that will, beginning in 2006, replace the patchwork of requirements developers currently face.

For larger projects, the ruling stipulates that the wind farm must remain operational during voltage disturbances on the grid; that, if needed, it must meet the same technical criteria for providing reactive power as that required of conventional large generating facilities; and that SCADA systems be implemented, if necessary, to provide real-time communications to the grid operator. For small generators, the ruling provides technical guidelines as well as contractual provisions that define financial responsibility for improvements to the utility’s system required for interconnection. This is the kind of certainty and uniformity the industry has been lacking. FERC’s standards mirror the American Wind Energy Association’s Grid Code, and are expected to greatly ease the interconnection process.

The intermittent nature of wind generation-long a focal point for critics-is also being reexamined. During the pre-conference seminar in Denver, Nexgen Energy’s managing director, Charlie Smith, pointed out that grid operators routinely handle variations in load that often match those of a large 1,000-MW-capacity wind farm. As more wind farms come on-line, it will become more challenging to deal with intermittency, but having more wind generation on the grid may also bring its own solution. Smith showed how aggregating multiple wind farms served to greatly decrease the overall amount of variability for the group as a whole. There were still ups and downs, of course, but the swings were not as wide, and those that reached into the “severe” part of the diagram were not significant in economic terms for the grid.

To gain greater market penetration, windpower clearly requires a shift in thinking from an industry and a regulatory structure accustomed to dealing with traditional thermal and hydroelectric technologies. Technical and policy solutions are beginning to overcome the challenges, but there is still no denying that the wind industry lives and dies by the production tax credit. One look at wind investment over the last six years bears that out. When the PTC is in effect, it’s boom time, and when it lapses, it’s bust.

The energy bill currently being debated provides for a three-year extension to the PTC, and while the House version of the bill does not address it, the American Wind Energy Association is confident that there is enough support in the House to ensure the PTC will be renewed. If it is extended for three years, instead of the usual two, it would represent a major coup for wind supporters and would likely spur a new wave of investment. With the PTC in place, gas prices high, and new technologies paving the way, we could be looking at real maturity for wind power.

Bob Fesmire is a communications manager in ABB’s power technologies division, and writes regularly on transmission and distribution, IT systems and other industry topics. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of ABB. Bob can be reached via email at

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