Is Renewable Energy the Impossible Dream? Science Offers Insight on Wind Feasibility

by Jessica Wyland, Environmental Systems Research Institute

-Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, “ËœFortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them “. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich “.’

When Miguel de Cervantes wrote of the impetuous and noble hero Don Quixote 400 years ago, he could not have imagined that one day environmental scientists and energy analysts would dream the impossible dream of stocking the electric grid with the power of the wind. Nor could he have envisioned the hulking giants that now line many a horizon, the 400-foot-tall wind turbines each wielding three 130-foot steel blades and weighing 8.5 tons. When he talked of tilting at windmills, the Spanish literary master would not have guessed that public utilities, private companies and investors would someday look to the wind to beat the unbeatable foes of waning fossil-fuel supply and deleterious carbon emissions.

The Maple Ridge Wind Farm is a 321-MW project spanning the New York towns of Martinsburg, Lowville, Watson and Harrisburg, about 75 miles northeast of Syracuse. The project produces enough electricity to power up to 160,000 average New York homes. Maple Ridge has increased the amount of wind power in New York by 600 percent. New York is a state with a 25 percent renewable portfolio standard (RPS) designed to be in full effect by 2013.
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Wind energy accounts for 1 percent of the nation’s power supply, and forecasts from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) predict that figure could reach 20 percent by 2030. While wind farms crop up across the country’s windiest terrain, critics point to the need for new transmission lines and the variability of the wind. Many citizens support the idea as long as it’s -not in my backyard.

Despite criticism, wind power is touted as one of the cleanest, most reliable renewable resources dreamed up so far. But is harnessing wind power on a wide scale as quixotic as -dreaming the impossible dream?

In 2008, the United States surpassed Germany as the world’s biggest wind-energy generator by volume. The amount of wind power the United States generates has doubled in the past two years, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), a trade group for wind-power developers and equipment manufacturers. An investigation into the solid science of wind-power facility development clarifies the potential and reliability of this blustery resource.

Twenty-eight U.S. states have renewable energy mandates and are determined to woo wind developers. A Nebraska utility brochure boasts, -Nebraska has wind. In fact, the state ranks sixth in America for wind development. A Minnesota energy company is announcing plans to buy an interstate transmission line and develop wind energy to replace coal-generated electricity. One Montana county is distributing a wind map book of all necessary data to entice investors.

Harnessing the Wind

Wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in moving air into rotational energy, which in turn is converted to electricity. Humans have used wind power for centuries to move boats, grind grain and pump water. Timeless and simple as it may seem, development of a wind-power facility is much more complex than staking a pinwheel in the breeze.

Turbine blades loaded on giant flat-bed trucks are driven to Iberdrola’s Shiloh Wind Power Plant, a 150-MW farm near Rio Vista, Calif., in Solano County. Some 100 turbines are spread across about 6,800 acres of active grazing land leased from 26 local landowners. The renewable portfolio standard (RPS) adopted in 2002 requires California utilities to procure 20 percent of their energy supply from renewable sources by 2017. The power from Shiloh goes to California customers through power-purchase agreements to city of Palo Alto Utilities, Modesto Irrigation District and Pacific Gas & Electric.
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-Our development teams include meteorologists, engineers, environmental-permitting staff and land agents, said Tyler Hoffbuhr, a geographic information system (GIS) analyst with Iberdrola Renewables, the largest developer of wind power in the world.

Iberdrola Renewables has a flurry of wind-power projects in the works as utilities aim to reduce dependence on nonrenewable energy. Modeling the feasibility of these projects requires studying location, wind speed, environmental concerns and other variables. Wind-power researchers are using technology from GIS developer Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) to organize and analyze data based on geographic location. GIS is a familiar platform for engineers in the electric and gas industry, as well as conservation groups that use the technology to make decisions. Developers use GIS to organize their work as a series of layers or themes. One layer may have wind-density information, while another layer will have land suitability, and another will show bird migration patterns. The layers of information, visible as colorful smart maps, clarify for developers the best and most efficient location for a wind farm.

-GIS enables developers of wind-power facilities to reach their goal of finding the best wind areas while causing as little impact as possible to wildlife and the environment, said Bill Meehan, director of utility solutions at ESRI. -Locating the right site can be done quickly and accurately with publicly available data and GIS technology. This fact alone speaks well for the future of wind power and green energy.

Smart Layers for Smart Maps

The life of a wind farm project starts with a look at potential plots of land. Most developers require land within a prescribed distance of a transmission line to tie in power to the grid. If the wind is strong and steady, developers might decide to build their own transmission line. By loading utility data into the GIS, researchers can quickly see existing transmission routes and estimate the benefits of accessing existing electric lines.

Another important consideration for developers is land ownership. State and county land-use data in the GIS identifies areas under development restrictions from the Bureau of Land Management and those requiring right-of-way grants. If land is privately owned, developers must obtain consent from individual landowners.

A layer of constraints is added to the GIS, marking areas that are environmentally protected for migratory flight paths or other animal activity. Other site restrictions are military bases and airports where developers must consider radar interference and Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Wind data is equally crucial to researchers who add a resource layer to the GIS detailing wind speed and reliability. Meteorological data is continuously collected during a one- to five-year period using tower-based anemometers and vanes mounted at several heights up to 60 meters above ground. Wind power is classified into density classes ranging from one (poor) to seven (excellent). For example, a wind power class of four has an average wind speed of 15.7 to 16.8 mph at a height of 50 meters above ground. In addition to site research, meteorologists use wind data stored in the GIS to help design the layout of a wind farm by identifying wind direction, strength and location.

Site Scouting Field Trip

-Almost all the wind-power facility layouts can be done in the GIS, with maybe one or two visits to the field, Hoffbuhr said. -Before GIS, meteorologists only had paper maps to work from, which didn’t show property ownership, wetlands, county- or state-required safety setbacks, rights of way or environment and cultural resource sites. Now we can stock the GIS with U.S. Geological Survey maps, property lines, aerial photography and detailed topography data to see how the buildable area matches up with the wind data.

When development teams visit a proposed location, they collect site-based data to compare with digital information and maps within the GIS. Using a mobile device equipped with global positioning system (GPS) and GIS, the team is able to update data from the site and make any necessary adjustments to the facility layout.

The Elk River Wind Project is a 150-MW wind-energy project in Butler County, Kan. Primarily used to graze cattle, the total site consists of 7,907 acres owned by five local landowners. Empire District Electric Company selected Elk River and entered a 20-year agreement with Iberdrola Renewables to purchase wind energy from the farm. Empire anticipates it will purchase enough energy to meet the annual needs of some 42,000 homes. The Missouri-based utility added wind energy to its portfolio for its price stability, environmental friendliness and the economical cost for its customers.
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In total, wind-power facility development is about a four-year process that involves the site research and data collection as well as procurement of government permits, landowner permission, funding and the physical resources. When the plans are ready, developers hand over the project to the construction team.

-Once all the initial research is done, construction of the wind-power complex happens quickly, sometimes in four to six months, said Laurie Jodziewicz, manager of siting policy at AWEA. -Projects under construction right now will be online and delivering energy within a year or less.

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Once a wind farm is running, operators continue to use GIS to help gather inspection and operational data. Because wind energy is variable, utility companies must figure out what to do when the wind does not blow. With GIS technology, operators can model and predict how well the wind will perform in the next few hours or days and accurately match energy production with demand.

But Will It Work?

Leading one crusade toward wind-power development, energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens recently brandished his plan to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil by 38 percent. To support the idea, his company plans to build the world’s largest wind farm in western Texas.

-The best thing about it is that it’s a definite plan, Peter Beutel, an oil analyst with Cameron Hanover, recently told CNN. -It’s not something that either (political) party has pitted itself outrightly against. It therefore has a tremendous chance for success on Capitol Hill.

Healthy government incentives are driving much of U.S. wind-power development. A report led by the DOE’s National Renewable Technology Laboratory in Golden, Colo., reiterated predictions that wind energy will claim a 20 percent share of electricity production in the next 10 years. The report called the forecast -ambitious but -feasible.

The energy industry is already on board with more than 9,000 new wind farms under construction in the United States and nearly 20,000 existing.

-With sophisticated site-development technology and incredible wind resources, wind energy is becoming increasingly valuable, said Bill Meehan, ESRI’s utility industry expert. -We are now seeing utilities integrate wind power into the electric system to supplement fossil fuels. Wind is a cost-effective, nonpolluting energy source that will continue to be one answer to international energy concerns.


Jessica Wyland is a writer at ESRI in Redlands, Calif. Reach her at

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