Wind on the Wires?

Steven Brown, editor in chief

Spirits, numbers and expectations were high at WindPower 2006 in Pittsburgh this year. Approximately 5,000 attendees (an all-time high) at the American Wind Energy Association’s annual conference and exhibition celebrated two back-to-back record-breaking years for wind energy in the United States. (More than 2,400 MW of wind power were installed in 2005; 3,000 MW more are projected to be installed in 2006.) Not content to rest on their laurels, these wind energy advocates are looking forward to an even rosier future-a future in which President George W. Bush sees the potential for 20 percent of the nation’s energy supply to be contributed by wind. “Twenty by 2020″ was the mantra at this conference, as you can read in our News article on Page 12.

But what does that have to do with transmission and distribution?

Quite a lot, actually. You see, one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of that 20 percent wind energy goal is the inadequacy of the current high-voltage transmission system. In many cases, where the wind is, transmission isn’t. (Other obstacles in the way of a wind energy boom include the intermittency of wind power, a certain amount of NIMBY-ism, and concerns over extension of certain tax incentives that make it more economically feasible to build wind farms.)

While waiting for a shuttle to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center one morning, I had a chance to shoot the breeze about wind with a fellow WindPower conference-goer who was in town representing land owners in the upper Midwest. His constituents have a lot of wide-open, wind-swept land, ripe for wind farm construction. And there’s no NIMBY-ism present among these folks. They want the towers built on their land, and, more importantly, they want the checks that will follow that construction.

The problem, according to my fellow conference-goer, is that the landowners are having trouble attracting wind development because of the lack of available transmission capacity in the area. Developers won’t build if there’s not transmission infrastructure in place, or at least planned, to move the generated power from the wide-open, wind-swept land out to the load centers.

It’s an interesting catch-22: Wind is most abundant in the central part of the United States, where population also tends to be the sparsest. There are fewer people to protest wind farm construction “in their backyards,” there’s more open acreage available upon which to build large wind farms, but those wind farms are going to be quite a distance from major population centers, hence the need for more transmission lines.

Considering the volatility of natural gas prices, the environmental concern around coal, and the ever-present contention around nuclear power, the almost-boundless enthusiasm present at WindPower 2006 is understandable. Wind does appear, at least for the moment, to have a bright future. But without a ramp-up in transmission construction in our nation’s midsection, all that wind is just blowing dust and mussing hair.

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