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A Windy Future for Minnesota?

July 31, 2014 By Maria Brun, Graduate Research Fellow

In 1999, Minnesota already had 273 Megawatts of installed capacity, second only to California. By the end of last March, that number surged to a little over 3 Gigawatts, enough capacity to have provided 15.7 percent of our electricity last year. During this same period, installed wind capacity in the nationwide increased by a factor of 24. Though 2013 was a slower year for wind development, wind still came in fourth for total capacity additions last year nationwide, with over a Gigawatt of new wind capacity coming online.

As an early adopter of wind and with a healthy wind resource in the western and southern portions of the state, Minnesota has been able to gain a good foothold in this growing industry. So far, over $5.6 billion has been invested in wind. Currently, Minnesota landowners net around $10 million a year in wind-related lease payments, and 19 wind-related manufacturing facilities are located in state.

Despite the enormous growth in wind installations and tangible benefits that have followed, there is still widespread skepticism about the long term future of wind the United States. Wind power in general still faces an uphill battle on several fronts, including here in Minnesota, from lingering misconceptions of the efficiency and viability of the technology, growing opposition to wind development for aesthetic and noise-related reasons (“not in my backyard” or NIMBY), worries over infrasound (largely debunked), and avian deaths. In many cases, these concerns have slowed or halted wind projects.

Moreover, at the end of 2013, the leading federal incentive for wind development, the wind Production Tax Credit (PTC), was allowed to expire. Though the PTC is not a deal breaker for all projects, the uncertainty of renewable energy policy throws another unknown into the equation for investors.

Last month I had the opportunity to visit the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado to learn about trends in wind energy technology research and development and projections for the growing domestic wind power market to see where wind in the U.S. and Minnesota may be headed. It was a quick glimpse into the future, and it is one that looks sunny for wind power.

Technology

Wind technology is trending toward larger, taller turbines. Simplified, power generation is a function of wind speed, air density, and the area of the wind turbine blade. The relationship between these variables makes it so that small increases in wind speed, generally attained by reaching higher heights, and surface area of the turbine blades can have a large impact on power generation. This means that we can generate more power per turbine using newer models that are taller and employ longer blades.

We’re also getting smarter at positioning and controlling turbines. As wind intercepts a wind turbine, a wake is created that interferes with the wind patterns experienced by others located downwind. Researchers now have a better grasp of how these wakes impact power generation and are altering the way we design wind farms and adjust downwind turbine angles to intercept larger quantities of high quality air flow, increasing productivity and lowering the overall cost of wind power generation.

Integration

Wind is a variable source of power, raising the uncertainty of where electricity is going to be generated from and how much will be generated at any given period of time. To utilities and grid operators, this variability and uncertainty can be at odds with reliably transmitting the exact of amount of power consumers demand at any given moment. Enhanced wind forecasting along with improvements in storage technology are helping reduce this uncertainty. Moreover, an increasing number of studies are demonstrating that wind can be developed in a way that will allow it to provide a reliable source of power for peak loads.

The Midwest Independent System Operator or MISO–to simplify, essentially the entity that operates the grid in the Midwest and ensures safe and reliable transmission–has itself gained a wealth of practical experience with wind and renewable energy integration in the last decade. Not only have wind forecasts improved and resource planning dispersed wind geographically to smooth output variability, but 80% of the wind power in the MISO region (as of 2013) is now dispatchable, meaning they can be turned off or on, and their total output controlled based on the grid’s needs.

Minnesota has also done its homework. A study, authorized by the legislature in 2006, was conducted to determine what amount of wind power the electric power system could reliably accommodate, concluding that system could handle the highest percentage modeled – 25 percent of total retail electric sales. A new study, authorized in 2013, will repeat this exercise but look at the possibility of supplying 40 percent of retail electric sales from renewable energy.

Market

Contrary to common perceptions of renewable energy, wind power is, on average, cheaper than our non-renewable alternatives over time, including natural gas. Unlike generation technologies that require an input fuel such as coal, installing a wind turbine can be viewed as a capital investment in the technology itself and a lifetime of fuel.

Part of why this translates into an advantage is how the electricity is sold. Many wind projects sell electricity to utilities or other customers using power purchase agreements that lock in a price of electricity over a long period of time, eliminating fuel cost uncertainty. In the 2012 Wind Technologies Market Report, a study that examined the average levelized wind power purchase agreement price for wind projects from 2003-2013 demonstrated that not only is wind energy becoming cheaper, but is shown to be significantly cheaper than natural gas long into the future (see graphics below).


From the 2012 Wind Technologies Market Report

Environment

As wind power development ramped up, so did concerns over the environmental and public health impacts of the turbines. As sited above, some of these claims – such as dangerous levels of infrasound and general noise pollution – are dubious, particularly in the light of other power alternatives that have much graver environmental and public health consequences. Most of these claims have been debunked by a range of studies covering sleep disruption to the infrasound behind “wind turbine syndrome.”

Others concerns–such as bird and bat mortality–have a more firm grounding in reality. Scientists are making strides on this front as well,  changes to the design of wind turbines, including removing lattice towers that attracted birds in search of a perch, as well as when the turbines are in operation and where they are sited are all. NREL alone has numerous studies looking into how birds sense wind turbines, how to deter them from the path of the blades, and where to site wind turbines to avoid migratory paths.

What do these trends mean for Minnesota? As of a few months ago, there were 98 projects online, the vast majority of which are in the southwestern corner of the state – a small section of our wind rich region. This leaves a lot more wind resource and the corresponding economic and environmental benefits to be tapped. Technology improvements and reductions in cost, along with the increasing experience and ability to integrate variable wind power into the grid and supportive renewable energy policy will all serve as positive forces for investment in wind.

What seems to be missing is social acceptance and education.

Though we have a considerable resource to be harnessed, without public acceptance, wind farm development will continue to hit roadblocks. The value of wind as part of the Minnesota energy portfolio is not yet fully understood by many. The actual noise level (between that in your bedroom and the average home when standing adjacent to the turbine), impact on property values (minimal if not positive), and the public health implications are subject to enormous levels of misinformation.


From the American Wind Energy Association

The future of wind power in Minnesota could be a sunny one, for sure, but only if we take greater strides to tackle the social side of wind development by prioritizing not just technical research, but understanding public resistance and managing the many misconceptions about wind.

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