Knoxville News Sentinel: Change is in the wind: The South is looking to wind for its future power needs

Posted on April 25, 2010

On a clear day, employees at TVA's downtown Knoxville headquarters can see atop Buffalo Mountain the tiny white outlines of what for the last several years have represented the federal utility's biggest investment in renewable energy.

Up close, the 18 miniature pinwheels clinging to a slice of ridgetop become soaring towers of metal and, on a breezy day, whirring turbines slicing through the sky as they churn out electricity for the agency's Green Power Switch program. The 29 megawatts of electricity they produce is enough to power about 3,780 homes.

However, wind-generated power is a blip on the radar when considering TVA's overall production portfolio, in which one nuclear power reactor produces more than 1,000 megawatts of electricity. And since the Buffalo Mountain project in Anderson County, completed in 2004, the agency has not moved to expand its investment in wind.

But winds of change are blowing at TVA. In recent months, the utility has signed contracts to buy 1,380 megawatts of wind-generated power from providers outside the Tennessee Valley following a request for proposals put out in late 2008 for all types of renewable energy. TVA also is exploring the idea of developing wind as a local renewable resource since new research shows that erecting taller towers can help tap a resource heretofore considered unpromising in this part of the country.

Looming federal energy legislation aiming to clean up the nation's energy supply is pushing more power companies like TVA to consider renewable alternatives. With the cost of solar still prohibitive and other sources such as biomass still in early development stages, wind has become the go-to source for sustainable power. In 2008, wind power represented 42 percent of all new electricity generation, and by mid-2009 it had reached about 35 gigawatts of total production.

Still, wind makes up a very small sliver - 1 or 2 percent - of the energy pie.

And while researchers project the United States could reach 20 percent wind generation by 2030, it's not simply a matter of building more turbines.

A bigger concern is getting the power from the windmill to the customer when, in the South's case, much of that power will have to come from somewhere else.

Pipeline to the west

America's Midwest is a wind gold mine. Open, breezy and sparsely populated, the plains and mountain states have made the region a natural location for supply, and higher power costs (along with relatively close proximity) have helped drive demand.

But renewable power requirements in some states and federal legislation mandating limits on carbon have Southern states shopping for sources such as wind power - either in markets where wind is more fully developed or in their own backyard.

In North Carolina, Duke Energy is testing the potential for offshore wind generation, a technology that has yet to take hold in the U.S. - cost being a major factor.

So far, TVA has turned to third-party suppliers for its renewable energy needs. The agency has finalized six contracts to provide the region with 1,380 megawatts of renewable power - enough to serve about 350,000 homes.

TVA will begin utilizing its first non-Buffalo Mountain wind power sometime this spring.

"The most economic (proposed projects) to TVA were the wind projects," said Chris Hanson, TVA senior manager for wind power projects.

TVA received proposals for solar and biomass as well.

In the last couple of years, researchers have been examining the potential for wind in the eastern half of the U.S. and particularly in the South, where it has not been taken seriously in the past. Earlier this year, a Department of Energy-funded report took a detailed look at how wind could be used to supply 20 percent of the region's power needs by 2030.

Generating that kind of wind power will require construction of 115,000 new two-megawatt turbines, most of which will be built hundreds of miles from where the power is needed, according to Bob Zavadil, executive vice president of power systems and co-founder of EnerNex Corp., a Knoxville electric power engineering and consulting firm.

"For the eastern interconnection, both in terms of geography as well as population, it doesn't really have a wind resource," he said. "If we're going to reach the 20 percent target, you've got to have a lot of wind in the Great Plains, no matter what - that's even with offshore wind, which is reasonably speculative at this point."

While the study determined that adopting big chunks of wind power is feasible, the biggest issue becomes how to get the power from where the winds blow to where it's needed most.

Current transmission infrastructure can support total wind generation of 6 percent of the nation's energy demand, Zavadil said. Beyond that, there would need to be a major overhaul and expansion of the lines and transformers used to carry wind power from one region of the country to another.

Built on a very local basis, the utility lines crisscrossing the country aren't set up to handle longer hauls and connections among power companies in regions with few previous ties to each other.

Hurdles ahead

Not surprisingly, building the infrastructure to make large amounts of imported wind a reality is no easy prospect, given the fact no precedent for the process exists.

First, each state and locality has a different permitting process - a tangle of regulation that could require federal legislation to unravel, according to Zavadil.

"The thornier issue is just allocating the costs, who pays for this," Zavadil said. "That's the major question, unresolved."

Both issues will require unprecedented cooperation among utilities as well as, in some cases, third-party providers selling the power. Zavadil said various groups are beginning to come together to discuss the question of how and how much. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate transmission of energy, has established guidance to set up interconnection planning authorities among the various regions of the country to help establish policy and regulatory measures for future transmission, he said.

More locally, the Electric Power Research Institute is launching a two-year project, funded with a $500,000 DOE grant, to explore how large amounts of wind power might travel to the Southeast from the Southwest Power Pool, a region that includes Oklahoma, Kansas, parts of Texas and Minnesota, which had been shown in a previous DOE report to have untapped wind resources.

The project is pulling together major power companies in the South, including TVA, Entergy, Southern Co. and Oglethorpe, to create a detailed plan for how such power sharing might take place, said Tom Key, technical executive in EPRI's power delivery and utility program.

The project will take a close look at what's involved in developing the wind power in those states and successfully delivering it to the Southeast in terms of technical requirements and cost.

"With our large electricity demand, we couldn't get a lot of energy from the western wind resources," Key said. "Certainly this effort is to get their arms around a big piece of the story and determine what's really needed."

Buying local

But while most experts looking at the national power picture dismiss Tennessee as having serious potential when it comes to wind, new research out of DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory indicates that building taller towers could allow wind-poor regions such as Tennessee to at least gain some benefits from the renewable resource.

Turbines 80 meters in height demonstrate an improvement in the amount of wind available to power the turbines, but at 100 meters the state's potential capacity for wind jumps from a handful of megawatts to nearly 40,000.

"As these towers get taller, all of a sudden the eastern resource becomes more significant," said Larry Flowers, principal project leader with NREL's National Wind Technology Center.

Flowers is serving as adviser to the Tennessee Valley and Eastern Kentucky Wind Working Group that, with a $100,000 grant from DOE, is exploring wind's potential and market obstacles for power generated here as well as outside the region.

Coordinated by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the group includes TVA, the Eastern Kentucky Power Cooperative and state officials. Flowers presented his data at the first meeting, held last month, as did Zavadil. The group will focus on creating a market for wind among utilities, looking at policy issues and market acceptance issues and analyzing transmission requirements for wind bought outside the region and siting requirements for potential wind installations within the Tennessee Valley.

"I think we'd love to have wind in the valley, but it's where the resource is," said Neil Placer, clean and renewable energy senior analyst at TVA. "Everyone knows that the middle of the nation is kind of a hotbed of wind. … If there's untapped resource in the valley … I think that's something we're going to have to balance as we go forward."

Investing in wind locally makes sense because it reduces the cost of transmitting power from another region, experts say. It also boosts the local economy, creating jobs and contributing tax revenue in the more rural parts of a region that early data show most promising for wind generation. An NREL analysis indicates that getting to 20 percent wind would result in a $74 billion economic impact and roughly 587,000 jobs in the Southeast region.

"There is an impact," said Brandon Blevins, wind program coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "If the attitude is, let's bring this all from the outside, then you lose that economic impact in the state."

Not so sweet on wind

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander has taken up the cause against wind - and for nuclear generation - through the years and seems to be stepping up the fight as the Obama administration turns more attention and federal dollars to renewables.

In a book he released last week, "Going to War in Sailboats: Why Nuclear Power Beats Windmills for America's Green Energy Future," the Republican from Maryville outlines his case against the technology, writing that tax dollars would be better spent in helping build 100 nuclear plants than subsidizing wind. He points to the size of windmills - warning of their location atop scenic Appalachian peaks - as an indication of "renewable energy sprawl" that will harm views and threaten wildlife.

"We certainly appreciate Sen. Alexander's support of low- or no-carbon sources for production of electric power," TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said in a statement. "We also share his concerns about the obstacles facing each of these sources. … Currently, the mix of varied generating sources is one of the strengths of TVA's current portfolio."

"Through the (integrated resource plan) we are looking at how each of these sources - including wind, nuclear, solar, hydro and biomass - might complement a strategy for a reliable, clean, diversified and sustainable energy portfolio in the future," Bradley continued.