‘Wind is becoming competitive with conventional generation’ in the Southeast — advocates

Source: Kristi E. Swartz, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 18, 2014

Once completely off the map when it came to building successful wind turbine projects, nearly every state in the Southeast has a wind developer looking at it, according to clean energy and wind advocates.
The lower wind speeds in the Southeast have not typically made the region ripe for wind development, especially when compared with the Midwest and Texas. Improved technology combined with a future need for cheaper power has opened up the Southern states for new development, however.”The technology continues to evolve at a very rapid, almost frenetic pace,” said Aaron Barr, a senior technology adviser from MAKE Consulting, a renewable energy firm. “It’s intensively competitive. That’s good for the industry because that helps push the technology needle.”Longer blades and taller towers are the main changes. This can make the turbines more expensive, but major manufacturers are studying other, lower-cost materials to combat that, Barr said.

Wind has become more attractive to utilities in the South because of a number of converging factors, Barr said. These include an increased need for electricity as utilities close coal-fired plants to comply with federal environmental rules, a demand for power sources that do not rely on water as much as conventional power plants do, volatile natural gas prices, and a general uptick in electricity prices.

“Wind is becoming competitive with conventional generation, even without subsidies,” said Barr, presenting during a U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored Web-based seminar, “Recent Wind Technology Advances.”

Subsidies are a polarizing topic in renewable energy, particularly when it comes to wind and solar. Critics of wind energy frequently cite that the industry exists only because of heavy federal tax subsidies.

The industry says it needs the $23-per-megawatt-hour subsidy for at least a few more years.

The so-called production tax credit has expired and is not available to projects that were not under construction before Jan. 1. A two-year extension was included in a broader tax extenders bill that passed the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month (E&ENews PM, April 3).

Utilities in the Southeast currently aren’t building wind projects, but they are buying wind from other places. Alabama Power Co., Georgia Power Co., Southwestern Electric Power Co. and the Tennessee Valley Authority have signed long-term contracts to buy power from wind farms in other states.

“Companies like TVA, Georgia Power, Alabama Power and SWEPCO, these companies are really looking for a bargain, and they have found that bargain in wind energy,” said Simon Mahan, renewable energy manager for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The demand is there, “so as long as it’s good-quality and low-cost,” he said.

Because the South is a new market for wind, projects may face a higher resistance at first, Mahan said.

He refutes classic arguments such as the region doesn’t have enough wind by saying that naysayers are frequently looking at wind maps from the 1980s. Those maps are outdated, Mahan said.

An updated map doesn’t necessarily mean the region has more wind. They do show that the area has wind speeds that can be captured with taller turbines.

“The taller you go, you get more wind energy, and it’s better,” he said.

Two projects face challenges in Alabama, where developers want to build turbines in at least eight counties. Local bills that would regulate the location, design and operation of wind turbines in Etowah and Cherokee counties have made it to the governor’s desk after a statewide proposal failed (EnergyWire, April 7)

Those bills target two projects along the mountainous Shinbone Ridge in Alabama.