Tag Archives: Wind power

A World Where Bats and Blades Coexist

bats_and_blades
by James A. Bacon

Critics have long lambasted wind turbines for killing hundreds of thousands of birds and bats. Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy, which seeks to build a wind farm in Botetourt County north of Roanoke, has submitted a plan that it says will mitigate the worst effects of its 25 whirling turbine blades.

Apex would turn the turbines off from dawn to dusk every year between May 15 and Nov 14 when bats are foraging for food reports the Roanoke Times. But they would keep the turbines running when winds exceed 15 miles per hour or when the temperature drops below 38 degrees, conditions when bats tend not to fly.

“There are proven steps we can take to build and operate projects in an environmentally responsible manner,” said Apex spokesman Kevin Chandler.

Local conservation groups like the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council have opposed the wind farm on the grounds that the blades could cause the death of migratory songbirds, bats and perhaps golden eagles. Bird conservationists assert that wind turbines kill an estimated 600,000 birds a year in the United States and that the number could rise to two million with the deployment of more wind energy. Wind advocates say the number is miniscule compared to the 600 million or more killed each year by flying into buildings or hitting cars and trucks, but concerns remain an obstacle to widespread deployment of the turbines in Virginia.

Apex believes that damage to wildlife can be managed. The company hired professional birdwatchers to log the number of warblers, sandpipers, owls and other threatened or endangered species around its proposed wind farm. The surveys, conducted in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, found that most North American birds would not be impacted. Eagles, hawks and falcons were not seen in large enough numbers to raise concerns.

But four endangered or threatened species — the northern long-eared bat, the Indiana bat, the tricolored bat and the little brown bat — were spotted during the surveys. In addition to restricting wind-turbine operations, Apex proposes to avoid cutting trees within five miles of the bats’ cave or within 150 feet of summer roosting trees for northern long-eared bats.

Bacon’s bottom line: Apex’s proposal is an idea worth exploring. On the one hand, it is desirable to minimize wildlife deaths, especially of rare and endangered species. Wind farms should be held to the same standard as pipelines, transmission lines and other energy projects when it comes to mitigating their impact on the environment. On the other hand, it appears that Apex has proposed a reasonable plan to minimize wildlife deaths. The company wisely initiated the wildlife surveys two years ago, long before the issue could become a deal-killer, and it has tailored a response to the local ecosystem. The solution isn’t perfect: Presumably a number of birds and bats still could die, and the company definitely will lose revenue by curtailing production. But, barring some tweaking in negotiations with regulators and conservationists, the proposal could well represent the optimal tradeoff.

Can the rest of us learn anything from this? Virginia will have to build a lot of infrastructure — wind farms, solar farms, pipelines, transmission lines, and who knows what else — as it to re-tools the electric grid to a low-carbon, low-pollution future. Inevitably, some of the projects will conflict with ecological, historical and cultural resources that Virginians want to protect. Collectively, we need to adopt a problem-solving mindset that allows critical infrastructure to be built while protecting those resources. There will never be perfect, pain-free solutions. But some solutions will be clearly preferable to others, and we need to find them.

Appalachian Power Proposes Green Power Tariff

west_virginia_turbinesby James A. Bacon

Appalachian Power has proposed an alternative rate for customers who want to purchase 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. A rider attached to the company’s Virginia tariff bundles the energy output of renewable generators to provide around-the-clock, carbon-free generation.

The company, whose service territory encompasses the southwestern third of the state, designed the green tariff so that subscribing customers would not be subject to charges relating to fossil-fuel energy generation, and standard retail customers would not subsidize renewable energy.

“We are increasing the amount of renewable energy in our generation portfolio and developing programs to help our customers meet their energy needs with renewables,” said James Fawcett, Appalachian’s manager for energy efficiency and alternative energy initiatives in a press release yesterday.  “The proposed Rider REO is the latest addition to our renewables strategy.”

Initially, the portfolio will consist of 423 megawatts of Appalachian’s current wind and hydroelectric resources. As new renewable resources—including wind and solar—are added, the subscribed portion of those resources will be assigned to Rider REO.

Who will buy this product? Appalachian suggested that the main appeal may be to industry. Said Fawcett: “We expect that the ability to deliver 100 percent renewable energy will also provide economic development benefits to potential commercial and industrial customers seeking that requirement.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If one overlaid Appalachian Power’s territory with an electoral map, it would skew heavily Republican red, with a Trumpian tint. Buchanan County, once a major coal producing county, was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal for the highest percentage of votes cast for Donald Trump anywhere in the country. I can’t imagine that the company anticipates a surge in retail demand for higher-priced green energy.

The real play is for industry. Just as Amazon Web Services and other data center providers in Northern Virginia are being pressured to use more solar electricity, so are many of the industrial and warehousing companies (think Walmart) that might consider investing in western Virginia. Thus, Appalachian is converting the liability of higher cost electricity into an economic development asset. Very clever. It will be interesting to see what kind of issues arise in the SCC deliberations.

One issue, I expect, would focus on how Appalachian allocates the cost (if any) of (a) upgrading the transmission and distribution grid and (b) maintaining fossil fuel backup capacity for when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. The accounting discussions, I expect, could get very arcane. Another question is what happens if Appalachian can’t find subscribers for 423 MW of pure-play renewable energy. Do regular ratepayers shoulder the costs, as they undoubtedly would if the green tariff didn’t exist?

Clean Power Plan Stalled, Green Energy Still Viable

In a five-to-four vote, the U.S. Supreme Court derailed, at least temporarily, President Obama's Clean Power Plan. Regulatory uncertainty ensues.

In a five-to-four vote, the U.S. Supreme Court derailed, at least temporarily, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Regulatory uncertainty ensues.

by James A. Bacon

The U.S. Supreme Court has halted implementation of the Clean Power Plan until challenges to its constitutionality can be resolved, creating uncertainty at the state level, including here in Virginia, on how to proceed.

The high court gave no explanation for its stay, but foes of the plan, which would compel electric power companies to make major cuts to CO2 emissions by 2030, argued that it would “force massive … changes in terms of state policies and resources, power plant shutdowns, and investments in wind and solar power,” which could not be reversed if it were later declared unconstitutional.

As a practical matter, the decision will delay implementation of the plan until the next administration. A federal appeals court is not expected to hear the case until June. If the case were appealed again, the Supreme Court likely could not render a decision until 2017, reports the Washington Post. While a Democratic president probably would press on with the plan, a Republican president likely would reverse it even if the Supreme Court ruled it to be constitutional.

The stay could create a dilemma for the McAuliffe administration, which supports the plan and has been working to implement it. Under the Clean Power Plan, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality is required to submit a state plan by June 2016, with the possibility of an extension until June 2017, or June 2018 if it adopts a multistate plan.

The response here in Virginia is mixed.

“Today’s unfortunate decision by the Supreme Court hits pause on the country’s strongest action to lower harmful carbon pollution, but it won’t stop the massive shift to cleaner, cheaper energy already underway in the Southeast and across the nation,” says Frank Rambo, senior Attorney and clean energy leader for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The goals of the Clean Power Plan reflect this energy shift: we’re embracing cleaner energy options that would be happening with or without this plan. ”

“This comes as no real surprise,” says Dominion Virginia Power spokesman David Botkins. “It continues to be a legal and policy cloud of uncertainty for the country and the energy industry.” But Dominion will continue to move forward with the Clean Power Plan. “We will work constructively with the Commonwealth and other stakeholders on a compliance plan that has our customers as the first priority, ensures reliability, and maintains a diverse mix of electric generation.  We continue to prepare for implementation (of CPP) unless we are notified that Virginia is delaying or halting their development process.”

What does this mean for green energy in Virginia?

While a stay of the Clean Power Plan will slow the transition of Virginia’s electric grid to cleaner energy sources, it will not halt it. Dominion still is planning to shut down two aging, coal-fired units at its Yorktown Power Station, and its long-term investment plan calls for more gas-fired electric power, which emits less CO2 per unit of electricity than coal, and more solar. Indeed, Dominion announced plans two days ago to partner in a 20 megawatt solar facility in Chesapeake that will produce the energy equivalent needed to power 5,000 homes. (Substantial reliance on offshore wind energy still seems to be a distant prospect.)

The economics of wind and solar continue to improve, and many energy consumers — ranging from Amazon Web Services to the Norfolk Naval Station here in Virginia — are willing to pay a premium for renewable energy. Meanwhile, expansion of the electric transmission grid may make it realistic for Virginia power companies to import cheap wind-powered electricity from the Midwest.

Update: I have updated the Dominion quote to reflect company’s assertion that it will continue to move forward with the Clean Power Plan.

Update: A statement from Governor Terry McAuliffe: “Over the last several months my administration has been working with a diverse group of Virginia stakeholders that includes members of the environmental, business, and energy communities to develop a strong, viable path forward to comply with the Clean Power Plan. As this court case moves forward, we will stay on course and continue to develop the elements for a Virginia plan to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate our clean energy economy.”

A quote from John Shepelwich, spokesman for Appalachian Power Co.:  “The Supreme Court’s decision confirms that the legal justification for the Clean Power Plan should be examined by the courts before scarce state and private resources are used to develop state plans. The accelerated schedule for briefing and argument in the lower court assures that the case will be heard promptly.”

The Electric Grid Just Got Smarter

Interesting development… Dominion Voltage, Inc., a subsidiary of Dominion Resources and sister company of Dominion Virginia Power, has announced the launch of a new product, EDGE Stabilizer, to help electric utilities manage the reliability impact of solar, wind and other distributed energy resources (DER) on the electric grid.

“Market forces are significantly increasing the amount of DER, and utilities need cost effective ways to safely and efficiently integrate DER into their grids,” said Todd Headlee, executive director of DVI. “In areas with high levels of DER, EDGE Stabilizer minimizes the need for additional costly hardware devices or other distribution system upgrades by orchestrating the use of existing residential smart inverters, large scale inverters, load tap changers, capacitors, voltage regulators and AMI/smart meters to ensure utility customer voltages remain in compliance.”

EDGE Stabilizer also integrates detailed weather forecasts to anticipate voltage volatility on a circuit by circuit basis.

Bacon’s bottom line: It will be interesting to see how Dominion’s right hand and left hand work together. Will Dominion Resources use its smart-grid technology to help Dominion Virginia Power, its regulated subsidiary, better integrate wind and solar into its generating mix? Or will regulatory obstacles and/or strategic considerations hamper the application of the technology? Another way of phrasing the question: Will a smart-grid technology invented in Virginia be applied in Virginia? I’ll be posing those questions to Dominion when I get the chance.

Gas Worse Carbon Polluter than Coal, Says Sierra Club

global_warmingby James A. Bacon

The Sierra Club has attacked the idea of natural gas as a “clean fuel” in a new broadside against the proposed construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) through Virginia. When viewed over the “natural gas fuel cycle” — including production, transportation and combustion — natural gas would be a bigger contributor to climate change than the existing electric generating fleet, including coal-fired plants, the environmental organization charged late last week.

“Natural gas only seems like a cheap and easy fix for climate change,” said Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, in a statement accompanying the white paper. “In reality, methane pollution is a serious problem that makes natural gas a dead-end solution. We have to stop kidding ourselves. Virginia should be investing in wind and solar and energy efficiency, not expanding infrastructure for more fossil fuel burning.”

The Sierra Club issued the report as the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality makes important decisions about how the state should implement the federally imposed Clean Power Plan, which calls for a massive reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions from Virginia power plants by 2030. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have called for the most aggressive options, which would require more solar and wind and less natural gas than proposed by Dominion Virginia Power. Backers of the ACP and MVP pipelines have justified the projects on the grounds that they will supply gas-fired power plants in Virginia and North Carolina with cheap shale gas from West Virginia and Ohio.

“The overwhelming consensus of state and federal policymakers – which the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club ignores – is the increased use of natural gas for electric generation is essential to meeting the Clean Power Plan,” responded Jim Norvelle, director-media relations for Dominion Energy, the managing partner of the ACP.

“This is the view of President Obama and elected officials from states across the country,” he said. “It is also the clear guidance of the [Environmental Protection Agency], which identified increased use of natural gas generation as one of three key building blocks for meeting the goals of the Clean Power Plan.”

Because the combustion of natural gas releases less CO2 per unit of heat than the combustion of coal, it is commonly argued that a switch to gas, while less helpful than a shift to solar and wind in reducing CO2, does make a significant contribution as a “bridge” fuel in the fight against global warming. But the Sierra Club argues that such a combustion-only analysis excludes the impact of the release of gas during fracking operations and pipeline leaks. Summarizes the Sierra Club statement:

In addition to emitting large amounts of CO2 when burned, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change in the extraction and transmission stages, where significant amounts of methane escape from wells and pipeline leaks. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, and these “fugitive emissions” of methane have emerged as an area of serious concern that undercuts the case for natural gas as a cleaner substitute for coal. …

Greenhouse gas emissions for Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be more than five times the annual emissions from Dominion’s Chesterfield Power Station, the largest coal fired plant in Virginia, and equal to more than 80% of the total carbon pollution from all 177 stationary sources in the EPA’s 2014 inventory of GHG emissions in Virginia, states the Sierra Club.  The impact of the Mountain Valley Pipeline would be even greater.

Critics of renewable fuels counter that solar and wind farms produce electricity only  when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, not when there is a demand for electricity. Natural gas generation can be dialed up and down quickly as electricity demand changes. That flexibility is particularly critical if electric utilities are to adopt “demand-response” rate structures that encourage users to conserve energy during periods of peak demand. Gas advocates also note that the gas infrastructure has less impact on the landscape. Solar and wind requires far more land to generate comparable amounts of electricity; wind turbines and vast expanses of solar panels also are more visually intrusive than buried pipelines.

Wind Power Breakthrough

Mountaintop wind farm in West Virginia.

Mountaintop wind farm in West Virginia.

Virginia could finally get a wind farm.

In a unanimous vote, the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to grant a permit to build 25 wind turbines on the ridge of North Mountain, clearing the way for construction of the first wind farm in Virginia. The 550-foot-tall turbines had sparked objections that they would be a noisy eyesore and harm wildlife. As a condition of receiving the permit, project owner Apex Clean Energy must abide by 17 conditions that limit the height of the turbines and how much noise they can make, reports the Roanoke Times.

Botetourt County arguably was the biggest obstacle but the Rocky Forge Wind project still needs to obtain state and federal regulatory approval. The Federal Aviation Administration has said that the turbines could pose an aviation hazard.

Rocky Forge is expected to generate 75 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 20,000 homes.

— JAB

Speaking of Storing Electricity…

battery_storageIn the previous post, I quoted Dominion Resources CEO Thomas F. Farrell II as alluding to the impracticality of storing electricity on a large scale. He is indubitably right about the high cost of storage today, but scientists and entrepreneurs are looking for ways to drive the costs down.

Battery storage of electricity is no more than a niche business at present. In our part of the country, it is used mainly to help PJM Interconnection, which maintains wholesale electricity markets, make tiny, fine-tuned adjustments to equalize the supply and demand of electricity on the grid. But some say that advances in battery technology will make it economical one day to store large amounts of surplus electricity generated by wind and solar power during periods of peak production for use during other times of the day.

Given the strategic importance of power storage, it is interesting to note the submission of HB 452 by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, to create a Virginia Energy Storage Consortium. Here is a summary of the bill:

Establishes the Virginia Energy Storage Consortium as a political subdivision of the Commonwealth for the purpose of positioning the Commonwealth as a leader in research, development, commercialization, manufacturing, and deployment of energy storage technology. The powers of the Consortium include (i) promoting collaborative efforts among Virginia’s public and private institutions of higher education in research, development, and commercialization efforts related to energy storage; (ii) monitoring relevant developments nationally and globally; and (iii) identifying and working with the Commonwealth’s industries and nonprofit partners. Staff support shall be provided by the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. The measure expires on July 1, 2021.

— JAB

The Throne behind the Power

pjm_control_room

PJM operations center, Audubon, Pa. Photo credit: PJM

Who runs Virginia’s electric power industry — the SCC? the General Assembly? or an obscure Pennsylvania company that doesn’t own a single megawatt of generating capacity or mile of transmission line? 

by James A. Bacon

AUDUBON, PA–Some of the most important decisions affecting the price and reliability of electric service in Virginia aren’t made in Dominion Virginia Power’s headquarters in Richmond or Appalachian Power Company’s in Roanoke but in a nondescript office park in Audubon, Pa., a dozen miles northwest of Philadelphia.

That’s where PJM Interconnection oversees the electric transmission grid in a 13-state region that includes Virginia. Its job: safeguarding the integrity of the system by keeping the supply of and demand for electricity in precise balance, and creating wholesale electricity markets that allow members to buy and sell electricity with each other.

As one of ten regional transmission organizations in North America, PJM oversees a $50 billion-a-year electricity market for 61 million people in a territory stretching from New Jersey to Illinois. The company currently estimates that it saves the economy $2.8 billion to $3.1 billion a year by making the grid operate more efficiently. Its capabilities will be in demand as never before as states and power companies gear up to meet stringent new regulations imposed by the Obama administration to combat climate change.

The Clean Power Plan (CPP) mandates sharp reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions nationally. Across the country dozens of CO2-intensive, coal-fired plants will be replaced by generating units using natural gas, nuclear fuel, wind and solar. The transmission grid, erected to connect those coal plants to major population centers, will have to be reconfigured to accommodate electricity supplied from new locations. Drawing upon data showing where the transmission bottlenecks are occurring and where new capacity needs to be installed, PJM will orchestrate the grid restructuring.

Integrating green power sources into the system will be especially challenging. Solar and wind, which don’t emit CO2 and create no radioactive waste, are the cleanest energy sources available to replace coal on a large scale. But both are intermittent, with electric output varying widely by season, time of day and weather conditions. A single utility operating within a confined service territory would be hard-pressed to deal with these fluctuations. A regional approach will make the task easier. PJM can even out some of the localized, weather-driven flux in green power by drawing upon wind and solar plants across its 240,000-square-mile region.

Appalachian Power joined PJM in 2004 and Dominion joined in 2005, yet in Virginia hardly anyone outside the electric power industry has heard of the company, knows what it does or comprehends how it shapes the choices available to politicians and regulators as they juggle the competing imperatives of price, reliability and environment.

To understand the larger context in which Virginia energy issues are debated, I traveled earlier this month to Audubon, Pa., to see PJM operations first-hand. The company rolled out the red carpet, making available the managers who oversee the region’s wholesale energy markets and electric grid to answer my questions. The following report details what I learned.

Day-Ahead Markets

Trading stocks and cattle futures is child’s play compared to buying and selling electricity on the wholesale market.

Every day at noon, PJM holds a next-day electricity auction. Buyers submit how much electric load they want to purchase at a particular node in the PJM system, at what time they want the electricity, and how much they are willing to pay. Power companies and merchant generators with power to sell enter bids for how much power they will commit to providing, during which hours of the day, and at what price. PJM cranks all this data into a model that runs through successive iterations of analysis and spits out a ranking, from low price to high, of which power facilities will be called upon to supply each additional increment of demand for each customer.

“Our job is to make things as consistent between day-ahead and real time as possible,” says Michael Ward, manager of day-ahead market operations. “We get all the loads coming in. We get all the generation bidding in. And we match them, making sure the transaction physically can happen.”

That’s the simple version. Continue reading

SCC Asks Tough Questions about Nukes, CO2 Emissions

2015IRPby James A. Bacon

Given the legal and regulatory uncertainties associated with Clean Power Plan, which requires Virginia to reduce CO2 emissions 30% by 2030, Dominion Virginia Power’s 15-year strategic plan filed in July 2015 is reasonable and in the public interest, the State Corporation Commission (SCC) ruled in a final ruling released today. However, the SCC also detailed substantial additional analysis it would like to see in the Integrated Resources Plan (IRP) Dominion files next year.

The electric company had filed four broad options for responding to the mandates of the Clean Power Plan, including one that relied heavily upon nuclear power. The power company did not recommend one option over the others in July because it did not know precisely how the Clean Power Plan would impact Virginia. While the Environmental Protection Agency has finalized Virginia’s CO2 emission targets since then, the state still has yet to choose between two possible approaches, whether to focus on the absolute volume of CO2 emissions or CO2 emissions on a kilowatt-hour basis. That decision could have significant impact on how power companies respond to the mandates.

Consumer and environmentalist groups had urged the SCC to reject the IRP on the grounds that the projected $19.3 billion cost for a third nuclear unit at the North Anna power station was excessive under any scenario. A project of that magnitude, the SCC noted, would roughly double the size of Virginia’s electric rate base.

While the SCC saw no need to amend the 2015 IRP, it noted pointedly that it views the IRP only as a planning document, “not as a document that will determine future Commission decisions on future resources or the recovery of specific expenditures.”

The commission instructed Dominion to take a very different approach to its 2016 IRP. With this ruling, the tight-lipped commissioners signaled what they see as the major issues facing Virginia’s electric power industry response to the Clean Power Plan.

Nuclear power. The proposed North Anna 3 nuclear unit tops the list. The company has incurred approximately $580 million in development costs through September, a portion of which has been passed on to rate payers already, and Virginia’s share of the final project cost could reach $19.3 billion in capital investment. If passed on to rate payers, wrote the SCC, “that investment would represent a large enough increase in electric bills for residential and business customers to impact Virginia’s economic climate.”

Acting as consumer counsel in evidentiary hearings, the Attorney General’s office raised  what the SCC deems to be a “serious concern”: Should Dominion come to the SCC in a future hearing having already incurred billions of dollars in development costs on North Anna 3, will it cite the sunk costs “as a compelling reason for the Commission to approve the application”? Accordingly, the SCC ordered Dominion to answer the following questions in its next IRP:

  • Why might Dominion believe that it should be entitled to recover from customers North Anna 3 costs incurred before being granted formal regulatory approval?
  • Is there a dollar limit on how much Dominion intends to spend on North Anna 3 before seeking that regulatory approval?
  • Without a guarantee of cost recovery, how much can Dominion spend on North Anna 3 without negatively impacting its fiscal soundness and cost of capital?
  • Why does Dominion continue to spend money on North Anna 3 development costs? Is it mainly to seek Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval?

In the next IRP the SCC wants Dominion to “quantify the tradeoff between operating cost risks that may be increased and the  cost savings that may be realized by delaying the construction of North Anna 3.” Continue reading

If You Like Wind and Solar, You’d Better Like Transmission Lines, Too

If you want more of this....

If you want more of this….

by James A. Bacon

Wind and solar power are becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear as an electric power source. As Virginia integrates more renewable energy sources into its electric generation mix, a big question is how much can the power grid handle before the intermittent nature of blowing winds and sunny skies threatens the reliability of electric service. The answer, according to PJM Interconnection, is quite a lot.

... you need to build more of this.

… you need to build more of this.

PJM, the Pennsylvania-based entity that oversees the reliability of the electric grid in a multi-state region in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, including Virginia, commissioned GE Energy Consulting to examine the issue. The conclusion:

The PJM system, with adequate transmission expansion and additional regulating reserves, will not have any significant issues operating with up to 30% of its energy provided by wind and solar generation. … No insurmountable operating issues were uncovered over the many simulated scenarios of system-wide hourly operation. …

Bacon’s bottom line: This is not news to anyone in the electric power industry — the study is a year old. But it’s news to me, as I slowly climb the learning curve on this topic, and it may be news to readers who have been moving up that learning curve with me, not to mention legislators who shape the regulatory environment for Virginia utilities.

There is one critical caveat in the quote above that bears close attention: “with adequate transmission expansion.”

PJM’s grid could handle 20% renewable penetration with modest requirements for new transmission lines, the study states, but costs soar at the 30% level. Depending on the scenario, PJM estimates that the regional grid would require construction of between 754 and 2,946 total miles of transmission lines ranging in cost between $3.7 billion and $13.7 billion.

Under the 30% renewable-penetration scenario, PJM assumes that much of the power will originate in Midwest states with strong, steady winds where wind power is most economical, and the grid will need transmission capacity to move electricity to markets in the east. But even with solar-intensive scenarios, new transmission lines also may be needed on a local level as power companies reconfigure the flow of electricity from decommissioned coal, nuclear and, eventually, gas-fired generating stations to the solar facilities.

And that raises a new question: Can power companies build those transmission lines on a timely basis? Environmental and landowner groups put up staunch resistance to the construction of intrusive high-capacity transmission lines through wilderness, countryside and areas of historic value, as has we have seen on numerous occasions in Virginia. These conflicts can be protracted. Friday night, for instance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held another public hearing on the proposed Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line, even as Dominion Virginia Power warned that the line will take at least 18 months to construct and will create a months-long window of vulnerability when it shutters two coal-fired units at its Yorktown Power Station. Residents and businesses on the Virginia Peninsula face a high likelihood of rolling blackouts in 2017.

The re-engineering of the electric grid to address the global problem of climate change could result in more intense conflict at the local level over disruption to wildlife habitat, soil erosion, water quality and other environmental values — not to mention economic disruption. Virginia has only begun to grapple with this contradiction.

(Hat tip: Kevin Chandler.)

Wind Power in Virginia… 2017 or Bust

wind_turbines

by James A. Bacon

Investors have been trying without success for nearly a decade to build wind turbines along the ridge lines of Virginia’s mountains. Projects have bogged down amid concerns about noise generated by thrumming blades, the slaughter of birds and bats, and the imposition of 500-foot-high machines upon neighbors’ pristine views. While wind turbines have sprouted around the country — generating 25% of the electric supply of Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota — not one wind farm has been built in Virginia.

Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy is optimistic that it can break the jinx, predicting that its Botetourt County wind farm, Rocky Forge, will plug into Virginia’s electric grid by late 2017, and that a Pulaski County project, Pinewood, will be up and running by 2018.

I sat down yesterday with Tyson Utt, Apex director of development for the Mid-Atlantic, to discuss land-based wind power in Virginia. When I asked him why there is none,  he didn’t want to talk about what others might have done wrong. Apex’s focus, he said, is on getting it right. The special attention Apex pays to site selection and community relations, he says, minimizes local opposition by framing wind power as an asset, not a liability, to the community.

If anyone is positioned to pull off the feat of generating land-based wind power in Virginia, it’s Apex. Senior management has years of experience in wind, selling a portfolio of projects to BP in 2009 and then launching Apex to acquire stranded wind projects around the country and add to them with internally developed projects. The team includes more than 150 employees steeped in all aspects of siting, constructing and operating windmills. Pocketing $30 million in second-round financing in August to finance its growth, Apex has 53 wind projects in 25 states completed or under development.

The economics of wind power are improving as the turbines that convert wind to energy continuously improve in efficiency, says Utt. Meanwhile, there is growing demand for green energy as states adopt Renewable Portfolio Standards (mandatory targets for renewable energy as a percentage of total electricity production) and as corporations seek to establish their green bona fides by purchasing green power. While concerns persist about the intermittent nature of wind, the experience of other states and some European countries, he says, has demonstrated that wind can account for a significant percentage of total electric power without compromising the reliability of the electric grid.

Apex’s value proposition, says Utt, is the close attention it pays to site selection. The development team does due diligence on potential locations, focusing not only on technical factors such as wind speeds and variability, and economic factors such as proximity to transmission lines, but to intangibles like wildlife habitat and impact on view sheds. “We factor in community acceptance when we site a project,” he says.

High on the list is aligning the interests of the landowner with the company, says Utt. Typically, that means paying the landowner a royalty as a percentage of revenues generated, and it means configuring the project so that the landowner can continue using the land — for farming, forestry, whatever — that he or she had been using it for previously. In the case of the Rocky Forge project, which will have up to 25 windmills, a provision is written into the lease that allows hunters to continue using the land, a measure that has helped win over local hunting clubs. Also critical to building public support is creating an open line of communication with county residents to allay the inevitable fears.

An advantage of the Rocky Forge project is that the wind turbines will be located on isolated mountain ridges that will be seen by relatively few people, says Utt. For the most part the mountain ridges will be screened by other ridges and forested land. Botetourt County has enacted an ordinance laying out guidelines for development of wind projects, including a restriction that limits turbines and their blades to a maximum height of 550 feet.

However, Apex hasn’t won over everybody. In July, eight Botetourt residents filed a lawsuit in circuit court claiming that the ordinance failed to protect them from dangers posed by the giant windmills. “Industrial wind turbines are known to catch fire, to collapse, emit audible and low frequency noise, cause shadow flicker and to throw ice from spinning blades in the wintertime,” the lawsuit states. And that’s just the impact on people. The giant blades also kill birds and bats.

The county isn’t backing down, and Apex is proceeding with development. In July the company applied for a permit to build three temporary meteorological towers, no higher than 199 feet, to collect data on wind speeds and variability. Eight days ago, the company asked the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a determination that the towers would not interfere with passing airplanes.

Important aspects of the Rocky Forge project have yet to be determined, like who will buy the electricity. Apex might sell it to a power company — the site is located next to a Dominion Virginia Power transmission line — or to a large commercial customer, or even to the wholesale market. If the price was right, it could sell the project to another owner, although Apex’s business model calls for operating and maintaining the wind farms itself. The company monitors and controls facilities around the country from a central facility in Charlottesville 24 hours per day.

When asked what the General Assembly, Governor’s Office or the State Corporation Commission can do to make Virginia more hospitable to on-shore wind power, Utt doesn’t have any suggestions. He just emphasizes the opportunity created by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which compels Virginia to reduce CO2 emissions over the next several years, to grow a new industry.

Fostering the growth of Virginia-based wind farms keeps economic activity in the state, Utt observes. Virginia is one of the largest importers of electric power of any state in the country. Why not create a revenue stream for Virginia landowners and a Virginia company instead of importing green power from outside the state?

Thanks to improving technology, the cost of wind has come down 58% over the past five years, says Utt. Between the growing demand for green energy and the declining cost, growth of the wind industry is “inevitable.” Virginia might as well take part.

Environmentalist Update on Offshore Wind

Alstom wind turbine like that contemplated for installation off Virginia Beach.

Alstom wind turbine like that contemplated for installation off Virginia Beach.

by James A. Bacon

Judging from comments made in a Environment Virginia-sponsored webinar held this morning, environmentalists, the McAuliffe administration and Dominion Virginia Power are operating on the same wave length when it comes to developing offshore wind power in Virginia. If environmental groups have big differences with Dominion on how to proceed, no sign of criticism surfaced in the webinar presentations.

The main focus of environmentalists, as it is for Dominion, is bringing down the cost of offshore wind power. The top priority nationally is building a big enough pipeline of wind power projects off the Atlantic Coast to persuade manufacturers, specialty vessels and others in Europe’s established wind-power supply chain to create a presence on the U.S. East Coast. The existence of a supply chain, along with continued technological development, could make offshore wind power far more cost competitive in the U.S. than it is today.

Here in Virginia, the top priority is ensuring that Dominion builds two experimental turbines off Virginia Beach that will provide the data needed to optimize the development of hundreds of wind turbines in a subsequent project potentially large enough to power 700,000 homes. The big hurdle is persuading the State Corporation Commission that such a massive investment would constitute an acceptable trade-off between cost, reliability and environmental goals.

David Carr, general counsel for the Southern Environmental Law Center, provided an overview of Dominion’s offshore wind initiatives. Dominion solicited bids to build a two experimental turbines off the Virginia coast. (The turbines would test an unproven hurricane-resilient design and a new turbine foundation.) The original plan was to seek SCC approval in 2015, said Carr, but the low bid of $375 million to build the two turbines far exceeded the original estimate of $230 million. Dominion has restructured the contract by breaking it into four components in the hope of stimulating more competitive bidding and reducing the risk premiums bidders build into their offers. The new goal is to file with the SCC by June 2016.

Hayes Framme, advisor for infrastructure and development with the Secretariat of Commerce and Trade, said the McAuliffe administration played a key role in moving the Dominion’s experimental-turbines project forward by negotiating a complex lease with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and other federal agencies to lease the ocean bottom where the turbines would be located. “Without this lease,” he said, “we would not be able to get these turbines in.”

An offshore wind farm would advance two McAuliffe administration goals: increasing the state’s commitment to renewable energy and also promoting economic development. A study completed this summer found that Virginia is “uniquely positioned” to house “at least a portion, if not most, of the supply chain” supporting an East Coast offshore wind industry, Framme said. Virginia ports are located in the Mid-Atlantic, providing convenient access to projects to the north and south, and it has a large existing ship-repair infrastructure.

“Having a commercial deployment off Virginia’s coast sends a signal that we are serious,” Framme said. “If we don’t lay the foundation now, it will be more difficult for us to take advantage of that opportunity when it does come.”

Virginia’s projects are not sufficiently large by themselves to coax the offshore wind supply chain to bolster its U.S. presence. That will take commitments from multiple states. Fortunately, that commitment seems to be forthcoming, said Stephanie McClellan, director of a special initiative on offshore wind housed at the University of Delaware. The states of New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine and Maryland all are actively exploring offshore wind opportunities. The state of New York has set a goal of 50% renewables by 2030, while New York City has established a goal of 100% renewables for electricity consumed by municipal operations.

To build a supporting infrastructure for offshore wind, said McClellan, eastern U.S. states need to provide market visibility and revenue certainty for a volume of projects over time, as well as more data on site-specific conditions such as wind speeds and wave size. The cost of wind power dropped “precipitously” in Europe as the industry gained scale; it will do so in the U.S. as well, she said.

Bacon’s bottom line: I posed one question to the presenters: Given the intermittent nature of wind production, has anyone studied the impact of a massive wind farm on the reliability of Virginia’s electric grid? The short answer: No. However, presenters noted that European countries have integrated large off-shore wind projects into their power grids, and PJM Interconnection, the group that ensures grid reliability in the Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwest, including Virginia, has looked into the issue.

Update: Regarding the impact of massive off-shore wind power on the electric grid… a Dominion planning department study published in 2010 concluded, “It is possible to interconnect large scale wind generation facilities up to a total installed capability of 4500 MW with the existing transmission system in the Virginia Beach area.  The study also indicates that when the actual output of the wind farm or farms approaches 2700 MW, there are greater probabilities that the output will have to be limited due to transmission constraints unless transmission infrastructure improvement are made.” Those improvements could cost between $30 million and $70 million.

Wind Power's Big Problem: Erratic Output

Source: PJM Interconnection

Wind forecast and output across the PJM system on Sept. 3, 2015. Source: PJM Interconnection

The great thing about wind power is that the fuel is free. The bad thing about wind power is that you can’t count on getting it when you want it. Wind power may be an economically competitive source of electric power in parts of the country, like the plains states, where wind is strong and steady, but it’s not so competitive where its output is intermittent.

Yesterday afternoon, I captured this image from the PJM Interconnection website, which shows the fluctuations in wind generation compared to forecasts over 24 hours. (Both Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power Co. are integrated in the PJM regional grid.) Here is the explanation that PJM provides:

Because wind is an intermittent resource, it requires its own forecasting and monitoring methods to plan for its reliability. This graphic chart displays both instantaneous power (in megawatts) being produced and forecasted power for every five minutes. It is updated hourly. The data is measured at each wind farm every minute and then is aggregated for this tool. Dispatchers use this display to monitor trends in wind power production.

The fact that PJM’s service territory spans parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia helps even out the power output. Local fluctuations sometimes cancel each other out. Even so, wind output varied from roughly 200 megawatts to 1,600 megawatts over the 24-hour period. In this particular day, wind turbines were cranking out the energy when it was needed least, during the night, and took a steep dive in the late morning when electricity demand was high and rising.

If wind power can’t be relied upon to produce electricity when needed, or at the very least on a predictable basis, the electric grid needs substantial backup capacity, maintained at great expense, to fill in the gaps. That’s why, over and above the local Not In My Back Yard resistance to wind farms, on-shore wind power doesn’t make much sense in Virginia. Even if Virginia wind power can crank out electricity competitively on a stand-alone basis, measured by the cost per kilowatt hour, basis, that’s not especially helpful to an integrated grid designed for system-wide reliability.

Solar energy is a very different story, as I will explain later today. Solar is intermittent as well, but it is intermittent within narrower parameters than wind. Solar plants generate zero electricity during the night, when electricity demand is lowest, and they reach maximum capacity during the afternoon, which coincides with peak electricity demand. My sense is that solar will play a much bigger role in Virginia’s energy future than wind.

— JAB

(Hat tip: TomH)

Wind Power’s Big Problem: Erratic Output

Source: PJM Interconnection

Wind forecast and output across the PJM system on Sept. 3, 2015. Source: PJM Interconnection

The great thing about wind power is that the fuel is free. The bad thing about wind power is that you can’t count on getting it when you want it. Wind power may be an economically competitive source of electric power in parts of the country, like the plains states, where wind is strong and steady, but it’s not so competitive where its output is intermittent.

Yesterday afternoon, I captured this image from the PJM Interconnection website, which shows the fluctuations in wind generation compared to forecasts over 24 hours. (Both Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power Co. are integrated in the PJM regional grid.) Here is the explanation that PJM provides:

Because wind is an intermittent resource, it requires its own forecasting and monitoring methods to plan for its reliability. This graphic chart displays both instantaneous power (in megawatts) being produced and forecasted power for every five minutes. It is updated hourly. The data is measured at each wind farm every minute and then is aggregated for this tool. Dispatchers use this display to monitor trends in wind power production.

The fact that PJM’s service territory spans parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia helps even out the power output. Local fluctuations sometimes cancel each other out. Even so, wind output varied from roughly 200 megawatts to 1,600 megawatts over the 24-hour period. In this particular day, wind turbines were cranking out the energy when it was needed least, during the night, and took a steep dive in the late morning when electricity demand was high and rising.

If wind power can’t be relied upon to produce electricity when needed, or at the very least on a predictable basis, the electric grid needs substantial backup capacity, maintained at great expense, to fill in the gaps. That’s why, over and above the local Not In My Back Yard resistance to wind farms, on-shore wind power doesn’t make much sense in Virginia. Even if Virginia wind power can crank out electricity competitively on a stand-alone basis, measured by the cost per kilowatt hour, basis, that’s not especially helpful to an integrated grid designed for system-wide reliability.

Solar energy is a very different story, as I will explain later today. Solar is intermittent as well, but it is intermittent within narrower parameters than wind. Solar plants generate zero electricity during the night, when electricity demand is lowest, and they reach maximum capacity during the afternoon, which coincides with peak electricity demand. My sense is that solar will play a much bigger role in Virginia’s energy future than wind.

— JAB

(Hat tip: TomH)

Why Doesn't Virginia Have More Wind Power?

Map credit: National Renewable Energy Lab

Map credit: National Renewable Energy Lab

Why hasn’t Virginia made more progress in generating energy from wind power? This map from the National Renewable Energy Lab highlights the problems we face. Unlike the plains states, where almost every square mile is wind blown, Virginia has few suitable locations. Wind power is practical only offshore and on scattered mountain ridges.

Putting windmills on mountaintop ridges poses a problem because it disrupts viewsheds. Every mountain-ridge wind project proposed in Virginia has generated opposition from the surrounding population. In several instances, local governing bodies have used their zoning powers to thwart the projects. Of the half-dozen wind farms proposed over the past decade, not one has been built. As long as (a) people believe they have a right to exercise veto power over land uses for aesthetic reasons, such as protecting viewsheds, and (b) local governments have the power to restrict land uses based upon aesthetic impact, wind power projects likely will be blocked at the local level.

Building wind power projects off-shore avoids the viewshed issue because  turbines can be placed far enough at sea that they won’t be visible from the shore. However, offshore wind power on the East Coast of the U.S. faces a chicken-or-egg problem. Wind power is incredibly expensive because the supporting maritime infrastructure is not available on the East Coast; specialized ships and equipment must be brought in from Europe at great cost. But the wind-power industry is not willing to invest in establishing an East Coast presence until there is sufficient volume of business to support it.

It might be possible to overcome the chicken-or-egg problem if enough players committed to enough wind projects within a relatively narrow time frame to make it financially worthwhile for the wind industry to make that commitment. So far, no one has undertaken such an effort. Offshore wind initiatives remain frustratingly piecemeal.

Perhaps one thing the McAuliffe administration could do to advance wind power in Virginia and the East Coast would be to convene a meeting of every East Coast state with an interest in wind power along with major wind industry players to build the necessary critical mass. Hampton Roads, with its large existing shipbuilding fabrication industry and central East Coast location, is the logical location for the wind industry to be situated. We have the most to gain, so we should take the lead.

— JAB