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Is wind power strong enough to overcome problems?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 28, 2009 - Critics often point to what they see as three weaknesses of wind power: reliability, transmission-line problems and cost to ratepayers.

"Wind power is intermittent," said Fredrick Palmer, senior vice president of government relations for Peabody Energy and chair of Coal Policy Committee of the National Coal Council, speaking to a meeting of journalists in Roanoke, Va., in October. "It's an energy option that doesn't meet the demand of customers that flip the light switch."

In other words, if you're going to rely on wind power, what happens when the wind isn't blowing? How will that produce electricity that customers rely on 24-7?

Electric utility companies used to be concerned about "dealing with the variability and uncertainty" of power generation at wind and other renewable-energy plants - "until recently," the DOE report said.

"But utility engineers in some parts of the United States now have extensive experience with wind plant impacts" on the supply of electric power available to consumers, the report said, "and their analyses of these impacts have helped to reduce these concerns."

In a report on its website, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a public-interest group, said variability of wind is not "a fatal problem." It's important to remember that wind power will only be part of the mix of technologies generating electricity that feeds international, regional and local electric-power distribution systems.

Those systems can absorb "changes in consumer demand or even the failure of a large power plant or transmission line," the report explained. "Other generators, like gas or hydroelectric turbines, 'follow the load,' matching power generation to demand from second to second."

Transmission Problems

Experts on both sides of the debate acknowledge that the U.S.transmission-line infrastructure is insufficient to carry power from remote wind farms, known as "high-resource areas," to consumers in big cities, known as "high-demand centers." Many point out that that infrastructure currently is insufficient even for traditional power-generation technologies.

But the Obama administration's energy policy includes beefing up the U.S. transmission infrastructure, including pieces that connect to wind-power resources. The DOE report said this would help utilities access "the best wind resource regions of the country" but also relieve "current congestion on the grid" from all power sources.

Many in the coal and utility industries maintain that the cost of producing electricity from wind is too high.

That may be true for small wind turbines built to power homes and agricultural farms of small landowners, but not for tall, utility-scale wind farms, experts say. The DOE report said the cost of generating power from large wind farms is now 5 to 8 cents per kilowatt-hour - down from 80 cents in 1980 in current dollars.

Zoltek Corp., in a statement on its website, said the cost of generating electricity from wind "is already on par with the cost of producing electricity from fossil fuels, such as coal."

An October (2008) report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a unit of the DOE, concluded that rates for electricity from wind plants being installed today are comparable to wholesale electric power prices of 2.5 to 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

"The incremental cost of wind power, if any, will be negligible when distributed among all customers," the report said. Other experts point out that the cost of coal-fired power production is likely to rise as government restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions tighten.

Wind-power critics also argue that wind and other renewable energy options depend on government subsidies. But that point is moot, if not laughable, renewable energy advocates say. That's because the government has long subsidized the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries.

Said Logan Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment: "If we stopped subsidizing fossil fuels and nukes, renewables would win out instantly."

Advocates note that some states provide financial incentives, such as tax credits, to encourage wind-power development.Missouri is not one of them.

Windy Northwest

The renewable energy lab's October report showed current wind-power generating capacity as 1,655 megawatts in Iowa, 915in Illinois and 163 in Missouri.

But the winds of Missouri's far northwest are driving a steady rise in the state's capacity. Mainly that's occurring in Atchison, Gentry and Nodaway counties.

Wind Capital, which was founded in 2005 by Tom Carnahan, son of the late Gov.Mel and former Sen. Jean Carnahan, is building wind farms in16 states. Its Bluegrass Ridge Wind Farm, near King City, was the first utility-scale wind energy generation facility in Missouri. Construction was completed in 2007.

The three other Wind Capital farms include Cow Branch and Loess Hills, both in Atchison County and managed by Eric Chamberlain. The latter two were financed by John Deere & Co.

Loess Hills, which opened in April, consists of four turbines set atop the Missouri River bluffs just east of I-29 in Rock Port. This 5-megawatt wind farm has achieved an international reputation because it supplies the town's 800 residential and business meters in the Rock Port utility system with the energy they need plus some extra - on an annual basis.

That means even though on calm days the wind farm produces no energy crop, overall it produces more than is used by Rock Port. At low-generation times the town seamlessly imports energy from other sources connected to the distribution system, just as it exports energy at peak-generation times.

"This is the first community in the nation that generates more energy than it consumes," Chamberlain said. This claim has attracted TV crews from as far away as Japan.

But what Chamberlain likes more is that local workers are among those hired to build, operate and maintain wind farms in the economically depressed northwest.

"It's bringing new jobs to rural areas and new tax revenue to cities and counties," Chamberlain said.

How wind energy works

To read about the history of wind power, the mechanics of wind turbines and more, visit the Union of Concerned Scientists website on "How Wind Energy Works" .

William Allen teaches science journalism at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He reported on science, medicine and the environment for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989-2002.

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