Documentary Tracks the Pros and Cons of Wind Energy

The one-hour program focuses on the pros and cons of wind energy

19 August 2011

Although wind farms are sprouting in Denmark, Germany, India, the United States, and other countries, many people still don’t understand the importance that wind power is likely to play as an energy source for their homes. Wind power continues to lead the renewable electricity sector worldwide, with more new capacity installed last year than for any other technology. To help educate the public, the IEEE Future Directions Group produced the documentary Winds of Change.


The one-hour documentary, which originally aired in April on U.S. public television, is now available on IEEE.tv. The program traces the history of wind energy from its earliest days of a solitary windmill to today’s wind farms covering many acres that produce hundreds of megawatts of power. Viewers can watch the documentary in its entirety or as a six-part series, with segments ranging from 7 to 12 minutes. Experts weigh in on public policy, the economics of wind energy, and infrastructure concerns.


LOCAL SUPPORT

Wind farms aren’t always installed where the wind blows hardest. Often their placement has more to do with public policies that support their existence, according to Debashish Majumdar, chairman and managing director of the India Renewable Energy Development Agency. “What is more important than even the wind resource itself,” Majumdar says, “is the local policy environment.”


The governments of Denmark and Germany, for example, use incentives such as feed-in tariffs, under which the power company pays for energy that wind farms send to the power grid. The tariffs are designed to accelerate investment in renewable-energy technologies by offering long-term contracts to energy producers, typically based on a technology’s cost of generation. For example, wind power is generally awarded a lower per-kilowatt-hour price than are the more expensive solar photovoltaics.


“In general, economists don’t like feed-in tariffs because they give a fixed subsidy to any producer, be it a good one or bad one,” says Christian von Hirschhausen, an economist in Berlin. He says a better option is offering renewable, tradable certificates, which have been tried in the United Kingdom but have not worked. “So you have one system that is theoretically optimal, but the other one works,” von Hirschhausen says. “Politicians like things that work, so Germany has opted for the feed-in tariffs.”


A tradable renewable certificate, also known as a renewable energy certificate, confirms that 1 megawatt-hour of electricity was generated from an eligible renewable energy source such as wind. The certificates can be sold or traded, and their owner can claim to have purchased renewable energy.


Another option for encouraging the development of renewable energy is the cap-and-trade approach. It involves imposing an overall limit on carbon emissions in, say, a country, that is achieved by permitting organizations to buy and sell carbon allowances. Eventually, it is hoped that companies emitting carbon will opt to install more efficient equipment rather than pay for allowances, whose prices rise as the cap on emissions decreases with time.


A related approach is mandating the increased production of energy from renewable sources. For example, a country or state might set a renewable standard that requires 15 percent of all electric power to come from such sources. Known as a renewable portfolio standard, this method generally places an obligation on utilities to produce a portion of their electricity from renewable sources. Certified renewable energy generators earn certificates for every unit of electricity they produce and can sell them along with their electricity to utilities. The utilities then pass the certificates to some form of regulatory body to demonstrate their compliance with the standard. Renewable portfolio programs are successfully being used in Belgium, Chile, Italy, the United Kingdom, and some parts of the United States.



ECONOMIC ADVANTAGES
The economic climate for wind power is typically determined by the costs associated with competing sources of energy. When natural gas prices go down, for example, wind power loses ground. But don’t be fooled by the current low cost of coal and natural gas, says Carol Tombari, manager of stakeholder relations for the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in Golden, Colo.


“Electric utilities are experts in providing electricity to us, and have a done a very good job of locking in long-term fixed-price contracts for their generating fuels, like coal and nature gas, but the cost of these are going nowhere but up,” Tombari notes. “When those contracts have to be renewed, the consumer is going to feel a horrible sticker shock because the cost of even coal—which we think of as abundant and affordable—is not going to be affordable in the future due to the laws of supply and demand.”


Coal and nuclear industries have another advantage over renewables: billions of dollars of government subsidies.


“[The subsidies] are hidden,” Tombari says. “These industries get special tax treatments and special accounting treatments. We need public policies to jump-start the markets for emerging technologies, because they will become cheaper in the future than conventional fuels.”



TRANSMISSION TROUBLES

A key to the success of wind power is improving the infrastructure for transmitting the energy generated by the wind turbines.


Being connected to the grid is an essential part of a wind farm, says Richard S. Dovey, president of the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, in Atlantic City, N.J. “Most wind farms are in the middle of nowhere and have to be connected to the power system,” Dovey says. “It costs about US $1 million a mile to connect them.”


Two hurdles stand out when it comes to integrating wind into the grid: wind’s variability and long-distance transmission of its energy to where it’s needed, according to Walt Musial, principal engineer at NREL’s National Wind Technology Center in Golden, Colo.


“Wind doesn’t blow all the time, so we have to get the wind onto the grid when it’s blowing,” Musial says “The other issue is that wind is typically generated in remote areas, where it’s not real close to the load centers. To bring it to where the energy is going to get used we need transmission, and transmission is one of the biggest issues we’re facing today.


“We are not short of sites to put wind turbines,” he continues. “We are short of transmission lines and the infrastructure to bring the wind energy to the cities and the places where the energy is used. To do that, we need a grid infrastructure that is different than what we have today.”


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