3:25pm

Thu October 14, 2010
Reinventing the Windmill

Answers to your wind power questions

Your answers are in!  Many of our readers called or wrote in with questions during our Innovation Conversation earlier this week.  Our guest, Carol Murphy of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York took a few moments to respond to the questions from her perspective.  Big thanks go to Carol for agreeing to take your follow-up questions.

Want more still?  Continue to send your questions to innovationtrail@wxxi.org (use the subject line "wind question"), tweet them to us @innovationtrail, or pose them on Facebook.  We'll pass them on to an expert and get you the answer on the blog.

Shirley Dittman on Facebook wrote in with a concern about the environment, and turbines in the Great Lakes: 

"Wind Turbines (not Windmills) have never been done in fresh water. Why put in hundreds of these without making sure they actually work and do not mess up our drinking water? So much money for such little supplemental energy worries me." 

Can you respond to the concern about the investment and return, as well as the placement of turbines in fresh water?

Carol writes: Wind energy is a proven technology on land and offshore in Europe. Placing turbines in the Great lakes will be a challenging endeavor but one we are confident can be accomplished. In addition, wind project development in the Great Lakes, as elsewhere, will be subject to mandated studies and close scrutiny by multiple state and federal agencies during both the permitting and construction phases. We do not understand the concern over drinking water given the many potentially polluting activities on and near the lakes now, including non-renewable energy production, boating and industrial activities. We believe wind energy can contribute to bettering our environment by offsetting polluting fossil fuel plants and contributing to economic development of host communities.

From Denise LaRossa, by email, in Irondequoit: 

"Several towns and many individuals along Lake Ontario have voiced their opposition to the NY State Power proposal to locate wind turbines in Lake Ontario. How can they be so quick to oppose a project about which so few details are yet known? All energy will come at a cost, and the cost of our dependence on fossil fuels has been disastrous for the environment as well as national and global security. Our house is a short walk from Lake Ontario, but it is time for people to open their minds and give wind power a chance to succeed."

Carol writes: Thank you for your support for clean energy alternatives, including wind energy. We agree that changes in how we produce and use energy are long overdue. Clean energy sources, including wind, help to lower emissions and combat climate change while increasing energy security and providing economic development opportunities.

Dave Bell says via email that he doesn't see how wind power could ever serve more than a supplemental role, since there isn't any windpower when the wind doesn't blow.  He prefers hydropower or nuclear,since they provide constant energy.  He asks:

"Can we taxpayers afford the cost of subsidies (our tax dollars) for supplemental energy?  Wind turbines only enrich wind turbine developers.  They install and service off shore turbines with highly specialized teams from elsewhere, providing few local jobs.  Also, this can be confirmed by companies who build and maintain these offshore sites."

Carol writes: It is true that wind energy is variable because the wind does not always blow at the same speed. However, energy use - called “load” - also varies constantly. The manager of the electric system, which in New York is the New York Independent System Operator or NYISO, and the utilities must constantly respond to the changes in load with changes in output from generators. Numerous studies and real world experience has shown that wind energy can easily be incorporated into electric grid operations. In New York, one tool used to help grid operators is a wind forecasting system, which provides the power grid operators with an advance estimate of how much wind energy to expect. When large amounts of wind energy are on the system, say over 25% of generation, some adjustments to operations may be necessary. New York currently has 1, 275 megawatts of wind on line. The NYISO recently completed a study of what would occur with up to 8,000 megawatts of wind on the system and found it could be integrated without reliability concerns. Other states and countries have substantially higher penetration levels of wind energy and are able to safely and securely meet energy demand. Also, in response to Mr. Bell, hydropower and nuclear power also have their own particular generation profiles. Hydropower does fluctuate based on the levels of water flow available (and competing needs for that flow) and when nuclear power stations are forced offline for maintenance or for grid problems (such as a blackout as occurred throughout New York in 2003), they take days to be fully back on line whereas wind plants can be up and running almost immediately (providing there is wind!).  All energy sources have their challenges, but grid operators have found integrating wind energy to be completely manageable with the proper rules and systems in place. More information on integrating wind energy into delivery systems can be found here.

Wind energy is not supplemental but does offset energy from other sources. The subsidies provided to renewable energy are substantially less than those going to fossil fuels, which are adversely impacting our environment. For a brief description of a study documenting energy subsidies and an excellent graphic comparing the level of subsidies for fossil fuels versus renewables, please see here.

We believe that clean energy technologies do provide many economic benefits to host communities, including payments in lieu of taxes, land lease payments as well as direct and indirect jobs. Reports on New York’s renewable energy support program, the Renewable Portfolio Standard, documented the myriad benefits New Yorkers are receiving. Please see the 2009 evaluation reports on NYSERDA’s website here.

Charles Zabinski, from LeRoy, NY, asks about small wind generation like the type that WindTamer out in Geneseo, NY, which produces a turbine that claims to increase the speed of air as it enters the funnel that houses the turbine.  He asks for your thoughts about the company and/or the technology.

Carol writes: ACE NY does not offer advice on particular brands of small turbines. We advocate on behalf of clean energy technologies in general. However, in New York State we are lucky to have the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) administering state programs that support installation of on-site renewable generation. NYSERDA’s on-site wind program provides rebates to customers installing turbines and maintains a list of turbines eligible for the program. In addition, there is now a small wind turbine certification organization. For additional information, please see the organization’s web site.

Dave Bradley from Buffalo writes in by email to say that he favors Ontario’s Green Energy Act, which creates a “feed-in tariff” for wind power, and steadies the price of wind.  Dave asks why the changing cost of fossil fuels affects the cost of wind power (through electricity hedges). Can you explain to readers what a feed-in tariff is, how it works, and if it would work in New York?

Carol writes: Feed-in-tariffs have been used successfully in Europe to stimulate investment in renewable energy systems. A feed-in-tariff basically requires utilities to purchase all generation from an eligible system at a set price. The eligible systems are usually clean energy generators such as wind and solar systems and the price is usually set at a level high enough to ensure a rapid return on the investment made to install the system. We do not support the use of a feed-in-tariff in New York at this time for two main reasons. First, we do not believe it is politically feasible to establish a feed-in-tariff in New York, because of New York’s past experience with a similar law, the “6 cents law” which was repealed in 1992 by the Legislature.

Secondly, even where one could be useful, we believe it is possible to use more competitive processes and other support programs to build renewables at the least cost to consumers. We believe a well-implemented Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) and additional requirements for procurement of certain resources such as solar power, can be used to stimulate investment in renewables without the use of a feed-in-tariff per se.

The cost of fossil fuels can impact the cost of wind power in a number of ways, including raising the cost of wind turbines and project development and lowering the amount paid for the energy that is generated.  Since fossil fuels are still the primary fuel used worldwide, the cost of fossil fuel impacts the prices of turbines and other components, especially steel. The higher the price for industries to operate, the higher the price of the commodities they produce. On the other hand, when fossil fuel prices fall (and natural gas prices are low right now), it is harder to finance construction of a wind farm in New York because the price that the plant will receive for its output once built will be lower than if fossil fuel prices are high. Generators in New York participate in a competitive wholesale market. Generators “bid” into the market by stating what price they need to receive to generate and the market takes the suppliers from lowest to highest price until demand is met with all suppliers used receiving the highest bid price. So wind generators will only get as much as the highest price resource needed to meet demand. 

Twitter user LitchfieldWind (an account associated with a group that supports wind power in a town that’s currently having a debate about the issue, southeast of Utica) asks about Nina Pierpont’s studies about what she calls “wind turbine syndrome."  They want to know whether or not her recommendations about turbine setback from homes ought to be heeded as towns make decisions about siting turbines.  The concern from LitchfieldWind is that Pierpont's work isn’t scientific.

Carol writes: We agree that Nina Pierpont’s work should not be used as a basis for determining project approvals. We believe that setbacks need to be determined on a case-by-case basis and need to be reasonable to ensure safety and security and community needs while still enabling project development given the imperative of increasing our reliance on renewable energy to combat climate change and increase energy security. We do not take a position on any given setback distances since the density of population and the specifics of each wind farm site vary.

To our knowledge, Nina Pierpont’s work was self-published and has not appeared in any scientifically credible and peer-reviewed journal. Wind turbines have been in operation for many years in many parts of the world and contribute substantial amounts of energy (in greater percentages of total energy use than in the United States) in densely populated countries such as Germany and Spain apparently without widespread harmful health effects.

Other countries, the UK and Canada, have studied the so-called wind turbine syndrome and not found any health issues associated with wind turbines and a joint US/Canada independent health expert review in 2009 came to the same conclusion.

Twitter user nateattard had several questions.  First, he notes that we talk a lot about generating more power - but what about conservation?  What role does that play in New York's energy future? To accomplish conservation, nateattard suggests heavily taxing electricity generated by fossil fuels.  Could that be a part of cleaning up our act, emissions-wise, in New York?

Carol writes: We agree that the cleanest and most cost effective energy source is energy not used! We support energy efficiency and demand response programs that reduce energy consumption. In New York, we supported adoption of a statewide energy efficiency program that is now up and running, operated jointly by NYSERDA and the regulated utilities under the auspices of the state’s Public Service Commission. The program is funded by a small surcharge on electricity bills. The goal of the program (the Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard) is to reduce energy use 15% by 2015 (i.e., reduce consumption to 15% below what it otherwise would be). NYSERDA and the utilities have a suite of programs ranging from rebates for customers replacing old, inefficient appliances with new ones, to whole house energy audits and upgrades, to assistance to business and industry with reducing energy use in their daily operations. With regard to taxes on fossil fuel generation, we do not believe that has been seriously raised as an option in New York. It would be more appropriately addressed at the federal level. However, New York was a leader in developing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI – pronounced “Reggie”), which is a multi-state program requiring fossil fuel generators to purchase allowances to emit carbon dioxide with the funds collected used to support energy efficiency and renewable energy development. For more information, please see here, here and here.: 

Peter King called from Syracuse. He wanted to emphasize that energy planning should be the point, and that there needs to be a comprehensive approach that uses conservation, wind, hydrofracking, etc.  Is this sort of planning happening in New York, and if so, who's doing it and how can citizens get involved?

Carol writes: ACE NY agrees that state energy planning is essential. Our state law requiring energy planning, along with a state law providing for a “one-stop shop” for permitting of new generation expired in January 2003. We have long advocated for a reinstatement of both of these laws and will continue to do so in the coming legislative session.

In the absence of such a law, in 2008 Governor Paterson did issue an Executive Order for a development of a State Energy Plan, which was published in 2009. The plan can be found here. The state’s programs in support of renewable energy and energy efficiency should be seen as the basis of energy planning in New York, however, any plan is only as good as the implementation. Clearly, we can and should be doing more to ensure we have a stable-priced, secure and environmentally friendly energy supply.

Jim Carrol from Lyons, NY called and wanted to ask about pursuing small scale wind power on his property. He wants to know if there are any incentives for installing wind that aren't tax-based.

Carol writes: In New York, there is a state program to help you pay for the cost of installing a turbine. The state provides a rebate for part of the cost of the turbine, based on estimated energy output. Whether or not the economics of installing one works for you (i.e., there will be an upfront cost to you that you will recover via lower energy bills) is a matter for you to decide in conjunction with estimates from wind turbine installers.  The program is run by NYSERDA and you can get information on how it works on the NYSERDA website, which also provides a list of installers that are eligible to apply for the cost share program. You should contact installers that work in your county (use this map) and ask them for assistance in determining if you have an appropriate location and if it would make economic sense.

Murphy's answers have not be edited, except to embed the links that she provided to us.  Your questions may have been shortened or paraphrased, or we may have used your comments to articulate a related question.  Direct questions are given in quotes.  Want to comment on this post?  Visit our Facebook page.