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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Reporting from WINDPOWER 2007 - Wind Energy Industry Sets Bold Vision for Growth

Wind to Supply 20% of Nation's Electricity by 2030, says AWEA and industry leaders

[I am currently attending the American Wind Energy Association's (AWEA) WINDPOWER 2007 Conference, the wind energy industry's annual trade conference, in Los Angeles, CA. The conference is wrapping up today, and this is the first of a series of posts discussing the conference proceedings...]

The American Wind Energy Association's WINDPOWER 2007 conference is in full swing this week with conference attendance - the largest ever at nearly 7,000 attendees - providing clear evidence of the size and strength of the rapidly growing wind energy industry.

At the conference, which kicked off Sunday, June 3rd at the Los Angeles Convention Center, AWEA and industry leaders outlined a bold new vision for the wind energy industry: wind energy will provide 20% of the United States' electricity needs by 2030.

The 20% Vision was the general theme of this year's conference, the largest ever. Several panels and plenary sessions dealt with various aspects of what it would take to make this vision a reality.

AWEA Executive Director Randall Swisher set the stage for the conference's theme, sharing the industry’s 20% Vision at the conference's opening plenary Monday morning — an initiative that the industry, AWEA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and other stakeholders spent the last year working on after first unveiling it at WINDPOWER 2006 in Pittsburgh, Pa.

“That’s a bold vision. It’s not a forecast, but it’s a plausible scenario,” said Swisher. “It requires a transformation of the industry.”

Swisher underscored the challenges of achieving such a vision and many of these challenges were the focus of panel discussions that followed over the next several days.

The 20% Vision would involve installing over 300 gigawatts (GW) of wind energy in the United States by 2030, AWEA estimates. Installed wind energy capacity in the United States is currently around 11,700 MW (11.7 GW), nearly 2,500 MW of which was installed in 2006. The panelists estimated that the wind industry would need to grow to the point where 15-20 GW of wind power is installed annually by the 2020s in order to achieve the 20% Vision's goal.

In order to reach the 20% benchmark Swisher and others highlighted the following two major challenges that the wind energy industry will need to address and overcome:

  • Policy Support: securing long-term, stable public policy support at a federal level will be key to achieving anything close to a 20% market penetration rate. AWEA and industry leaders have been focusing on two key pieces of federal legislation: a long-term extension of the the federal production tax credit (PTC) and a federal renewable portfolio standard (RPS).

    Opening plenary speakers, including former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, argued that these two policies are needed to be long-term and stable, enabling the industry’s value chain to be augmented and made more efficient.

    Congress will likely vote on both a long-term PTC extension and a 15-20% federal RPS in the next two months and perhaps as soon as the next couple of weeks.

  • Transmission: A 20% level of wind penetration, which would mean installing over 300 GW in capacity, also requires building the necessary transmission infrastructure to carry wind power from wind-rich areas, often located far from populated areas in the American West and Mid-west, to load centers - i.e. cities and populated areas. Transmission constraints were a frequent topic of discussion at the conference and several panels focused on what it will take to build the necessary transmission infrastructure to support a major build out of wind energy in the United States.

    As part of the 20% initiative, American Electric Power developed a map of what a major nationwide network of high-voltage transmission lines - renewable energy 'superhighways', as one panel presenter put it - might look like with 20% wind penetration. A national 'backbone' network of high-voltage (500 kV and higher) transmission lines would enable large amounts of power to flow from wind rich areas to populated areas, allowing the wind industry to tap the nation's best wind resources, currently stranded too far from existing transmission infrastructure and/or population centers.

    The cost to build such an infrastructure would be roughly $60 billion, AEP concluded. It's worth noting that regardless of the role wind plays, the nation’s transmission infrastructure is in need of major upgrade due to both growing energy demand and a dearth of recent investment in the nation's transmission infrastructure.

  • I will take up both of these topics at greater detail in subsequent posts. These two issues - long-term, stable policy support and major investments in transmission infrastructure - were the two main 'take-home' issues from WINDPOWER 2007.

    Panel speakers discussed several other challenges to the 20% wind vision.

    Swisher said that for wind to realize its potential, geographically large electricity markets and regional transmission organizations such as the PJM Interconnection or Regional Transmission Operators (RTOs) would need to be the norm, thus maximizing wind’s strengths while minimizing its variable nature. Larger control areas and regional markets would minimize the effect of wind's intermittent nature on grid reliability and lower costs of wind integration.

    Other challenges mentioned by Swisher and other conference panelists include the need to streamline the siting and permitting processes. The industry, various panelists mentioned, needs to find a way to streamline and standardize the current siting and permitting regime - which includes dozens of different processes that very on a state-by-state and even county-by-county basis - in order to effectively site and permit projects at the pace required to meet the 20% Vision's goal, which will likely require 15-20 GW of wind power installed annually.

    In order to speed siting without sacrificing environmental protection, several panelists, including Julia Levin of the National Audubon Society, urged the industry to adopt strict and proactive industry best practices when it comes to siting and wildlife impacts mitigation. Strong self-regulation could establish a precedent that wind development can have minimal environmental impacts and would reduce the need for stringent environmental permitting regulations.

    The conference was frequently abuzz with news about the Rahall Amendment to the upcoming House Energy Package that would have imposed what the wind industry argues are draconian environmental permitting requirements on wind development and even threatens wind developers and operators with jail time for violations. The amendment, proposed by Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, released a substitute amendment yesterday that would remove much of the contentious provisions. The amendment will be considered at a mark-up committee today.

    (It's worth noting that Congressman Rahall, who hails from coal-rich West Virginia, has never been regarded as a friend of wildlife and no major environmental organizations were consulted about the amendment. National Audubon Society, NRDC and other wildlife champions have supported responsibly sited wind power development as a way to combat global warming and it's impact on wildlife and neither organization supports the Rahall Amendment)

    Expanding the wind energy industry to provide 20% of the nation's electricity supply by 2030 would clearly involve a tremendous economic boom for the United States. Senator Daschle said the wind industry has the potential to have the “same economic impact as the dot-com revolution.”

    Realizing the 20% Vision would also have significant impacts on the United States' greenhouse gas emissions. Several panelists pointed out that wind power is one of only a few existing, scalable carbon-free energy resources available to tackle the global warming imperative.

    Steven Chalk, deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency at the U.S. Department of Energy, said it is imperative that the nation scale up in wind power and other renewables. “Energy efficiency [alone] is not going to get us to our goals,” he said.

    The opening plenary panel consensus was that, as Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council, said, “Climate change will increasingly be the determining factor” in terms of policy affecting wind energy.

    The public is coming to understand the necessity of addressing global warming and the importance of renewables, panelists said; however the industry needs to do even more in communicating this message, they argued. “I think one of our priorities has to be to make this case to the public,” said Robert Lukefahr, president, Power Americas at BP Alternative Energy.

    The WINDPOWER 2007 conference's size and theme both indicate that the wind energy industry is no longer an "alternative energy" source, but is rather a mainstream industry poised to become a major contributor to U.S. electricity generation. There will still be challenges and growing pains ahead, but the U.S. wind industry is forging ahead to generate a significant share of U.S. electricity. The 20% by 2030 Vision will help the industry focus on overcoming these challenges and achieving industry goals.

    AWEA and other partners will be publishing a 20% Vision roadmap report in the coming months.

    [A hat tip to Carl Levesque of AWEA for his reporting from the conference.]

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