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United States

Big vision on a small budget with high hopes

For all the media attention and hype that accompanied the launch of Wind Powering America last year there is precious little behind the government's initiative. But as a vehicle for raising awareness of wind it could bring results, especially if enough government facilities choose wind produced electricity to reach a 1000 MW goal

When the US government launched Wind Powering America a little over nine months ago, it was with great fanfare. The plan, also known by its acronym WPA, was unveiled first in an exclusive to the New York Times, where it ran as the lead article on one of the news pages. Then the next day, June 21, it was announced more formally at the American Wind Energy Association's annual conference in Burlington, Vermont. The central goal of WPA is an aggressive goal -- that America should get 5% of its electricity from wind by 2020.

More specifically, WPA calls for 5000 MW of wind on-line by 2005, and 10,000-plus MW by 2010, a date by which the Department of Energy (DOE) had previously said it wants 25,000 MW of non-hydro renewables on-line. By 2020, there will be 80,000 MW on-line to achieve the main goals of the DOE initiative. Two more goals, in addition to the 2005 and 2010 benchmarks, have a strong regional element: the number of states with more than 20 MW installed is to be doubled to 16 by 2005 and tripled to 24 by 2010. Lastly, wind's contribution to the electricity use of the federal government will be upped to 5% within a decade, the equivalent of 1000 MW of installed wind.

"The initiative will achieve these goals by building on current and future public and private sector efforts to support the development of wind power," says the introduction to the plan. "The time has come for wind to take its place as one of the preferred electricity supply options." The US has just under 2500 MW of installed wind capacity, almost one-third of which came on-line in the rush before the temporary ending of wind's federal production tax credit in June 1999.

At the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) conference last year the mood was one of excitement. "We are doing something important. We are saying that wind power is important," said Bill Richardson, the US Energy Secretary during his brief stop at the conference. "This is one of those meetings when we will say in 2010: I was there. It's a day when we are changing the energy future of this country."

That same morning, the DOE Assistant Secretary for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, Dan Reicher, who came up with the idea of WPA, laid out some of the plan's more specific goals. Various geographic regions are being targeted, so that wind power is deployed from coast to coast and so that the plan's economic benefits -- in terms of jobs, investment, reducing pollution as well as in providing income for farmers, Native Americans and other people who live in rural areas -- can be achieved. America's current economic boom, the most sustained in many years, is largely bypassing the country's rural areas. The regions to be targeted, he said, are Texas and the rest of the Southwest, the Northwest, the Upper Midwest and Great Plains and the Northeast.

Dream on

"It's a big step forward," Reicher assured industry members at the conference's opening session. "The time is right for Wind Powering America. Wind is an all-American resource. We'll be filling in the map on wind, moving into parts of America and making it happen."

Over the next two months, said Reicher, the DOE would be accepting comments from the public and from those who were most involved or affected by the plans -- the "stakeholders" -- which would be accounted for in the final action plan. Both Richardson and Reicher, in addition, entreated those at the conference, who applauded speeches loudly, to get involved in politics and policy making to help make the changes happen. It seemed wind was in the spotlight in the US like never before.

It was a launch meant to make a splash -- and it did. The main wire services ran the story, as did the Wall Street Journal in a bullet on its front page. The daily newspapers in Denmark -- where 60% of the world's wind turbines are made -- carried it too as major news. Even the acronym, WPA, had helped set high hopes. To most Americans, if WPA means anything, it stands for the Works Projects Administration, a huge Depression era agency to provide work for the jobless -- and which in less than a decade constructed more than 200,000 buildings and bridges and more than a million kilometres of roads.

Conference participants might have wondered if Richardson had made a "John Browne speech" -- a reference to the public statement by the CEO of BP that even the oil industry must start acting as if global warming is real. Like Browne's speech, was Richardson's statement one that would be cited again and again as a turning point, this time in the thinking of the federal government? Many Europeans on hearing about WPA -- and perhaps many Americans too -- had assumed that WPA meant a long awaited sea change in US energy policy at last, in the face of global warming.

Wake up time

The simple answer is no. For those who listened closely when WPA was launched, that is no great surprise. The rhetoric was uplifting and inspiring -- perhaps not surprising since both Richardson and Reicher are political appointees -- but the hard facts and volume of cash are anything but. For those who have tried to track down WPA's specifics over past months, their worst suspicions have been confirmed: there is not much weight behind the program at all. Nor are there any real signs that there will be soon, in terms of budget or staffing. What can be more telling than the WPA web site, where the draft plan sits unaltered since it was launched last summer?

"It's another content-free initiative -- to go with [the DOE's] Million Solar Roofs -- which has almost no money behind it and which basically seems to be an umbrella to pretend you're doing something when you're not," says Iain MacGil at Greenpeace in Washington DC. "It's an administration that has talked a lot about renewable energy but which has failed to deliver anything substantive." He concedes, though, that what can be done at the federal level is limited: the nuts and bolts of electricity market reform legislation is mostly at the state level, while in Washington the Democratic administration is contending with a US Congress run by Republicans.

At the DOE, the hype of last year seems all but forgotten. "WPA is not some huge new program or infrastructure," says Phil Dougherty, who was named national co-ordinator of WPA towards the end of last year and who was formerly deputy chief of staff to Reicher. Indeed, the recently released draft of the DOE's new strategic energy plan, the first in three years, does not seem to mention WPA at all in its 108 pages, despite including laudable renewables goals: tripling the installed capacity, achieving $5 billion of exports in renewables and creating millions of jobs in the renewables sector by 2010.

WPA's limited budget could explain why it is not even a blip on the energy strategy radar. For this fiscal year, ending in September, WPA was not specifically funded because the budgetary year was already under way. Still, it is getting $1 million from the $32.4 million already appropriated for wind. Most of this "seed money" is being used for WPA support at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) -- one full time person and a couple of part time people -- for outreach through DOE's six regional offices, for stakeholder co-ordination and for other activities such as state level wind mapping and trying to tie WPA to economic development initiatives.

The DOE's budget request for fiscal year 2001, to start in October, includes $5 million for WPA out of the total wind request of $50.5 million, says Stan Calvert, who oversees the budget for WPA. The money, if appropriated by Congress, will be for support and outreach, for co-ordination and for workshops and stakeholder meetings. The specifics have yet to be pinned down, because strategy meetings are still under way to hone the plan and because the fiscal year 2001 is some months away. "It's a large nebulous undertaking right now," says Calvert. "It is kind of being coalesced at this point into a more definitive strategy."

Budget perspective

The WPA budget request comes as the DOE wind program is broadening its scope -- by emphasising co-operation and the verification of existing technology at a regional level rather than the development of new technology. The program will also start to account more for the globalisation of the wind industry. Thus financing will be considered for the US subsidiary of, say, a European company rather than only for firms headquartered in the US.

To put WPA's $5 million request into perspective, the DOE's entire budget request for FY2001 is $18.9 billion, of which $1.26 billion is for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). WPA is only one of at least nine initiatives within EERE, along with Million Solar Roofs, EnergySmart Schools, the Bioenergy Initiative and the Transmission Reliability Initiative. Meanwhile DOE is requesting $385 million for the fossil fuel research budget for next year, and $6.3 billion for one year's research on cleaning up sites of former nuclear weapons.

"The [WPA] budget is a not insignificant problem," concedes Randy Swisher of AWEA with his usual diplomacy. "The $5 million will only go so far." The association is liasing closely with the DOE, which appears dependent on the private-industry lobby group for much of its information for making the case for the 80,000 MW goal. AWEA does get DOE funding. Nifty new links to the WPA site, guiding users to government and non-government on-line resources, include several to the AWEA web site.

Steve Clemmer of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is almost as diplomatic as Swisher in expressing his WPA reservations. "I don't think it's enough [money] to achieve their goals, but maybe it's enough to lay the groundwork," he says. Swisher, too, highlights the base value of WPA. He points out that last year's AWEA conference announcements by Richardson and Reicher had value in generating enthusiasm and spreading the word.

Down to earth

These views fit with Dougherty's description of WPA's aims. In fact, WPA seems to be as much about increasing awareness of wind's potential as anything else. "It is an attempt to combine all of our activities and push them further out into the country through our existing networks, by creating new ones, by educating people and perhaps by identifying new opportunities if we can get the money for R&D verification and some pilot projects and that sort of thing," says Dougherty.

"The whole portfolio of activities will help us reach that goal [of 80,000 MW by 2020]. In other words, the R&D makes a significant contribution, the partnerships and the turbine verification. They all make a significant contribution to increasing capacity." The vision is big, the program is small and the results will be huge, he says.

All the moral persuasion in the world, however, will not get 80,000 MW up without legislation to boost renewables onto the energy playing field. The necessity of legislation was stressed by Reicher a year ago. Crucial to meeting WPA's goals is a strong policy base that includes a Renewables Portfolio Standard (page 42) and net metering (Windpower Monthly, February 1999). In other words, WPA cannot achieve the 80,000 MW goal. What it can do is raise the general awareness of wind power and its potential among legislatures, politicians, and the public.

WPA, it seems, is a label that can be applied to almost anything to do with wind at the federal level, even grants that were in the works before the initiative was launched. Grants of $1.3 million for small wind turbine projects announced as part of WPA -- and dutifully picked up and reported by the media -- had already been promised about five months earlier.

But use of an organising theme as a sort of "bully pulpit" from which leaders can use moral persuasion to drum up interest is not an uncommon tactic, especially in Washington. As recently as March 18, because of outcry over rising oil prices in the US, the White House issued a fact sheet with the grand title: "Important Steps to Promote Energy Security and Efficiency in America." Among other things, the document pointed out elements of Clinton's proposed energy budget such as renewables R&D and extension of the wind tax credit -- items that will increase America's energy security but which are already under attack on Capitol Hill.

Drumming up interest in wind power could well be a reason for the June 1999 timing of the WPA launch. It was then that campaigning for an extension of wind's all important federal production tax credit (PTC) was at its height. Reicher noted at the time -- and the draft plan states -- that a PTC is critical to the early stages of developing a stable wind industry. The WPA launch and the subsequent flurry of media coverage looks as if it was partly intended to help the administration push for a reintroduction of the PTC, which expired on June 30.

The momentum created by WPA is especially helpful, says Reicher, who testified in front of Congress in October on behalf of extending the PTC by five years. "When the federal government gets behind something like WPA it helps people, including the Congress, understand the potential for the technology," says Reicher.

Achievable market

The strategy of WPA has been evolving in the last nine months. In part, the question is how best to use the program's limited resources. The goal for the federal government to use 5% wind by 2010 to power its facilities is recognised as the main near-term target simply because it is more achievable, given the political climate. Neither is a potential mandated market for 1000 MW to be sneezed at. An agency can quite quickly issue a green power RFP -- request for proposals -- whereas legislative and regulatory changes take far longer, or may depend more upon wheeling and dealing on Capitol Hill. Clinton had also issued an executive order last June, about a fortnight before WPA was launched, encouraging federal agencies to use renewables and to become energy efficient.

Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defence have recently issued RFPs for a small amount of green power, although not specifically for wind. The Federal Emergency Management Agency signed an agreement with DOE in December to promote the use of renewable energy and efficiency when natural disaster strikes. And specifically attributed to WPA, by DOE officials at least, was the US Army announcing in the fall that it was seeking partners to install wind power at its training centre at Fort Bliss in Texas. "What we're trying to do is to encourage other federal departments that are large landholders to consider the possibility of wind," said Reicher not long after WPA was launched.

The idea too is to build a market for green power, especially though the network of DOE's regional offices, an indirect way of getting wind farms built. Meetings have already been held with stakeholders in various regions, such as Denver and Seattle, to help spread the word about how people can become involved and to test the waters. The reaction of many is favourable although there are utilities that, while favourable to the idea of WPA, seem too fearful of deregulation to make much of a move. What is needed to reduce that fear is legislation, such as a Renewable Portfolio Standard, providing a guaranteed market and fair prices for electricity with environmental value.

Raising the regions

As well as encouraging the development of a green power market, WPA is also focussing on regional barriers and potential. Of the regions being targeted, the Great Plains is seen as only holding longer term potential because of transmission constraints. WPA hopes to help by ensuring that last year's DOE study on the issue in North Dakota is expanded upon. The northeastern US is viewed as having more near-term potential and the Northwest and the Southeast -- there is a large market for green power in the latter -- are more mid-term.

Native Americans and other rural Americans remain a particular target of WPA, as are rural electric co-operatives, which are often not very knowledgeable about wind power. For Native Americans especially, there is huge wind potential. Some of the tribes are located in the Great Plains, where wind development can help the region's high unemployment. Because of this emphasis, WPA even had a regional kick-off in November in North Dakota, a state sometimes known as the "Saudi Arabia of wind energy."

"At a time when family farmers are going through difficult economic times, the possibility of earning $2000 a year for every wind turbine placed on their land is very attractive," said US Senator Byron Dorgan, who co-sponsored the event in North Forks, also where wind turbine rotor blade manufacturer LM Glasfiber has a facility. The event was apparently watched live by more than 200 people on the Internet, something the WPA people see as a way in which they can build grass roots awareness.

Another way is through education, says Reicher. The educational needs of people in the Dakotas, say, varies from the needs of people in new England, he explains. "Part of the education is beyond what we've traditionally been doing, which is advocating the virtues of wind energy. Now it is educating decision makers about where the opportunities for wind are, particularly in restructured markets."

Last year WPA did manage to raise some awareness at the highest decision making level of all. There was such a buzz about wind in the summer of 1999 that even President Bill Clinton mentioned the technology while on a visit to a Native American reservation in South Dakota. "As you can see in this big sky country, it is rather warm and it gets windy from time to time, as the natives will attest," he said while visiting the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation, located in one of America's poorest counties. "The Department of Energy will help harness the power and profits of wind and solar energy to save money and make money." His words might have seemed more than a little vague, especially from the administration that gave birth to WPA, but they were seen as a significant sign of recognition by the wind industry.

A potentially huge factor for WPA's future is who will become America's next president in less than ten months' time. Reicher says that if Vice President Al Gore is elected, WPA will continue. But if Gore is not elected, then all bets are off. "I'm hopeful that it's going to be Al Gore," he says.

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