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United States

High profile launch adds credibility -- Flesh on the 20% wind vision

Structuring the United States power system for 20% wind energy by 2030 would cost the average ratepayer an extra fifty cents a month, or just $0.005/kWh, compared with a business as usual scenario. The finding, a key message in a long awaited report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), was given a top level launch by the US Department of Energy (DOE) last month.

"I am very proud the DOE elected not to issue this as a technical report where it originated," said Andy Karsner, DOE Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. "We were so impressed by the message of this report that the Department of Energy has issued this as an administration report so that we might fully embrace its content." Karsner is a former wind power plant developer.

The report's release in the media spotlight at a major Washington press conference adds considerable credibility to it, says Randy Swisher of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Although the high profile launch comes in the twilight hours of George Bush's government, it represents one of the strongest stands on wind power yet taken by the administration.

The bush effect

The concept of 20% wind power took hold in 2006 after Bush, during a visit to NREL, said wind could provide that proportion of the country's electricity. The laboratory was subsequently charged with producing a report to show that the US electrical system could accommodate 20% wind with negligible or favourable impacts on the grid and for electric consumers.

To reach the 20% goal by 2030, the wind industry must triple its annual installations and America's electricity transmission network must be expanded and modernised across the country, states the report. Both aims are feasible. Transmission superhighways -- much like the modern interstate freeway system -- must be built for "rational resource utilisation" in getting wind power from the windiest places in the centre of the country to load centres elsewhere.

"If we build it, we build it big," said Tony Kavanagh from major US utility American Electric Power. The report shares his company's vision for the US: a high voltage overlay transmission system that would move power around the country and over greater distances more efficiently. It would be done through a public-private partnership that rolls costs over to a broad base of power consumers.

Such a system would provide an energy savings of 20,000 MW at peak load and save 15 million metric tonnes of CO2 from escaping into the atmosphere. But a more effective permitting regime between the federal government and the US states is needed to surmount local and regional opposition to expansion of transmission lines.

FERC backing

Support for the 20% scenario at federal level is strong in key areas, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is better positioned than any other regulatory agency to foster transmission expansions and other market changes to get more wind on the system.

"The 20% wind scenario only costs 2% more than the cost of the baseline without wind," said Suedeen Kelly, one of FERC's commissioners. "I believe that is a small price to pay for considerable benefits that will flow." Beyond the environmental benefits, Kelly, who is also a natural gas regulator for FERC, said an important finding in the report is that 20% wind will reduce consumption of natural gas by 11%. "That would take pressure off gas markets and bring downward pressure on gas prices."

Karsner has high hopes of the report having a significant impact on energy policy. "Most of what I have heard since taking this post has been what I would characterise as either frivolous or uninformed arguments that fly in the face of reality about the capacity for this technology to scale," he said. "There are those who say it is marginal and always will be and yet the growth statistics indicate precisely the opposite. There are those that say it is unreliable and yet they fail to realise that no resource is more measured and more monitored in order to gain commercial financing than a commercially developed wind power plant. Over the period of time you measure the resource it is, in fact, one of our least volatile resources."

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