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United States

Nuclear storage being traded for wind

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In a fast changing situation that bodes well for wind in the United States, Minnesota legislators seemed poised in the last week of April to vote for a law that would mean several hundred megawatts of wind installed in the state by the end of the decade. So far, Northern States Power (NSP) is installing only 100 MW of wind by 1998 -- the first 25 MW of which, consisting of Kenetech 33M-VS turbines, was due on line in a ceremony on May 3 on Buffalo Ridge.

Observers were predicting that 400 to 600 MW of wind could be mandated by the law, to be developed or bought in a competitive bid by NSP, the state's major utility. Various versions of the so-called NSP bill -- focusing on the utility's contentious 1000 MW Prairie Island nuclear reactor but including measures to promote wind energy, were being voted on as Windpower Monthly went to press. The version passed by the Senate required 300 MW of wind by 2005, while the House version required a massive 800 MW by the end of the century.

A compromise between the two was expected to be hammered out by a committee of legislators and then ratified separately by the Minnesota House and Senate, probably in the last week of April or possibly as late as the first week of May, said observers. Because wind is in each version of the bill, a significant wind component is expected to survive and be part of the final version to be voted on by both the Senate and House. However, it was also possible that the politicians would be unable to agree on a compromise because of the contentious question of the future of Prairie Island; in which case they would shelve the entire NSP bill until the next session.

Even so, wind lobbyists remained pleased at the end of April. "I think it will be significant," said an enthusiastic John Dunlop of the American Wind Energy Association. "It's going to be a secure market for the entire industry." Of the legislators, he said, "It's very clear -- they're talking wind." Several hundred megawatts would make Minnesota, one of America's most environmentally conscious states, the clear winner as the second state for wind after California, ahead of Washington or Oregon where several projects are forging ahead. "From the Minnesota perspective, it will send a signal to firms out there groping around about where to build their US-based manufacturing capability," added Dunlop. Already companies such as Denmark's Wind World have set up in the state.

But the wind element of this bout of energy policy manoeuvring is complicated by the controversy surrounding the nuclear plant, which is running out of storage space for nuclear waste. To date, the waste has been temporarily stored inside the plant. But even with so-called "re-racking" of storage cylinders, space would run out within two or three years.

The matter was further complicated in late April because the legislative session was drawing to a close. Legislators were trying to go home by the end of April, more than three weeks before their session must end on May 23. In late April legislative manoeuvring, the normal stuff of politics, was even more fast and furious than usual.

On April 25 the Minnesota House of Representatives voted by 104 to 30 to pass the so-called Munger amendment, mandating 800 MW of wind in the state within six years. The amendment is considered a compromise by nuclear opponents, as it gives Prairie Island a new lease of life: the nuclear plant would be able to continue operating if -- and only if -- it finds other places beyond Prairie Island to store its waste. The amendment is vehemently opposed by NSP as "outrageous" because the utility wants to continue storing waste at Prairie Island. The amendment had already been passed by the Environment and Natural Resources, Rules, and Ways and Means Committees of the state House of Representatives. Introduced by the Environment Committee chair, Rep Williard Munger, it requires NSP to buy or build the wind capacity.

The Munger amendment changes the so-called Novak version of the NSP bill -- first introduced by Sen Steven Novak and passed by the Senate in early April -- and then introduced, routinely, in the same form to the House for its consideration. The Novak version calls for 300 MW of wind by the year 2005 and allows 17 dry cask waste storage containers to be built at Prairie Island, provided that the nuclear plant is completely shut down in the year 2000. Proponents of the bill have argued it would provide a smooth transition from traditional to new forms of power generation. But opponents say it does not go far enough -- and would prolong the state's reliance on nuclear power at the expense of renewables.

In a measure of interest in wind, a previous Senate version of the NSP bill, also sponsored by Novak and requiring NSP to build only 150 MW of wind by 2000, was defeated in the Environment Committee because it did not go far enough towards stimulation of renewables. Also significantly, a version of the bill that almost passed the Senate, on a tie vote in early April, would have mandated NSP to build 300 effective MW, or about 900-1000 MW by 2005, says Dunlop.

After the floor vote on April 25, AWEA's John Dunlop was optimistic that any final NSP bill would mean more wind. Not long before, he had talked with Rep Loren Jennings, a co-sponsor of the Munger amendment. Dunlop said Jennings predicted that the final version of the NSP bill would ask for 400-600 MW of wind.

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