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Influential regulators demonstrate commitment

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Understanding of what needs to be done to lower the barriers to wind power in the United States is spreading among ranking power industry regulators, as demonstrated at an American Wind Energy Association seminar in Washington DC last month

Influential regulators demonstrate commitment

Wind energy is increasingly essential to America's electrical generation portfolio, providing both a measure of energy security and a tool for mitigating the price fluctuations endemic to a fossil fuel constrained world. Wind, too often bad-mouthed for its intermittency, can actually bolster grid reliability if properly dispersed throughout the system. But for this valuable tool to be effectively applied, the nation's public policy makers need to devote their attention to improving wind energy's access to the nation's electrical wires and to stabilising legislation intended to encourage its development.

So said a variety of speakers at a two-day late April conference in Washington DC that was partly a "teach-in" for District and East Coast policy makers and partly a platform for discussing the day's dominating public policy issues. The conference also dealt with the need for a vastly improved national co-ordination of electrical grids, which are currently fragmented into 130 balancing authorities which, too often, do not effectively communicate with on another.

"Wind is an idea whose time has come," said Nora Brownell, a commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). "There's an alignment of the stars." She was referring to the frustrated national mood, which is currently focusing on increased gasoline prices, increased heating oil prices, shortages of fossil fuels which have caused rolling blackouts in parts of the nation, and a Vietnam-style enmeshment in the Middle East which is said more and more to be a war for oil. Wind, the FERC commissioner said, can contribute part of the solution to these problems.

Brownell, a Bush administration appointee who began serving as commissioner in early 2001 after having served in Pennsylvania's Public Utilities Commission, acknowledged a "growing recognition of global warming," that was "forcing people to think in new ways." She warned the wind industry not to squander this opportunity for change, but to move ahead boldly and quickly. "I don't think we are going any time soon to have a national renewables portfolio standard," she said somewhat regretfully, but added that FERC wants to be a "platform for change" at the state level, by "harmonising" various competing groups.

Brownell spoke scathingly of the old-guard electrical industry "that is insular, antiquated and loves to do things the way they did them 30 years ago....I don't think risk-averse means doing things in an antiquated way."

Brown-ell emphasised the options for choice that the wind industry could provide for customers. In Pennsylvania, she is well respected for having assembled a widely lauded customer choice program in the telecommunications industry which drove down costs and provided customers with many different options. "That's the kind of choice electrical customers need to have," she said. "With any new technology, it's mandatory to change the way you do business."

She promised to try to improve transmission incentives, to try to create national corridors for wind power and to improve transparency and accountability. The North American Electric Reliability Council is the independent place to the problems solved, she said. "I look at Europe, and I see that somehow, somewhere, people have been able to do this right."

New Jersey serious

Another dynamic speaker on public policy issues was Jeanne M Fox, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. "Wind is the smart thing to do economically," Fox said. In mid-April, the state adopted a "20 by 20" renewables portfolio standard (RPS) for 20% of its electricity to be supplied from renewable energy by 2020.

A considerable amount of that 20% is likely to come from wind, Fox said, adding that, unfortunately, wind maps show that New Jersey does not have good land based wind resources. To solve that problem, the state decided to allow for wind generation to come from other states located within the PJM regional grid.

After her presentation, Fox hinted that some of the wind generation could come from New Jersey's solid offshore wind resources. She declined to make any clear statements on offshore wind, pending the release of a report by a "blue-ribbon" research panel, possible this month.

The state is serious, she said, about its new RPS. New Jersey consumers have been looking with envy at the people of Colorado who have been saving money by having wind generation in their electrical portfolios. East Coast electrical consumers want the same benefits, she said. "For us, it's not a political game," stressed Fox. "For us, we really want an accomplishment and we think we have a glide for that."

Fox said the state had worked hard on the fine details while developing its RPS to facilitate and standardise access to New Jersey's electrical grid and to eliminate barriers for wind. Additionally, the state recently instituted an electrical choice program for customers interested in buying renewables which already has 3000 participants. More, she said, are expected to enrol soon.

Several speakers discussed New Mexico's good experience with wind energy and the conference concluded with a presentation by Leon Lowery, the energy advisor to the Democratic US Senator for New Mexico, Jeff Bingaman. Bingaman is the ranking Democratic member for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a strong advocate for wind energy.

Much to be done

Lowery told listeners that although recent American experience with wind bodes well for the future of the industry, much remains to be done if it is to achieve its full promise. Basic fundamental structure questions in the nation's electrical grids need to be dealt with. "The power supply system is going to have to be more and more decentralised," he said, "With more and more wind plants....Ultimately, the big system and the big central stations is probably going to collapse."

On the other hand, Lowery warned, he did not have a great deal of faith in the nation's Congressional delegation when it came to pushing for change. "I've been watching senators for a while and I see a bunch of fellas who are troubled and confused and who are about to get more troubled and confused in a short while....These fellas are about to get alarmed and think there's no place left to hide."

Pressure from the long predicted increases in gasoline prices are likely to make Washington's elected officials feel more and more depressed, Lowery said, but that would not necessarily translate into legislative action to solve the problem of America's energy supply. "The political will to take the plunge is a scary thing," he said.

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