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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Connecticut’s First Wind Farm and the Growth of Wind Energy

Summary: The author recently participated in a tour of Connecticut’s first wind farm.  Operation of the wind farm represents the success of its campaign to gain permitting and financing, and to complete construction.

Wind generation capacity has grown dramatically, but erratically, in the U. S. in response to the cyclical operation or expiration of a series of production tax credits.  The current credit, in place for five years until the end of 2019, will provide a more stable investment and business environment for wind development.

The Department of Energy foresees major expansion of wind energy by 2030, and even more by 2050.  Wind could provide a significant fraction of U. S. demand for electricity by then.

On a beautiful sunny day at the end of June 2016 I joined a group of interested citizens on an organized tour of the state of Connecticut’s first wind farm.  Our guide was Gregory Zupkus, the CEO of BNE Energy, the business venture that built the farm.

At present, BNE Energy’s farm consists of two wind turbines.  Planning for a third turbine is underway.  The towers to the hub that houses the generation equipment are about 330 feet (100 m) high, and the blades are about 135 feet (41 m) long.  Each turbine, made by General Electric, can produce 2.85 MW of electricity.  The scale of this equipment is truly inspiring, as can be seen below.
BNE Energy wind turbine.  Some of our colleagues are visible to the right of the base.  The lower inset shows the base of the turbine, held by closely spaced rods.  The rods descend a few feet then splay out horizontally like the roots of a tree; the entire assembly is embedded in concrete.
Photos: Henry Auer 
The BNE Energy wind farm project took many years to come to fruition, including a three-year battle with local opponents of the project.  They were concerned, among other factors, about noise pollution from the rotating rotors.  This aspect of the process was concluded by a favorable decision from the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2014, allowing the project to continue. 
There was also opposition from activists concerned about collisions between the rotors and birds in flight.  During our visit Mr.Zupkus pointed out a person crisscrossing the meadow beneath one of the turbines.  He said this was an environmentalist looking for dead birds.  He pointed out that from the time the wind farm began producing electricity in October 2015 until our visit only two dead birds had been found by such searches.
The energy from this wind farm enters the local electricity grid via a feeder line that is only 1 ½ miles (2.4 km) long, a very short distance indeed.  This helped keep the cost of the project low.  The amount of electricity is enough to provide the power for the residents of nearby towns.
The project’s cost is US$23 million.  It benefited from a U. S. law providing a production tax credit (i.e., a credit during operation dependent on the amount of electric energy provided).  The financing was seeded by a loan from the Connecticut Green Bank, a state agency intended to stimulate public-private financing in fields that the state seeks to promote.  With that stimulus, and a long term power purchase agreement from the local electric utility company, financing was obtained from three regional commercial banks.  The loans differ in their details, but Mr. Zupkus indicated they would be redeemed at various times, the earliest being five years.  Once paid off, BNE Energy will be earning profits.
Developing wind energy creates new jobs.  During construction the contractors employed several dozen high-skilled workers.  Furthermore, the project promotes secondary labor demand in the fabrication of the various parts of the wind turbine installations such as steel working, manufacturing the turbine blades, and electronic controls for operation.  During operation there are far fewer job needs, as the day-to-day functioning of the turbines is largely controlled electronically.  Expansion of wind energy will obviously create many more job opportunities in the future.
Wind Energy in the U. S.  The installed wind generation capability in the U. S. has grown dramatically, albeit by fits and starts, in the past 15 years.  This is seen in the following graphic, which shows the annual additions of new wind capacity, and the total cumulative generation capacity from 1999 to 2015:
Annual and cumulative wind-powered generation capacity.  DEEP BLUE, cumulative capacity.  AQUA and MULTI-COLORED bars, generation capacity added each year.  The arrows show dates of expiration of federal production tax credits (see text).
Source: Adapted from the American Wind Energy Association,
Production Tax Credit.  It is seen that the annual capacity additions (light-colored bars) surge to time-dependent maxima, than fall precipitously the following year.  These are indicated by the arrows in the graphic above, and arise as follows.  A federal production tax was enacted in 1992 but allowed to expire in December 1999; after six months it was reinstated until December 2001; after 3 months it was reenacted until December 2003; after 10 months it was again reinstated until 2009, at which time wind businesses could choose between three taxing alternatives until 2012 when the production tax credit again expired; it was renewed to expire in Dec. 2014; it was again renewed for 1 year to Dec. 2015.  “Congress giveth and Congress taketh away.” 
These serial enactments and expirations of production tax credits left the wind industry whipsawed, unable to plan effectively for new investment.  As a result, after the expiration of each short-term credit the graphic above shows that annual installation of new generation capacity fell dramatically. Congress finally recognized the detrimental effects of its fits-and-starts legislative actions.  Accordingly, the production tax credit was further extended at the end of 2015, made retroactive to the beginning of that year, and extended for a five year period, to the end of 2019.  The wind industry now has a stable investment environment in place sufficient for advance planning for new wind energy projects.  It is anticipated that this stable investment environment will lead to a significant expansion of installed wind energy capacity (as well as solar) by the expiration of the current tax credit.
The present tax credit regime, which benefits both wind energy and solar generation, is expected to result in 37 gigawatts of new wind and solar capacity—a 56-percent increase during  its 5 year duration, promoting $73 billion in new investment, and enabling as many as 8 million more households to benefit from renewable energy at competitive prices.
The cost of producing wind-driven electricity has been falling dramatically in recent years. The Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) is an analysis of the lifetime costs involved in constructing and operating an electricity-generating facility over the projected lifetime of the facility, typically several decades.  The LCOE for wind energy has fallen about 60%   between 2009 and 2015, and is reaching a value that is competitive with fossil fuel generating facilities.  By the end of the current tax credit at the end of 2019 the continued improvement of the LCOE as time passes will certainly make wind generation fully competitive with fossil fuel generation.
Wind energy is projected to grow dramatically in the U. S.  The U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) projects that wind energy generation will expand dramatically in future decades.  As an example, the graphic below compares actual wind energy production by state in 2013 with an expected extent of generation in 2030.
Comparison of actual wind energy generation state by state in the U. S. in 2013 (inset, upper left) with a projection of wind generation capacity in 2030 (right).  GREEN circles/sectors represent land-based generation.  BLUE circles/sectors represent offshore generation.  The size of the circles is scaled to the wind power capacity in gigawatts (right panel, calibrated by the white circles at the lower right of the panel).
Actual generation capacity in the U. S. in 2013 was 60.7 gigawatts (GW; billions of watts), with generation occurring in 34 of the contiguous 48 states.  This provided about 4.6% of U. S. electricity demand.  By 2030, DOE projects an increase of 269% to 224.1 GW in 47 states, with a significant fraction coming from offshore generation.  By 2050 the projection climbs to 404.3 GW in all 48 states (not shown), with important contributions from offshore generation in both inland lakes and ocean sites.  This could provide as much as one-third of the electricity used in the U. S. at that time.
Benefits of wind energy.  DOE writes that by 2050
·        The price of wind energy is projected to be directly competitive with conventional energy technologies within the next decade.
·        Wind energy could be a viable source of renewable electricity in all 50 states.
·        Wind energy could support more than 600,000 jobs in manufacturing, installation, maintenance and supporting services.
·        Wind energy could save $508 billion from reduced pollutants and $280 billion in natural gas costs.
·        Wind energy could save 260 billion gallons of water that would have been used by the electric power sector.   
The manmade increase in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere as we burn fossil fuels because no natural processes exist that remove it on the (geologically short) time scale needed to reduce global warming.  Therefore it is necessary to end further accumulation as fast as possible by actively migrating to a near zero-carbon energy economy, i.e., one that does not rely on fossil fuels to produce energy.
Wind-driven generation of electricity is growing dramatically in the U. S.  It is one way of moving toward zero emissions.  In recent years development of new wind facilities has responded directly to the presence or absence of the federal production tax credit.  Wind is expected to expand even further in coming decades to a point at which it can provide a large fraction of anticipated demand.  A stable federal policy supporting a production tax credit for wind (and other renewable) sources is a significant factor in the growth of wind generation until the industry becomes self-sufficient.
© 2016 Henry Auer

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