Iowa Public Television

 

Benefit found in small scale wind projects

posted on March 17, 2000


THEY DON'T WHINE AS MUCH AS SUBURBAN OWNERS OF S.U.Vs, BUT IT'S THE NATION'S INDEPENDENT TRUCKERS WHO HAVE BEEN HIT FIRST AND HARDEST BY SOARING FUEL PRICES. PROTESTING IN WASHINGTON THIS WEEK THE TRUCKERS WARNED HIGHER FUEL PRICES WILL BE PASSED ONTO CONSUMERS.

THE FACT IS HIGHER PRICES MIGHT FIND THEIR WAY TO THE CONSUMER, BUT USUALLY NOT BEFORE PRODUCERS AND MIDDLEMEN ARE FORCED TO EAT SOME PROFITS. NO ONE KNOWS THIS ECONOMIC REALITY BETTER THAN RURAL AMERICANS. FARMERS CAN DO LITTLE TO FORCE CONSUMERS TO ABSORB HIGHER COSTS OF PRODUCTION.

ADDITIONALLY, FARMERS ALONG WITH MAIN STREET MERCHANTS AND MANUFACTURERS ARE BRACING FOR THE COMING AGE OF ELECTRIC DEREGULATION. BE IT AIR, RAIL, TRUCK, OR COMMUNICATIONS IT'S BEEN THE RURAL EXPERIENCE THAT DEREGULATION USUALLY MEANS LESS SERVICE AND HIGHER PRICES. THAT'S WHY ALTERNATIVES LIKE WIND POWER ARE SO ALLURING. BUT, EVEN SUCH AN ANCIENT AND PURE FORM OF ENERGY HAS ITS COMPLICATIONS. TYLER TESKE REPORTS.

WIND RESEARCHERS HAVE OFTEN CALLED THE UPPER MIDWEST THE SAUDI ARABIA OF WIND POWER. IF THE WIND POTENTIAL FOR THE ENTIRE REGION WERE COMPLETELY UTILIZED, IT IS ESTIMATED THE ENERGY PRODUCED WOULD SUPPLY MORE POWER THAN THE ENTIRE UNITED STATES COULD USE.

WHILE THE POTENTIAL MAY BE HUGE, THERE ARE SOME DRAWBACKS TO WIND POWER, NOTABLY COST. TWENTY YEARS AGO, WIND POWER COST AROUND 38 CENTS PER KILOWATT HOUR TO PRODUCE. TODAY THE PRICE IS AROUND FOUR CENTS A KILOWATT HOUR, BUT THAT IS STILL NEARLY TWICE AS EXPENSIVE AS TRADITIONAL FOSSIL FUELS.

ANOTHER DISADVANTAGE OF WIND ENERGY IS, IRONICALLY, THE WIND ITSELF. TURBINES ONLY GENERATE POWER WHEN THE WIND BLOWS, A MAJOR DRAWBACK ON HOT, STILL SUMMER DAYS WHEN ENERGY DEMAND MAY BE HIGH.

WIND POWER ALSO BRINGS A NUMBER OF BENEFITS TO THE TABLE. IN IOWA, ALLIANT ENERGY WAS FORCED BY STATE LAW TO MEET AN ALTERNATIVE ENERGY REQUIREMENT. BUT ERIK MADSEN SEES SOME BIG PICTURE BENEFITS IN RENEWABLE ENERGY PROJECTS.

ERIK MADSEN: "Well I think there a number of benefits, obviously the first one is the environmental benefit, which is fairly clear, in that wind doesn't put pollutants in the air as other sources of energy can do. Many customers prefer that as a power source, so of customer perceptions as well."

RURAL AMERICA MAY ALSO FIND SOME BENEFIT FROM WIND TURBINES. EACH GENERATOR MUST BE BUILT ON A SMALL PARCEL OF LAND IN A WINDY AND UNOBSTRUCTED AREA. AND OFTEN THAT MEANS FARM FIELDS.

DAVE MARTIN: "So there's typically a ...a annual lease payment for taking a certain amount productive land out of production. And then depending on the situation there may be additional payment having to do with how much energy was produced. Sure it's ... it's a sure thing as opposed to putting 10 acres into beans or corn for the land that's taken out of production."

DAVE MARTIN IS PART OF THE IOWA DISTRIBUTED WIND GENERATION PROJECT, A CONFEDERATION OF SEVEN SMALL LOCAL POWER COMPANIES WHO ARE INVESTING IN RENEWABLE ENERGY WITHOUT PROMPTING FROM LOCAL REGULATIONS. IT IS THE FIRST CONSORTIUM OF ITS KIND IN THE COUNTRY. THE EFFORT TO EMPLOY TURBINES WAS LED BY CEDAR FALLS UTILITIES WHEN MANAGEMENT REALIZED RENEWABLE ENERGY MIGHT NOT ALWAYS BE A CHOICE FOR MUNICIPAL UTILITIES.

IN 1994, THE UTILITY DISCOVERED GRANT MONEY WAS AVAILABLE FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY FOR A WIND PROJECT. THREE TURBINES WERE PURCHASED AND BUILT HALF-A-STATE AWAY IN WINDY NORTHWEST IOWA. THE TURBINES ARE PART OF A TWO YEAR RESEARCH PROJECT WITH THE ELECTRIC POWER RESEARCH INSTITUTE TO PROVE WIND POWER IS USEFUL AND NON-DISRUPTIVE IN THE GENERAL POWER SUPPLY. THE RESEARCH INSTITUTE PUT UP ABOUT HALF THE COST OF THE 2.8 MILLION DOLLAR PROJECT.

Dave Martin: "probably the largest benefit that I can think of right now is that it demonstrated that a small utility can in fact get involved in a wind project without shouldering all the costs themselves. And it also demonstrates the fact that the people who are in this project, and there are others, are environmentally proactive."

WIND PROJECTS MAY BE NEW TO UTILITIES IN IOWA, BUT WIND POWER IS NOT. WIND HAS BEEN PROVIDING SPIRIT LAKE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL WITH POWER SINCE JULY OF 1993.

STUDENTS ASKED THE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION TO DO SOMETHING FOR THE ENVIRONMENT BEYOND CELEBRATING EARTH DAY. ADMINISTRATORS LOOKED AT A NUMBER OF RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCES. THEY DECIDED ON A WIND GENERATOR AFTER DISCOVERING THE CITY IS IN A REGION OF THE COUNTRY ESPECIALLY SUITED TO WIND POWER. THE SCHOOL DISTRICT RECEIVED A FEDERAL GRANT TO HELP PAY FOR THE TURBINE AND A CONTRACT WAS SECURED WITH THE LOCAL POWER COMPANY. ON AVERAGE, THE TURBINE HAS SAVED THE SCHOOL DISTRICT MORE THAN 21 THOUSAND DOLLARS EACH YEAR.

THE TURBINE HAS GROWN TO BE A SYMBOL OF THE COMMUNITY. AND ITS SUCCESS AT SAVING COSTS PROMPTED SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS TO LOOK INTO A SECOND TURBINE TO PROVIDE POWER TO THE REST OF THE SCHOOL DISTRICT. BUT THE SECOND TURBINE HAS RUN INTO DIFFICULTIES.

SPIRIT LAKE SCHOOLS AND ALLIANT ENERGY ARE IN THE MIDST OF A THREE YEAR DISPUTE OVER HOW THE BILLING CONTRACT SHOULD WORK FOR A SECOND TURBINE. AT THE HEART OF THE ISSUE IS HOW TO METER POWER CONSUMPTION. THE SCHOOL DISTRICT WANTS A SINGLE METER SYSTEM, JUST LIKE THE AGREEMENT ON THE CURRENT TURBINE. THE SINGLE METER METHOD MOVES THE METER FORWARD WHEN THE SCHOOL USES ALLIANT'S POWER, AND BACKWARD WHEN THE TURBINE PRODUCES EXCESS ELECTRICITY. THE ARRANGEMENT ESSENTIALLY BUYS AND SELLS POWER AT CLOSE TO THE SAME RATE.

THE POWER COMPANY WANTS A TWO METER SYSTEM WHERE THEY BILL THE SCHOOL DISTRICT FOR ALL POWER CONSUMED FROM ALLIANT, AND CREDIT THE DISTRICT A MUCH LESSER RATE FOR ANY EXCESS PRODUCTION. THE DIFFERENCE CAN AMOUNT TO THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS.

ANOTHER STICKING POINT IS THE PRICE OF WIND POWER. SPIRIT LAKE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS FEEL THERE ARE A NUMBER OF UNSEEN SAVINGS FROM HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS THAT SHOULD BE FACTORED INTO THE PRICE.

TIM GRIEVES: "we are still in the negotiation process, and we seem to be hitting a lot of stalling techniques is what we would consider so far, but at the same time Alliant is a company that feels it has to buy so much energy ... alternative energy sources and they feel they already hit their peak on that. So they're really not interested in supporting one little Wind Turbine and coming in with a good deal for us."

ALLIANT ENERGY VIEWS THE DISPUTE DIFFERENTLY. THE COMPANY CLAIMS THEY PROVIDE NOT JUST POWER, BUT A BUNDLE OF SERVICES THAT INCLUDES LINES, POLES, POWER PLANTS, PHONE OPERATORS AND SERVICE PEOPLE.

ERIK MADSEN : "And I would argue they're not off-setting the costs of the lines and servicemen those folks still need to be there. I would probably also argue that there ... do not offset the cost of the power plants because what happens when the wind generator doesn't run you'll still need those power plants to run. So it's not quite as simple as saying that we should automatically pay the same rate."

UNTIL THE LEGAL DISPUTES ARE FINALLY SORTED OUT, ONE THING WILL REMAIN CONSTANT: THE WIND WILL CONTINUE TO BLOW.

FOR MARKET TO MARKET, I'M TYLER TESKE.

Tags: alternative energy Energy/Environment news wind wind power