Catch the Wind: The Reality of Wind Power

With Evanston seriously considering an offshore wind farm, I made time to check out Windpower 2009, the 4-day expo at McCormick Place. There was surprisingly scant local coverage of the world's largest windpower conference being held here in the Windy City, of all places, so I posted my notes online, because any policymaker, activist, reporter, or ordinary citizen who stopped by this show would have come away convinced that wind is no longer, in any fashion, an "alternative" energy source or science fiction. Rather this is a burgeoning industry with tremendous growth ahead.

Longtime attendees told me that this gathering attracted about 200 people 10 years ago, and only 1,000 attendees as late as 2001. 2009 was a massive event, sprawling across the entire South Hall of the expo center. According to The American Wind Energy Association, the conference had 23,200 attendees, close to double the size of last year, with over 1,200 exhibiting companies. This in a year where the recession is shrinking conferences nationwide.

To be as green as the conference, I took a multimodal route to get there: I biked to the Metra, took the train downtown, walked to a bus stop, then took the CTA to McCormick Place. I was glad I made the effort.

In addition to the five governors who came by the conference, speakers included Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, financier T. Boone Pickens, FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu (via video). Illinois Governor Pat Quinn used the conference to
announce an agreement by which the Illinois Department of Central Management Services (CMS) will purchase all of its energy for facilities in the capitol from wind-generated sources, through the city of Springfield.

The financial and economic crisis is impacting the wind energy industry adversely in two ways: first, with the same blows to general revenue and capital availability felt by most other industries; but also because the plunge in world oil prices, helpful to most businesses, makes wind energy less competitive.

Despite those obstacles, 2008 for wind was still a year any other industry would drool over, with domestic sales up 50% and an estimated 8358MW connected in the U.S., constituting 42% of all new energy capacity. That enormous growth puts the total domestic wind energy production at 25,170MW installed, vaulting the U.S. ahead of Germany, to #1 in the world. Yep, you heard that right: America now leads the planet in wind energy production. Texas, with 7,116MW accounts for more than ¼ of that, and Iowa is second with 2790. Illinois has 915MW, better than most states, but not up to our potential.

The stats show that Obama isn't kidding about clean energy jobs, at least in wind. Even in this recessionary year, 4,451MW worth of projects are currently under construction across the US. The wind industry employed 85,000 people in the US as of the beginning of 2008. Vestas alone added 5,500 jobs worldwide last year. The picture above shows their show "sphere," an Epcot-like enclosure in which you could watch a short video about their tower and turbine testing regimen, and modular delivery system.

Bureaucracy is lagging legislative initiative. For example, the DoE in theory will back loans to developers for wind projects. Unfortunately, as one vendor told me, this money remains theoretical because the Department has not yet promulgated the rules that will allow the funds to flow.

Right: a cutaway nacelle.
Many of the exhibits were highly technical and more BTB than intended for the general public. Still, even if you skipped all the bearing and tower-climbing-safety-harness suppliers, there was way more to take in than was probably possible in even 4 days, and even a lot of the technical booths were informative for those looking to soak it all in. More than one exhibitor told me that they wished the exhibitors were better grouped, so folks looking for, say, blade maintenance supplies, could find them all near each other rather than scattered over many acres.

Still, with a little persistence, you could find almost anything related to wind energy that you were looking for, as well as a live human being to talk about it. For instance, I was able to hunt down an organization specifically addressing how to mitigate bird and bat collisions with wind turbines; the radar screen you see at right is connected to an extremely fine tracking system that picks up individual animals, and even large bugs, for analysis of environmental impact as well as connection to systems that can shut down a turbine when large flocks approach, or during conditions when birds have the most trouble detecting the towers and blades.

The Obama administration wants the U.S. to be producing 20% of its electricity from wind by 2030. Amazingly, we are on track to do that. The key determinant is continued government support; tax credits play an important part in purchase, development, and installation decisions. Illinois is lagging in part because of the lack of targeted tax credits or equipment write-offs; as a result, all our commercial projects have been located in
enterprise zones, the only real incentive offered.

The state's own study shows that renewable energy has
great economic potential as well as environmental benefits for Illinois. While the state has a laudable renewable energy standard, it also needs the policies to make those standards reality.

As a legislator, I would make it a mission to make Illinois more proactive in capturing the benefits of wind power and other renewable energy sources.

Adapted from an essay originally published on Gapers Block, May 9, 2009

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