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Tina Casey headshot

New Wind Energy Study Aims to Break Transmission Barriers

By Tina Casey

As the cost of wind energy continues to fall, the U.S. wind industry is poised to continue its spectacular growth rate. There is just one problem, and it's a big one: New wind farms can require new transmission lines, and lately some of those new transmission lines have become bogged down in the approval process.

The wind industry already makes a good business case for its product, as evidenced by the number of companies eager to buy into new wind farms. Now the challenge is to get local property owners, other local stakeholders and the voting public firmly in its corner to approve new transmission routes.

In other words: The wind industry is taking its case to consumers.

The new wind energy report

The American Wind Energy Association and the A Renewable America campaign of the Wind Energy Foundation produced a new wind energy report, titled The Consumer Benefits of Wind Energy in Iowa.

It appears the industry is looking to Iowa as a test case for building public support for new transmission lines nationwide. That's a smart move, since growing the wind market depends on building new interstate transmission lines as well as intrastate lines.

Iowa already has a thriving wind industry thanks in large measure to the interest of legendary investor Warren Buffett. The new report looks at the potential impact on consumers in the state, if Iowa doubles its amount of planned and operational wind power.

According to the report, planned and operational wind in Iowa now adds up to about 10,000 megawatts. Doubling that to 20,000 could potentially lead to this result:

"Adding 10,000 MW of wind beyond the amount that is currently operating and planned would save Iowa consumers about $12.6 billion on net over the next 25 years, with average annual savings in excess of $500 million," the report's authors concluded.

That's the nut of the argument for consumers. As the wind industry argues, you're not just replacing one form of energy with another. You're actually getting more bang for your buck.

Here's how the report breaks it down for individual householders over that 25-year period:

"The average household would on net save $3,200 on their electric bills, while the average industrial customer would save $825,000 over that period if their electricity needs were met with wind energy."

A key factor the report takes into consideration is the falling cost of wind power, and the rising cost of coal power. It also includes a detailed look at 3,500 power plants in the region to compare cost fluctuations in other fuel prices with "zero-fuel cost" wind energy.

A rocky road for new wind transmission lines

Iowa has almost ideal conditions for wind farms, and the new report makes a good case for building more of them. However, getting that power off the farm and over to people's homes and businesses is another can of worms.

New transmission lines are like any other major infrastructure project. They alter the landscape, and those effects can ripple into neighboring properties. For that reason alone, some degree of local opposition is almost inevitable.

The U.S. wind industry is also coming of age in a regulatory landscape unlike anything faced by the early years of the coal power generating industry. Environmental concerns, including wildlife conservation, add another hurdle to transmission route planning.

In addition, the wind industry faces vigorous, non-local opposition from its competition in the fossil sector.

Much of that opposition is funded by the Koch brothers, whose family business is heavily invested in fuel pipelines and other fossil industries.

For example, Koch support for key state policymakers was credited with artificially tamping down the Wisconsin wind industry for years. The relationship between the Koch brothers and one such policymaker -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- apparently fell apart last fall. Coincidentally or not, the wind logjam broke just a few months after the split became public, and new Wisconsin wind farms are suddenly in the works.

The Koch brothers may have lost Gov. Walker, but direct support for public officials is only part of the anti-wind pushback. The brothers, and other key fossil fuel stakeholders, are also linked to a network of high-profile lobbying groups that regularly transmit anti-wind messaging to the public.

On Oct. 7, for example, a Koch-linked think tank called the Heartland Institute (the long-discredited but prominent group known for lobbying against tobacco regulation and climate science) published a long piece excoriating Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's energy proposals.

Heartland had this to say about wind energy and new transmission lines:

"... Generating all U.S. electricity with wind would require more than 710,000 monstrous 400-foot-tall 1.5- to 2.0-MW turbines across 93 million acres – an area the size of Montana – costing over $3 trillion! (The same issues imperil solar power.)

"It would also require thousands of miles of new transmission lines – crossing state and private lands via eminent domain and a 'streamlined' federal permitting process ..."

On the other hand...

Regardless of the opposition, as a general matter of policymaking, energy decisions are typically made at the state and federal level, not at the local level. That's one reason why local communities have mixed results when attempting to restrict or ban fracking within their limits.

Similar forces are at work in the wind industry. The pushback from fossil interests delayed matters. But if recent developments are any indication, it looks like at least some of those new wind transmission lines are on the way.

That's just the start of a massive amount of transmission construction in the years to come. So far, the wind industry has only developed wind farms on land. And it's on the cusp of developing offshore wind farms along the Atlantic coast. When those turbines come online, the demand for new transmission resources will soar.

Any groundwork the wind industry can do now to build up more goodwill among the voting public will certainly come in handy.

Image (screenshot): via "The Consumer Benefits of Wind Energy in Iowa" via the Wind Energy Foundation.




Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey