Vermont Law School Top 10: Wind and Solar Project Make Breakthroughs

Jan 05, 2011 No Comments by

Vermont Law School has published their top ten environmental watch items for 2011. Number 7 is “Wind and Solar Projects Make Breakthroughts.” Their write up is below. Both Annette Smith and Ben Luce have posted comments steering the discussion towards more community scale projects. 

Ben Luce’s second comment is a particularly good summation of the issues with utility scale wind in Vermont.

Issue at stake: Cape Wind, the nation’s first offshore wind project, gained key regulatory approvals in 2010, and 4,000 megawatts of new solar capacity are planned for the Southwest in the largest solar projects on U.S. public lands. But will the momentum achieved by these landmark renewable energy projects continue in 2011 given the political and economic climate?

2010 definitely put a fair wind behind the notion of building 440-foot turbines offshore to generate electricity within sight of those who need the energy but who do not necessarily like to look at such structures. In April, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved a federal permit for the 130-turbine Cape Wind project planned for Nantucket Sound off the shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, making it the poster child for major renewable energy projects located near major population centers. In September, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the project’s facility siting decision. In October, Salazar signed a federal lease for the $2 billion project. And in November, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities approved a 15-year contract for National Grid, a regional utility, to purchase 50 percent of Cape Wind’s output.

These developments came after nine years of regulatory review, legal wrangling, and other hurdles, but it’s still uncertain whether the project will start construction in 2011. Decisions are expected early next year on motions to dismiss three lawsuits challenging Cape Wind’s federal permit. The project’s power purchase agreement will be appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on the ground, among other things, that it imposes unreasonably high rates on consumers. And Cape Wind still has to negotiate a contract for the remaining 50 percent of its power.

Prospects for offshore wind energy along the Atlantic seaboard further improved in October when Google and other deep-pocket investors agreed to support a 250-mile underwater transmission line. The $5 billion Atlantic Wind Connection project, which would have a capacity of 6,000 megawatts, would run 350 miles from New Jersey to Virginia, with a goal of connecting offshore wind projects to the electricity grid. And in November, Salazar announced an initiative intended to streamline the permitting process for wind power projects on the Outer Continental Shelf along the Atlantic coast.

A similar initiative is under way in the West to fast-track reviews and permits for the construction of massive solar power facilities. In the Southwest, no fewer than nine major solar power installations aimed to begin construction by the end of 2010 to take advantage of federal tax credits set to expire at year’s end. The first was the $2 billion Ivanhoe project in the Mojave Desert.

Climate change notwithstanding, wind and solar power are a tough sell. First and foremost, they are expensive—when National Grid agreed to purchase half of Cape Wind’s output, regulators gulped but ultimately approved the agreed-upon rate of 18.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. By comparison, on a random Wednesday afternoon in December 2010, the same utility could have bought electricity on the open market for less than 5.4 cents.

Massachusetts is one of 30 states that have adopted some form of “renewable portfolio standard” that requires utilities to acquire at least a portion of their energy from renewable sources despite their being more expensive. But the 111th Congress did not approve such a standard at the nationwide level, nor did it enact climate change legislation. Renewable energy confronts significant new challenges with prospects for such federal legislation even dimmer as the 112th Congress convened, federal tax incentives expiring, and the economic downturn reducing demand for new capacity while drying up investment capital.

Apart from economic challenges, the developers of the nation’s first major offshore wind facility had to survive nearly a decade of regulatory struggles as politicians and regulators grappled with skepticism and hostility from those who would live and recreate within sight of the Cape Wind project. These struggles have bedeviled wind entrepreneurs whenever they have sought to build facilities near lots of people. Though less populated regions, like much of Texas and the northern Plains, are fruitful locations for massive wind projects, the transmission infrastructure simply does not exist at present to deliver their power to the coastal regions where most electricity customers are. The resulting financial and aesthetic controversies are potentially even more difficult than those experienced by Cape Wind.

Meantime, the massive new renewable energy facilities being launched in California and Arizona are not your grandfather’s solar panels. This time, it’s all done with mirrors—literally. Thousands of mirrors reflect sunlight to a single point to heat liquids, which, in turn, power conventional electric turbines. But this new generation of solar facilities brings its own contentious siting issues because they use up lots of acreage, consume massive amounts of water, affect endangered species habitat, and require their own expensive transmission system upgrades. In California’s Imperial Valley, the Quechan Tribe is suing the federal government to try to stop construction of a 709-megawatt solar facility planned for more than 6,000 acres of public desert land that the tribe considers sacred.

Significance: Addressing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions requires major changes in the nation’s electric industry. Half the nation’s energy use is devoted to the production of electricity, and more than half the nation’s electricity is produced by coal—the most carbon-intensive fuel there is. Wind and solar power account for less than 3 percent of U.S. electricity generation.

Given these realities, the significant advances achieved by wind and solar power in 2010 can be misleading in their reassurance. Sure, Ohio started 2010 with 7 megawatts of wind capacity and was, by year’s end, projecting 1,100 megawatts’ worth of turbines. But Ohio’s overall generation capacity, including the predominant energy source of coal, was in excess of 30,000 megawatts.

Similarly, a $2 billion solar investment in the Mojave Desert yields just 370 megawatts of capacity, which would serve the needs of fewer than 200,000 customers. Cape Wind’s capacity will be less than 500 megawatts. And, of course, wind and solar resources only produce electricity when the wind blows and the sun shines, which means that displacing 500 megawatts of CO2-emitting coal power requires far more than 500 megawatts of new solar or wind power. The urgent need for vastly more renewable capacity is more obvious than ever, but the outlook for these projects in 2011 and onward is, regrettably, uncertain.

Next steps: The CEO of the American Wind Energy Association has identified legislators from what she calls the “windy red states” as key to the near-term success of the renewable energy industry. Though lukewarm on matters of climate change, these lawmakers may well see the economic development potential of renewable energy. Conventional energy fuels, from fossil to nuclear, historically enjoy vast explicit and implicit subsidies. To hold their own against this competition, renewable sources like solar and wind must persuade Congress to extend tax incentives, implement a nationwide renewable portfolio standard, or otherwise act to continue to stimulate these alternatives to greenhouse gas emissions. Though Cape Wind has cleared the major regulatory hurdles it still faces numerous legal challenges in both federal and state courts and the project must negotiate a contract for the other half of the power. Likewise, the proposed solar plants must survive several legal challenges that could substantially delay their deployment. On December 15, a federal district court judge in Southern California halted the start of construction of the Imperial Valley project pending further environmental review and consultation with the Quechan Tribe over impacts to historic and archeological resources important to the tribe. The project’s developer said the ruling is a setback. To be eligible for stimulus funding, the project had to start before the end of 2010. It wasn’t clear whether the federal government would appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

4 responses to “Wind and Solar Projects Make Breakthroughs”

Annette Smith

January 3, 2011 at 5:48 pm

I’m curious why this write-up is so focused on large-scale, industrial projects. The beauty of solar photovoltaics is that it can be done on a small scale, generating the electricity where it is used. The approach suggested by these authors is not working primarily because these huge projects driven by corporations benefit a few individuals at the expense of local communities. We can be optimistic about deploying renewables, especially solar, as it is coming down in price and expected to be at grid parity by 2015. Big wind turbines are problematic almost everywhere they are proposed; they are not the best technology for populated areas, pose very real threats to wildlife, and are too far from population centers, requiring billions of dollars of new transmission lines while still requiring fossil fuel back-up generation, producing low-value power compared to solar PV which matches our usage better. VLS seems to be siding with the large centralized-power-plant and big grid model of our electricity future. Why not focus, instead, on locally-distributed generation which is what some people predict is the way of the future? See this article from The New York Times for another perspective:

Ben Luce

January 3, 2011 at 7:23 pm

This article gives a good update of the current status of some recent projects, but misses a few key things.

It has been the commonplace practice in this country to push for the rapid development of new energy sources with little regard for the impacts. In every case there are seeming very compelling reasons at the time, but then later on we often find ourselves with regrets. I believe the current push for wind and solar development in certain places is no different.

The push for Cape Wind in particular, has in my view severely damaged public support for wind power. This push is also not technically justified: Virtually all of the good offshore wind potential lies much farther offshore. Wind power in the Eastern US will not make a significant impact to reducing emissions, with or without Cape Wind and similar projects, until that much greater resource is developed. The attempt to shove Cape Wind, and mountaintop wind development as well, down the throats of people living nearby is only strengthening the overall opposition to wind, and made development of truly significant wind generation all the more difficult politically. This is all the more so because offshore and mountaintop wind are particularly expensive for various reasons, and the Cape Wind fight has now made the public acutely aware of this. Wind development far offshore, on the other hand, has so real potential for economies of scale, but getting that going is now going to be an even harder sell.

A similar situation exists with solar. While concentrating solar power, that is, the type that uses the large mirrors, and which is referred to in the article, could certainly supply a significant amount of power needs in the American Southwest, it is primarily limited to the Southwest region, as CSP requires very abundant “direct beam” radiation. Really serious contributions from solar to US energy supply overall will not come until photovoltaics, which do not require abundant direct beam radiation, become affordable. Cost projections suggest that will likely occur beginning in about 2015 (see online data by PV industry analyst Paula Mints and others).

Fortunately, PV is quite different from CSP, and opposition to CSP MIGHT not taint PV prospects politically overall, but this is not entirely clear yet. In some ways, public opposition to certain wind and solar development might even help PV somewhat, at least on a local level.

On the whole, I believe that many proponents of clean energy have made a grave mistake in not acknowledging the serious downsides of things such as siting wind turbines too close to people, or devastating mountaintops for wind development, or desert areas with solar development. In truth, we are swimming in massive renewable energy resources – for example the solar energy falling on our roofs, and the wind resources of the midwest and offshore.

And the cost trends with PV, at least, suggest that it will soon be possible to access this resource in a massive way, given adequate public interest and political support.

So there is really no reason at all to try to force development that has strong impacts to both nature and communities. We only need to work at reducing the cost of PV through economies of scale and innovation, and getting far-offshore wind techn0logy perfected and deployed, and perhaps also getting some of that needed wind transmission in the Midwest. In the end, these are really our only options to getting serious renewables going anyway.

Don Kreis

January 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm

In my view, Annette Smith and Ben Luce make valid points in the course of making similar arguments in favor of a greater emphasis on small-scale renewable generation resources. As Vermonters, we at Vermont Law School are especially proud of the efforts our state has undertaken in this regard — our feed-in tariff program, community net metering initiatives, and old-fashioned net metering programs are doing precisely what Ms. Smith and Mr. Luce propose — creating renewable capacity where it can be used most effectively, with few of the externalities of which they quite rightly complain. In this regard, the possibility looms large that state initiatives of this sort may be preempted in whole or in part by federal law. The FERC has been grappling with that issue of late.

It is, moreover, our contention that in order to address the threat posed by climate change we must essentially throw everything we have at the problem. Those big solar projects in the desert southwest use up vast amounts of precious water. New transmission lines are expensive and unsightly. Cape Wind has, in some senses, created public skepticism when public support would be better.

It remains my personal view that utility-scale wind turbines (of the sort Cape Wind will build, for example) actually enhance rather than detract from the visual appeal of the scenery they inhabit. The industrial objects we revere today — lighthouses, barns, water wheels, windmills — were, in their day, startling interventions.

In any event, I plead guilty to the charge leveled by Annette Smith that I have focussed on large projects to the exclusion small-scale efforts that, collectively, may be more desireable and more likely to advance the greater good. To some extent, this is inherent in the concept of a Top 10 list. An interesting question to consider is whether it will be possible to decommission the big projects with relatively few permanent impacts when and if it proves necessary that other, perhaps smaller, projects replace them.

Ben Luce

January 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Don Kreis’s response addresses a central notion in this debate. He states “It is, moreover, our contention that in order to address the threat posed by climate change we must essentially throw everything we have at the problem.”

In my view, this stance is simply a technically falsifiable excuse to ignore the impacts of inappropriate renewable energy development.

First, Don states that “It remains my personal view that utility-scale wind turbines (of the sort Cape Wind will build, for example) actually enhance rather than detract from the visual appeal of the scenery they inhabit.” I would suggest anyone who feels this way take a careful look at what utility-scale wind development actually does to mountaintops in the Northeast: It utterly devastates them. Look at photos of Mars Hill in Maine for example. Like the Mountaintops today, the valley’s of the Northeast were once unspoiled natural places. They are no longer: We humans long ago completely invaded and permanently occupied them with our towns, farms, roads, etc. Fortunately we somehow managed to leave many of the mountains in this region relatively unscathed. But utility-scale wind now threatens to do the same thing to the mountains.

Don’s comments also ignores the issues with noise, which is turning out to be a serious issue with utility-scale wind – don’t believe the hype to the contrary. It also ignores the impacts to eco-tourism. A recent comprehensive study by the State of Vermont (on the “Vermont Brand”) recently provided hard evidence that people vacation here specifically because the landscape is “unspoiled”. Utility-scale turbines, unfortunately, are enormous in scale even compared with the mountains, and they spin. They become an utterly distracting feature, and they will utterly ruin the image of Vermont as an unspoiled natural landscape. They are infinitely more distracting than barns, water wheels, etc.

Secondly, Don’s “we need it all” stance lacks a quantitative analysis and acknowledge of the scale of the development that will be needed if his stance is correct. A few wind farms here and there in Vermont and similarly spaced around the rest of the Northeast, for example, will produce basically nothing in terms of significant CO2 reductions. Using DOE data, I calculated recently that if we were to develop ALL of the mountaintop wind resource that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has identified as “developable” in the entire Eastern US, then this would reduce US CO2 emissions by no more than about 1% at best. This immediately calls into question the notion that this is a renewable energy resource that we “must” develop.

The small size of the ridge line wind resource is precisely why, as I explained in my previous post, that we will simply not see significant renewable energy development, and significant reductions in CO2 emissions, until PV and/or offshore wind power is developed. All of the proposed ridge line wind is merely an almost meaningless quick-grab gesture that will make a few people rich while destroying our natural heritage, but will do almost nothing to reduce US CO2 emissions. Sorry to say, but this is just the technical reality.

To get a feeling for why the ridge line resource is really so small, consider the following: Just to replace the equivalent of the 620 megawatt Yankee Nuclear Plant, which is just a few percent of the power generation capacity in the Northeast, it would take roughly 150 miles of ridge line – basically a distance equal to the north-south length of Vermont. This is assuming 2 megawatt turbines spaced closely at 750 feet on average, and a capacity factor of about 29%. Now imagine what it would take to power all of the Eastern US this way, which is over 300 times as much generation. Not surprising, the number turns to out to be many, many times the actual available wind resource (as I said above, all of the actual wind resource in the Eastern US would only reduce US emissions by about 1%).

These facts have some very clear logical implications: On one hand, if it really is necessary to develop this relatively small resource, then it follows there must be a dearth of alternatives. That in turn implies that we would need to develop ALL of the ridge line resource.

This shows that the general stance of the Vermont environmental community, which can be summarized by saying that we will just develop some of the resource in appropriate places, is subtly but grossly inconsistent with the simultaneous claim that we must develop this resource.

On the other hand, if there is not a dearth of alternatives, then there is really is no necessity to develop some of the small, highly destructive options, such as Cape Wind and ridge line wind.

So which view is correct? The second one is, hands down, because the first is based on a false premise: The solar energy resource, and the offshore wind resource, are both vastly larger than we would ever need. And secondly, as I explained in my last post, the cost of PV is on a historic convergence with “grid parity”. After that occurs, I doubt anyone will be looking a ridge line wind power development at all any way. It will look more like what it is – a highly expensive and wildly destructive and limited approach to generating electricity.

A couple of other final comments. Don also remarked that “Those big solar projects in the desert southwest use up vast amounts of precious water.” This is actually avoidable. CSP plants can be outfitted with “dry cooling”, which reduces the water consumption to nearly zero, with a fairly small drop in plant efficiency and increase in cost. The only reason CSP plants are not generally incorporating dry cooling from the get-go is that the developers and utility boards rightly perceive that its not fair to put this burden on solar plants while fossil plants are not under similar requirements. In an ideal world, we would require fossil plants to have dry cooling, or tax their water use, to level this playing field. The real issue therefore with CSP plants is not water use, but the destruction of desert habitats.

Also, it is known to me that some Vermont Law School attorneys are profiting directly by their work for ridge line wind developers such as First Wind. Personally, I don’t consider this to be supportive of green energy development at all, but rather that it is instead undermining such development, destroying our natural heritage, delaying the development of appropriate renewables, and dividing and weakening our communities. I therefore seriously hope that those so employed take a closer look at the technical facts, and stop supporting the destruction of our mountaintops.

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