New coal rush negating wind energy’s promise

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118296438129472.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘Monfort Wind Farm in Iowa County, Wis. is one of more than 300 large-scale turbines at 15 wind farms across the upper Midwest from which Alliant Energy purchases wind energy.‘);

After being held in check for several years, windpower development in the Badger State is finally on the move! Construction will begin this year on four utility-scale projects in eastern Wisconsin, three of which are located wholly or partially within Fond du Lac County. They are:

We Energies’ Blue Sky Green Field project. This 88-turbine project will straddle the towns of Marshfield and Calumet overlooking the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago;

Alliant Energy’s Cedar Ridge project. This project will be built in the Town of Eden, east of We Energies’ two turbines along U.S 41;

InvenergyLLC’s Forward Wind Center. Located south of Fond du Lac and east of Horicon Marsh, this project will serve three utilities and will likely be the largest in Wisconsin; and

Eurus/Midwest Wind Energy’s Butler Ridge project. The energy from this 36-turbine installation in southeast Dodge County will be sold to Wisconsin Public Power, Inc.

Having secured all the necessary approvals from local, state and federal authorities, project owners have a little more than 18 months to complete their installations. In all four cases, the construction timetable envisions achieving commercial operation on or before Dec. 31, 2008, in time to capture the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC), now worth 2 cents/kWh, before it expires under current law.

To put the size and sweep of this wave of windpower projects in perspective, Butler Ridge, the smallest of the four projects, will by itself outperform Wisconsin’s fleet of existing utility-scale turbines, all 55 of them. Currently at 53 megawatts (MW), Wisconsin’s wind-generating capacity should total between 400 and 480 MW by the end of 2008, an increase of nearly one order of magnitude.

When completed, the new projects will produce about 1 million carbon-free megawatt-hours (MWH) each year, or 1.5 percent of the total volume of electricity likely to be sold in Wisconsin in 2009. These projects will reduce the carbon footprint of Wisconsin’s electric system by about 1 million tons of CO2 a year.

That may look like a substantial reduction, but in reality, it isn’t. The total volume of CO2 discharged from in-state sources rose to 122 million tons in 2005, according to the most recent edition of Wisconsin Energy Statistics. In 2003, emissions totaled 120.2 million tons, meaning that Wisconsin’s Class of 2008 wind projects will offset about an average year’s increase in CO2 discharges.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) estimates that wind generation will account for about 90 percent of the 4 million MWH/year of new renewable electricity that Wisconsin utilities must provide by 2015. That equates to about 1,800 MW of new capacity, which would displace the equivalent of four years’ growth in CO2 emissions. It would take about 1,000 commercial wind turbines to produce all that energy, by no means a cakewalk given the state’s volatile siting environment and its pretty-good-but-not-great wind resource.

Taking a broader look, carbon dioxide discharges from Wisconsin sources have risen 25 million tons per year since 1990, an increase of nearly 26 percent over the benchmark year established under the Kyoto Agreement. If offsetting one year’s worth of growth means building 450 MW of wind generation, how many additional turbines would have to be installed to counteract the growth in emissions from the entire electricity generation sector since 1990. Answer: 3,000 turbines.

Simply stated, Wisconsin has neither the physical space nor the resource to accommodate a “moon-shot” CO2 reduction campaign strictly by substituting renewable energy for fossil energy.

In reality, the challenge is even more daunting than what is suggested by those numbers. While actual electricity usage in Wisconsin has climbed by more than 40 percent since 1990, CO2 emissions lagged behind, reflecting a period when natural gas dethroned coal and became the utilities’ default energy resource. But when natural gas proved to be a costly flirtation, the utilities responded by bringing King Coal back from exile, and he’s making up for lost time. Two Wisconsin utilities are now building three large coal-fired power stations, totaling 1,700 MW. Once they’re placed in service, these units will generate about 15 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity.

How many additional wind turbines are needed just to offset the carbon footprint from these three coal plants? Answer: Another 3,000.

No matter how many wind turbines are added to the grid, a reduction in carbon emissions is unachievable so long as the utilities are allowed to build new coal plants. And it is virtually impossible to cut emissions back to 1990 levels without shutting down existing coal plants. To borrow a line from Christopher Buckley’s new book Boomsday, we can run from that kind of math, but we can’t hide.

If the goal is to remove carbon from the atmosphere, we need to take stronger action than simply establishing quotas for renewable electricity production. We have no alternative but to impose quotas on fossil fuel usage as well that ratchet down over time. Yes, wind turbines produce clean energy without adding to the volume of CO2 going into the atmosphere. But absent a complementary reduction in electricity demand, as measured by actual reductions in the quantities of coal, gasoline, diesel and natural gas consumed over time, new wind turbines will have no effect on overall levels of CO2. For that, we must simply use less fossil energy, starting today.

from the June 27-July 4, 2007, issue

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