Friday, December 13, 2013

Maine environmental groups clash over wind power

Two environmental groups are going head to head over the impact on wildlife and the future benefits of wind energy development in Maine.

Friends of Maine’s Mountains challenged Maine Audubon on Thursday to retract a recent report that says wind energy is sometimes compatible with wildlife, and to acknowledge funding it receives from the wind power industry.

Maine Audubon defended its report, “Wind Power and Wildlife in Maine,” and questioned whether the leaders of Friends of Maine’s Mountains fully understand its parameters and recommendations.

Maine Audubon, a nonprofit based in Falmouth, released a report Dec. 4 saying that the state has 1.1 million acres that are windy enough for power generation, and that wind turbines could be developed on 84 percent of that area with minimal impact on some wildlife and habitat resources.

Friends of Maine’s Mountains questioned why Maine Audubon would endorse the installation of more “bird-killing machines” based on a study that – in its view – failed to throughly investigate the benefits of wind power and its effects on migratory birds and other wildlife.

“The Audubon brand is a strong environmental brand,” said Richard McDonald, a board member of Friends of Maine’s Mountains. “It’s like giving wind-energy development the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”

Friends of Maine’s Mountains is a Weld-based nonprofit that has opposed wind-energy projects and advocates on behalf of natural resources, reliable energy and affordable power.

Michelle Smith, Maine Audubon’s spokeswoman, said she was surprised that Friends of Maine’s Mountains came out against the report, because it recommends that “any land-based wind development in the mountainous areas of northern and western Maine and along our coast be carefully studied.”

“We’re not advocating that wind turbines can be sited anywhere,” Smith said. “The goal of this report is to start a dialogue about where we can rightly site wind turbines in Maine that has the least impact on wildlife and its habitat.”

Smith noted that state officials have set a goal to have capacity to produce 3,000 megawatts of land-based wind energy by 2030, which would require adding 600 wind turbines to Maine’s landscape. The state now has 200 turbines.


Last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior decided to extend the period in which wind power companies are permitted to kill or injure bald or golden eagles with wind turbines without penalty from five to 30 years.

The decision was immediately controversial. Although bald eagles are no longer listed as threatened or endangered, bald and golden eagles are still protected species.

“Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check,” said David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society.

On Thursday, Friends of Maine’s Mountains asked Maine Audubon, which is independent from the national group, to reconcile the recommendations in its wind energy report with its advocacy for wildlife.

“I’m not sure where (Friends of Maine’s Mountains) is going with that,” Smith responded. “We would never support the killing of eagles.”

The friends group also concluded that Maine Audubon’s report gives the wind power industry a “free pass” to develop projects without regard for their impact on wildlife. The group’s leaders urged Maine Audubon to re-evaluate its association with wind energy companies.

Among Maine Audubon’s top corporate donors is First Wind, a renewable-energy company that has developed and operates 16 wind power projects in Maine, New York, Vermont, Utah, Washington and Hawaii.

According to Maine Audubon’s website, the Boston-based company is an Eagle-level donor, along with L.L. Bean and Maine Magazine, each having contributed more than $10,000 this year.

Friends of Maine’s Mountains indicated that corporate donors that gave at lower levels also benefit from Maine Audubon’s support for wind power development, including Falcon-level ($5,000-plus) donor Reed & Reed general contractors and Osprey-level ($2,500-plus) donor Central Maine Power Co.

The friends group also said in a news release Thursday that Maine Audubon’s report is “deficient in necessary scientific rigor required to conclude that industrial wind turbines are not detrimental to Maine’s wildlife and their habitats.”

The group called on Rebecca Holberton, a professor of biology and ecology at the University of Maine who saw a lack of reliable field study data and collision-risk assessment in Maine Audubon’s report.

Holberton noted that the report is “replete with disclaimers” about the limits of its findings, and questioned whether it should have been presented as a valid guide for siting wind turbines.


Susan Gallo, the wildlife biologist at Maine Audubon who wrote the report, acknowledged that the study is based on existing data, such as wildlife habitat maps. She said the report doesn’t eliminate the need for site-by-site analysis of wind energy proposals, but it does balance Maine Audubon’s concern for wildlife preservation and bird migration patterns with a policy goal to stem climate change and end dependence on fossil fuels.

“We knew this was going to happen,” Gallo said. “This report wasn’t a comprehensive analysis of risks to wildlife. We didn’t address whether turbines are good or bad. We support wind in concept but not every wind development. And because of that, we often get attacked from both pro-wind and anti-wind.”
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, defended Maine Audubon’s report.

“It’s shameful (that Friends of Maine’s Mountains) continually try and stand in the way of this clean, renewable power that is creating jobs, driving investment and increasing tax revenues for municipalities, counties and state government,” Payne said in a written statement.

Payne challenged the friends group to reveal its funding sources.

“We’re a volunteer organization with about 150 members and four board members who do most of the work,” said McDonald, who is a real estate agent in Kennebunk. “We rely on individual contributions. We have about $200 in the bank right now.”


Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Answer, for Republicans on Tax Incentive, Isn't Always Blowing in the Wind

House Republicans hailing from the windiest of districts are coming out on different sides of the fight over the production tax credit, which the wind-power industry considers key to its growth—and which will expire at year's end unless Congress votes to renew it.
"I have supported it in the past, and there are efforts being worked on now to try to maybe change, ramp it down," said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., whose district is the sixth-windiest in the country, according to data compiled by the American Wind Energy Association. After a pause, Gardner added: "But, I would support it, yes."
Of the top 10 windiest congressional districts in the country, nine are represented by Republicans, according to AWEA's 2012 annual report.
House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., whose district ranks fifth on the list, said in a statement to National Journal Daily that he, too, supports an extension of the PTC. "While it is not completely clear in what form it would be extended, I believe it is important that we continue investing in this resource to help increase the production of all forms of American made energy," Lucas said.
Every year around this time, the pressure builds in Congress to pass a host of temporary tax policies—often called extenders—including the wind-energy tax credit, which has been on the books for 22 years with just a couple of short lapses. After expiring for two days in early January, Congress voted to extend the PTC for one year.
With another expiration date looming, wind-energy lobbyists privately say Congress is unlikely to extend the policy by year's end. This is for a couple reasons: 1) The most obvious legislative vehicle for the tax-extenders package—the budget—does not include them; and 2) Republican leadership in the House is reluctant to act on any individual tax policies before House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and his counterpart in the Senate, Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., make progress on comprehensive tax reform, which they've both pledged to pursue.
This effort is the key reason why House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., whose district is the fourth-windiest in the country, is not coming out in support of an extension this year.
"The Whip is supportive of the current efforts by Chairman Camp and the Ways and Means Committee to reform our tax code," a spokesman for McCarthy said in an email to National Journal Daily. That's a change in tone from last year. "I think we should do it," McCarthy said when asked at a National Journal event whether he supports extending it.
Texas, the biggest wind-producing state, includes three of the windiest districts, all represented by Republicans who support, to varying degrees, phasing out the tax credit.
"The wind industry has been a great success in Texas, and according to its own reports, it will soon be cost-competitive with cheaper forms of electricity," Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, who represents the windiest district in the country, said in a statement. "Because of this success, I believe it's time for a gradual phase-out of the Production Tax Credit."
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, whose district is the eighth-windiest, has shifted his position over the past couple of years. In 2011, he introduced a bill to extend the policy for 10 years, but a similar proposal he introduced in May called for a phase-out.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., whose district rounds out the top 10, also opposes extending the policy. "I have long supported an 'all-of-the-above' approach to America's energy needs, but I believe it is time for wind energy to learn to survive without the support of the production tax credit," Kinzinger said in a statement.
Kinzinger's district also includes a heavy presence from Exelon, the nation's largest generator of nuclear power, which has been lobbying to end the wind tax credit over the past year or more.
The House's biggest opponent of the wind tax credit—and most other temporary energy tax incentives—sees support growing for his cause. "I have noticed a difference," said Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan. "Even those folks who have been on the other side aren't as vocal. I think there is an increasing recognition that this kind of narrow carve-out doesn't make sense."
When asked about his colleagues who support extending the PTC, Pompeo responded: "We just have a disagreement."
Having a lot of wind in your district shouldn't be the only reason to support a tax incentive, Pompeo said. "We have a tremendous amount of wind energy in Kansas," he said. (The state is fifth in the country for wind generation, according to AWEA.) "One could make the case that for that reason alone I should support it," Pompeo said. "But it doesn't make sense for Kansas consumers."
To what extent, if at all, Congress tackles comprehensive tax reform next year will affect whether lawmakers vote to retroactively extend the wind tax credit sometime next year. Lobbyists say that the expiration of the PTC would start having a measurable negative impact by April.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

First Wind CEO to Address the Future of Wind Energy


The Energy Sustainability Center and the Center for a Sustainable WPI will present Paul J. Gaynor, chief executive officer of First Wind, who will give a talk titled, “Wind Energy: Will the Growth Continue?”


Paul Gaynor graduated from WPI in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. He also holds a master of business administration from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. Gaynor is responsible for the strategic direction and overall management of First Wind Corp. of Boston. He has more than 20 years of experience in the energy field, with leadership and finance roles in the energy, power and pipeline sectors. In addition, he has been engaged in several landmark energy and power financings around the globe.


Tuesday, Dec. 10, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Refreshments will be served at 4 o'clock, with the presentation to begin at 4:30.


Salisbury Labs Room 104, WPI campus, 100 Institute Road, Worcester, Mass.


From 2002 to 2012, total installed wind energy capacity in the U.S. grew from 4.7 to 60 gigawatts, a significant fraction of the approximately 1,000 gigawatts of total U.S. electric generation capacity. First Wind Corp. has played a major role in that expansion, with wind farms from Hawaii to Maine. Gaynor will summarize the current status of wind generation and describe prospects for continued growth. He will explain the process followed by First Wind to bring major wind generation facilities online and will offer advice on preparation for careers in the renewable energy field.

More Information

First Wind is a Boston-based independent wind energy company focused on the operation of utility-scale wind projects around the country. It is the owner-operator of wind projects in Vermont, Maine, and five other states.


Friday, December 06, 2013

Feds give wind farms the OK to kill eagles for 30 years

The Obama administration has just given wind turbine operators the license to kill birds and eagles for 30 years, a move welcomed by the wind industry but derided by environmentalists and Republicans.
The Interior Department changed a rule that now enables the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend the amount of time renewable energy companies can kill migratory birds and eagles in a bid to boost green energy development. Wind operators can now get a permit to kill birds for 30 years, up from five years.
“Eagles symbolize America’s national heritage and deserve more protection, not less. This rule change will make it harder to protect the remaining eagles that San Diegans love,” said Donna Tisdale, secretary of the environmental group Protect Our Communities Foundation.
The permitting extension would allow renewable energy companies to kill a specified number of birds and eagles at their facilities for 30 years, but only if those bird deaths were unintentional and if companies made efforts to minimize avian deaths.
The Obama administration has been repeatedly criticized by the environmentalists and Republicans for allowing wind turbine sites to kill hundreds of thousands of birds annually with no legal punishment. In particularly, while oil, gas and electrical companies were being heavily fined for killing birds.
“Permits to kill eagles just seems unpatriotic, and 30 years is a long time for some of these projects to accrue a high death rate,” said Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter. “The Administration’s has repeatedly prosecuted oil, gas, and other businesses for taking birds, but looks the other way when wind farms or other renewable energy companies do the exact same thing.”
In November, the Obama administration finally prosecuted an energy company for bird deaths at wind farms. A subsidiary of Duke Energy agreed to pay $1 million in fines for the killing of 160 birds at two wind farms in Wyoming.
The wind industry welcomed the administration’s decision to extend permitting times for wind farms, saying it will protect birds and help the industry grow.
“In summary, this permit duration change will facilitate much needed, long-term eagle conservation efforts, while allowing wind companies to continue to increase the amount of clean, renewable, affordable energy they supply to American consumers,” the American Wind Energy Association said in a statement.
“If you increase the length of eagle take permits from five years to 30 years, common sense says there are going to be some effects on eagles,” said Kelly Fuller, consultant to The Protect Our Communities Foundation and former campaigner at the American Bird Conservancy.
“According to the [Fish and Wildlife Service’s] own Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance, there are no proven measures that will reduce the numbers of eagles killed once the wind turbines are installed,” she added. “This rule change is a disaster.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that 440,000 birds are killed by wind turbines every year in the U.S. However, that number is said to be a low-ball estimate by independent researchers. Each year 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats are killed by wind turbines in the U.S., according a study by K. Shawn Smallwood that was published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

First Wind Purchases Wind Iris LIDAR System

Avent Lidar Technology, a joint venture between Renewable NRG Systems and Leosphere, reports that Boston-based developer First Wind has purchased a Wind Iris LIDAR to optimize the performance of its wind turbines.

According to Avent, the decision resulted from a successful field trial that used data from the nacelle-mounted LIDAR to correct yaw error and increase total energy production. First Wind wanted to improve the yaw alignment of an underperforming wind turbine and decided to test a Wind Iris on the machine, Avent adds.

The Wind Iris collected wind speed and direction data ahead of the turbine for 30 days. Analysis showed an average yaw error of seven degrees, and a correction factor was then applied to the yaw measurement.

“By detecting and accurately quantifying the yaw misalignment, we were able to correct the error and gain significant [annual energy production] improvement,” explains Cegeon Chan, wind resource manager at First Wind. “Based on this evaluation, we decided to purchase a Wind Iris to optimize more turbines in our fleet.”


Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Power struggle: Green energy versus a grid that's not ready

In a sprawling complex of laboratories and futuristic gadgets in Golden, Colo., a supercomputer named Peregrine does a quadrillion calculations per second to help scientists figure out how to keep the lights on.
Peregrine was turned on this year by the U.S. Energy Department. It has the world's largest "petascale" computing capability. It is the size of a Mack truck.
Its job is to figure out how to cope with a risk from something the public generally thinks of as benign — renewable energy.
Energy officials worry a lot these days about the stability of the massive patchwork of wires, substations and algorithms that keeps electricity flowing. They rattle off several scenarios that could lead to a collapse of the power grid — a well-executed cyberattack, a freak storm, sabotage.
But as states, led by California, race to bring more wind, solar and geothermal power online, those and other forms of alternative energy have become a new source of anxiety. The problem is that renewable energy adds unprecedented levels of stress to a grid designed for the previous century.
Green energy is the least predictable kind. Nobody can say for certain when the wind will blow or the sun will shine. A field of solar panels might be cranking out huge amounts of energy one minute and a tiny amount the next if a thick cloud arrives. In many cases, renewable resources exist where transmission lines don't.
"The grid was not built for renewables," said Trieu Mai, senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The frailty imperils lofty goals for greenhouse gas reductions. Concerned state and federal officials are spending billions of dollars in ratepayer and taxpayer money in an effort to hasten the technological breakthroughs needed for the grid to keep up with the demands of clean energy.
Making a green energy future work will be "one of the greatest technological challenges industrialized societies have undertaken," a group of scholars at Caltech said in a recent report. The report notes that by 2030, about $1 trillion is expected to be spent nationwide in bringing the grid up to date.
The role of the grid is to keep the supply of power steady and predictable. Engineers carefully calibrate how much juice to feed into the system as everything from porch lights to factory machines are switched on and off. The balancing requires painstaking precision. A momentary overload can crash the system.
California has taken some of the earliest steps to address the problems. The California Public Utilities Commission last month ordered large power companies to invest heavily in efforts to develop storage technologies that could bottle up wind and solar power, allowing the energy to be distributed more evenly over time.
Whether those technologies will ever be economically viable on a large scale is hotly debated. The commission mandate nonetheless requires companies to produce enough storage by 2024 to power about 1 million homes.
"Energy storage has the potential to be a game changer for our electric grid," Commissioner Mark Ferron said.
Some utility officials warn, however, that the only guarantee is that ratepayers will be spending a lot. The commission's goals, while laudable, "could cost up to $3 billion with uncertain net benefits for customers," Southern California Edison declared in a filing.
But regulators are desperate to move past the status quo. Already, power grid operators in some states have had to dump energy produced by wind turbines on blustery days because regional power systems had no room for it. Officials at the California Independent System Operator, which manages the grid in California, say renewable energy producers are making the juggling act increasingly complex.
"We are getting to the point where we will have to pay people not to produce power," said Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, a system operator board member.
A bigger fear is that the grid is becoming more vulnerable to collapse, leaving the public exposed to the kind of blackouts that hit San Diego, parts of Arizona and a chunk of Baja California on a blistering hot September day in 2011.
Rush-hour traffic jammed as streetlights went dark. Flights were grounded. Pumping stations came to a halt, causing sewage to flow onto beaches. People were trapped in office elevators and on rides at Sea World.
An employee's misstep at a substation near Yuma, Ariz., caused that blackout, but energy experts see it as a harbinger of the sorts of problems that could become frequent if the nation fails to refashion its outmoded power grid.
Foster has been working with other regulators and power company executives to redesign the system. The work involves ideas for mapping and building vast networks of electrical lines, industrial-scale solar- and wind-power plants and backup natural gas plants that can keep the lights on when shifts in weather cause renewable sources to falter. That's the tangible stuff they can easily explain.
But the grid is also built on an antiquated tangle of market rules, operational formulas and business models. It makes for a formidable riddle.
Planners are struggling to plot where and when to deploy solar panels, wind turbines and hydrogen fuel cells without knowing whether regulators will approve the transmission lines to support them.
"One of the biggest challenges is you can't create a market for these resources without solving the demands of moving electricity from one physical place to another," said Neil Fromer, executive director of Caltech's Resnick Sustainability Institute. "But you can't solve that problem until you understand what the market structure looks like."
Back in Colorado, Peregrine is furiously working to map out grid scenarios involving wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy. Sharing space with Peregrine at the Energy Systems Integration Facility is a "visualization room" with a 16-foot screen that creates 3-D images of how different wind patterns interact with turbines, or how molecules interact inside a solar cell.
Federal regulators see an expanded role for themselves as the best hope for powering the nation with as much as 80% renewable energy within the next 35 or so years. Maintaining stability will hinge increasingly on interstate cooperation, they say.
But state regulators are reluctant to cede authority. That's particularly true in California, where bitterness over the energy crisis of more than a decade ago remains intense and makes officials reluctant to cede an inch of jurisdiction to Washington.
Regardless of who wins that power struggle, some of those involved in the day-to-day business of keeping the lights on in California say the limitations of the grid will undermine efforts by activists to move more quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
At the Independent Energy Producers Assn. in Sacramento, which represents owners of renewable and gas power plants, Executive Director Jan Smutny-Jones says proposals by academics and others to move California to as much as 80% renewable energy within the next two decades are bumping up against the challenges of avoiding another San Diego-type blackout.
"Some day that may be the way the world is going to work," he said. "But in the next five or six years, it is not."