Part IV: What’s Next: Wind Energy Isn’t a Breeze

Editor’s note: This is Part IV of a series from TheHub@TTU examining the state of energy in Texas. 

By: Haley Turner

Renewable energy sources are thriving more and more each year, and the industries hope that one day enough power will exist to power cities alone.

But where does wind energy fall into the grand scheme of things?

 

Taxes, Obstacles and Possibilities

According to Matt Saldana, a wind energy instructor, the industry is growing, but a large portion of the future will hinge on what happens with the tax plan and tax incentives for the industry.

Saldana said by 2020, the tax incentives will phase out and the new tax plan will cut them off quickly, but there is still time to do something about it.

“It does change the way you do business moving forward, and right now, it’s growing,” Saldana said. “But a lot of it is dependent on that tax plan.”

Saldana said the ridding of the tax incentive holds a positive, however. He said it will allow companies in the industry who do not want to take part in viable projects to fade out and let the industry move forward.

Along with the difficulties of a new tax plan and the unknown response by the industry, other challenges must be overcome for the industry to persist.

Saldana said things that are not in our control are the main challenges within the industry and production of power, such as when the wind blows.

He said researchers within the industry do their best to forecast the wind, but it’s not always accurate because wind is really intermittent.

“A fossil fuel is known as a dispatchable, so when you need it, you use more of it,” Saldana said. “Electricity from coal, you just burn more coal. When you need wind energy, and it’s not windy, well, you’re kind of stuck.”

He said storage is also something that could be improved in the wind energy industry. Batteries to store the power when it is not being used so it can be referred to later are being worked on, but there are not any that are viable right now, he said.

In addition to structural aspects that can be fixed, location is always a consideration.

Saldana said wind farms are getting smaller because no one wants to lock land in for 20-plus years. He said there is a lot of talk of putting solar and wind farms together, but it has not happened yet.

Many people do not realize the invisible features and challenges of the energy market, and the wind energy industry specifically.

Saldana said a lot of the industry is political, and there is a bigger political division seen today.

“Wind energy is very politically motivated,” he said. “We don’t really have an energy policy, per se. We have goals and guidelines, but that changes with administration.”

For example, President Bush Jr. was big on arctic drilling; President Obama was big on renewable and green energy; and now we are seeing that President Trump is pro-fossil fuels.

Even with all of these challenges, Saldana said wind is still at the top of the list in terms of growth, commercial growth, and scale.

What About Texas?

Andy Swift, associate director for wind energy education programs, said Texas is the leading state in the nation for installed wind energy capacity, contributing 10 to 15 percent of the total electric energy supply for the state.

Swift said not only is Texas the leader in installing the wind turbines themselves, but also putting in the transmission lines to the customer markets.

“The industry has grown very, very quickly here,” Swift said.  “The state has been very friendly – they have built the transmission lines. You have to get the electricity to the customer, so you have to have a wire.”

Cost of Wind Energy

Swift said the transmission lines cost a lot of money and residents pay for it on their electricity bills.

Swift said the cost of wind energy has not been cheaper, but it has decreased considerably in recent years and is getting to be cheaper than other sources of electricity. This keeps wind competitive, he said.

Matt Saldana said most of the power we generate in the west Texas area is used in Dallas, Houston and Austin. He said most wind power goes to the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) region, and Lubbock is not in that region.

There is an energy mix in the area, and the potential to power more homes is definitely there, Saldana said. The people and cities typically like wind energy because of its incentives, and it’s an industry where there is a lot of money to be made, he said.

Growth of Wind Energy

Swift said, however, the continuation of lowering costs and public acceptance for wind installations are challenges that the industry is trying to work on.

Instructor Chris Pattison said the industry is doing many things to improve and grow, just as Saldana and Swift believe.

Pattison said technology is allowing the lower wind sights to now be profitable, such as the production of longer blades and taller towers.

He said the industry is currently looking at blade design changes to make them more efficient and move the industry forward as well.

In terms of powering homes, people underestimate how much power it actually takes from a wind turbine.

Pattison said the average American home consumes 1,000 kilowatt hours a month per one megawatt hour. In comparison, Europe, however, uses one-fourth that amount.

“When you say wind is powering six million homes, well yeah six million homes, but at four times than anybody else.”

Limitations

Agreeing with Swift’s views on transmission lines, Pattison said it is one of the biggest limiting factors to powering more homes.

He said in the instance of transmission lines being too far away and costing a large amount to get to per mile, the wind project is killed and the industry will not do it.

In regards to improvements already made, Swift said the industry continues to focus on improving the safety for wildlife and the environment.

“There are bird kills but look at the data – cats kill more birds than wind turbines,” Swift said. “The top category in the built environment that kill birds are buildings. Buildings kill more birds by huge numbers.”

The industry currently uses radars in certain areas for targeting migrating bird patterns and the turbines will turn off once they are detected, he said.

Swift also said the governmental incentives have less and less of an impact on the industry all of the time. There are some exceptions, he said; for example, some states are considering legal things that would become roadblocks, such as implementing a wind tax.

Regardless, Swift said wind energy has grown in the U.S. very quickly and continues to grow.

Georgetown has recently become the only city in Texas that is 100 percent powered by renewable energy sources, he said.

“Once you build a wind turbine, you can determine the costs over time, and then you know how much electricity is going to cost every year,” Swift said. “With natural gas, the price can go up or down, depending on a number of external factors, so the cost for electricity from natural gas generation will go up and down accordingly.”

He said wind energy, once installed, is virtually a fixed cost. It’s clean power and it’s dependable, and that’s why he believes it will continue to grow.

About Haley Turner

Haley is a journalism major and the Hub's community reporter. She loves all things Chick-fil-A, cold weather, and candles. Her dream is to live in Colorado and work for a local news publication or company.

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