Wind Power for City People

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a goal of 80% clean energy sources in the US by 2035, a mandate that would include a 700% increase in the generation of non-hydro renewable energy.  While solar panels and geothermal heat pumps are promising technologies (more about these in future posts), the renewable source that grabs much of the attention (both positive and negative), as well as taxpayer subsidies, is wind-generated energy.  The installed capacity for wind energy generation continues to grow in the US, and current production cost is less than 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, much lower than for solar.  But monetary costs don’t tell the whole story.

Many of the controversies surrounding wind-generated energy are evident in my home state of Texas, which has five large wind farms (and numerous smaller ones): Roscoe, Horse Hollow, Sweetwater, Buffalo Gap, and King Mountain.  Roscoe Wind Farm, in Nolan County, is the world’s largest, and generates enough power to supply over a quarter of a million Texas homes (which is probably equivalent, embarrassingly, to at least a million European homes, but we’re irredeemably prone to excess).  Electricity for the continually expanding city of San Antonio is provided by CPS Energy, which obtains wind-generated power from West Texas (Cottonwood Creek and Desert Sky Wind Farms) and from the Gulf Coast (Papalote Creek and Peñascal Wind Farms).  CPS customers can opt to pay higher rates, to purchase renewable energy and offset the higher costs associated with wind-generated electricity.  This is promoted as an environmentally responsible choice called Windtricity; I’m trying to decide whether to sign up, as our energy costs are relatively low, and I’d like to support the use of renewable energy sources.

pylons

High-voltage transmission lines near Government Canyon State Natural Area

However, there’s Trouble in the Wind-Powered City, Trouble with a capital “T”, which rhymes with “p”, and that stands for “pylons”. Or transmission towers, as we usually call them in the US. Of course the electricity has to be transferred from the wind farms to the cities, often over distances of hundreds of miles. The route from West Texas to San Antonio cuts through the scenic Hill Country, home to unique ecosystems and endangered species, and the site of historic ranches and private country retreats. The pylons divide properties, disrupt and fragment habitats, and fail to be pretty or scenic. They do not bear leaves that change color in the autumn. They don’t provide nesting sites for Golden-cheeked Warblers. No one wants to look at them. NOMBR: Not On My Big Ranch.

maples

Uvalde Bigtooth Maple, Lost Maples State Natural Area

Recently, this issue has come to a head, with the proposal to construct a high-voltage Competitive Renewal Energy Zone (CREZ) transmission line from San Angelo, to the town of Comfort, just west of San Antonio. Ranchers and property owners along the proposed routes protested vehemently, listing beautiful hillside views, historic Native American sites, bat colonies, family ranches, and endangered bird species as potential victims of transmission line construction. Apparently, the Public Utilities Commission listened to these concerns, and an alternate route, which minimized impacts on the ecosystem by following two existing major highways, was considered. And as of January 24, the issue has been settled, such that the lines transmitting “green energy” from the wind farm to San Antonio will be sited primarily along the Interstate-10 corridor, and will be strung on monopoles, rather than on the lattice-type pylons.

monopoles

Tubular steel monopoles near Helotes, TX

Under the circumstances, I think this is a fairly happy outcome. It’s unrealistic to expect that electricity demands will decrease, in a rapidly growing urban area such as San Antonio. CPS Energy does offer rebates for energy-efficient “green” home construction and renovation, appliances, and installation of solar panels, and encourages energy use reduction measures. But we all still use a lot of electricity, when compared to people who live elsewhere in the world, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

References:

National Wind Watch Website that collates news and information about industrial wind energy farms and issues across the globe.

Fitzgerald, Joan (2010) Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development. Oxford University Press.

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6 Responses to Wind Power for City People

  1. cromercrox says:

    I tried to leave a comment yesterday but OT eated it.

  2. KristiV says:

    Oh noes! Sorry that happened, but I checked yesterday and today, and there were no comments awaiting moderation. OT must have nommed your comment.

    Cold weather (well, for us) eated my interwebz access at home this morning. And in spite of a brisk north wind blowing across the the turbines in West Texas, we’re expecting rolling 15-minute power outages today and tomorrow. What would we do if we had truly bad weather here??

  3. Pingback: Wind Power for City People | news trend daily

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Nice post Kristi!

    I read some interesting articles a while ago about microgeneration – people putting solar panels and mini wind turbines on their roofs. It’s definitely an interesting idea – we’ve looked into solar water heating (and also geothermal), but can’t afford it right now. At the intermediate level between microgeneration and the large wind farm projects you describe, some local ski resorts have installed turbines and solar panels to cover some of their energy costs, with any excess being sold back to the grid (this one’s visible from Vancouver and while the NIMBYs did their usual dance, most people have got used to it and really like it being there). Cool stuff.

    • cromercrox says:

      Me and Mrs Crox think modern wind turbines rather lovely and can’t understand why anyone would object to them, at least on the grounds of aesthetics.

  5. cromercrox says:

    This time I hope OT won’t snarfle my comment. I was very interested to read this, Kristi – mostly because of the assumption that people in the U. S. and A. aren’t into renewables. We in the U. of K. should be more into such things than we are – partly because we’re the opposite of Texas – we have relatively little land area, but an awful lot of coastline, so getting the power from offshore windfarms (which are cited over the horizon) doesn’t require so many miles of pylons. Cromer is, as you know (coz you iz been there) pretty windy. The North Sea has been industrialized for ages – it’s full of oil and, lately, gas platforms, and, increasingly, enormous wind farms. Here’s one that’ll be opening near the Maison Des Girrafes next year:
    http://www.scira.co.uk/
    We’ve seen some of the construction barges, but the wind turbines themselves won’t be visible from the shore.

    Like Cath, I’m kinda interested in microgeneration. Each year me, Mrs Crox and the other Croxi go to the ‘Green Build Event’ hosted by our local council (where we can collect three free bags of compost, recycled from our own garden waste left kerbside for the collectors – whee!) and look into all this at the various stalls and mock-ups.

    However, the only one worth thinking about is solar thermal heating (heating your water directly by running it through roof panels) which believe it or not is surprisingly effective even in Norfolk, though still a little pricey (about £4000). Solar electric heating is, however, silly money (more than £10000), and at current prices domestic panels wouldn’t pay for themselves in saved electricity before they’d be due for replacement. The same with domestic wind turbines (only £1500, but lots more moving parts) – it’s really an economy of scale.

    At the last green-build fair me and Crox Minima went to a very interesting talk about building houses out of bales of straw. At the end I couldn’t help but ask the presenter if such houses were proof against being blown down by hungry wolves. I had the impression he’d heard that one before.

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