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By Miriam Raftery

January 16, 2013 (San Diego) – Wind industry professionals and government leaders gathered at the Hilton in  La Jolla-Torrey Pines for a four-day conference sponsored by the American Wind Energy Association January 14-17.

On opening day, a Regional Wind Energy Summit-West was held focusing on on demand and challenges in the region, as well as new opportunities for wind energy developers in the western United States ranging from corporate clients and point-of-use projects to repowering older wind farms. 

Transmission constraints

“We still have important transmission constraints, particularly north to south,” Catherine J.K. Sandoval, California Public Utilities (CPUC) Commissioner, told the crowd. 

Transmission line construction has been contentious in the San Diego region, where a  coalition of 75,000 people including Supervisor Dianne Jacob fought  unsuccessfully to prevent construction of Sunrise Powerlink through East County.  But Sandoval cautioned that if San Onofre is decommissioned permanently after being off-line the past year, should San Diego need more power, “There is only so much that PG&E can do to help.”  The CPUC will be looking at “transmission constraints and whether it is prudent to remove them.”

The state and utilities have been working with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)) on a five-year research and development project on the integration of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, into the power grid.  Concerns include increasing cybersecurity, improved safety and reliability of electrical flows. 

“We are planning for San Onofre to be down this summer,” Sandoval noted, adding that “Sunrise Powerlink was truly just in time and a lifesaver” that enabled flow of power from areas east of San Diego. Powerlink came on line approximately three weeks after San Onofre was shut down last January, albeit with non-renewables flowing through the lines initially while waiting for large-scale renewable projects to come on line, SDG&E has previously indicated.

Emerging opportunities for wind –small scale projects and corporate clients

John Pimental, president of Foundation Windpower, spoke on distributed wind generation. His organization has developed 11 sites with 16 turbines that have 22 megawatts (MW) of capacity.  That’s a sharp contrast to Goliath-scale projects pushed by most companies that push for projects with 100 turbines or so each. 

Pimental sees potential for the smaller footprint projects in helping California meet its goal of reducing emissions.  His current customers include corporations such as Wal-Mart, Anheuser Busch , Nestle and Safeway, which are building projects directly at point of use on their sites, such as in parking lots.  Some wind turbines now sport corporate logos visible to passing motorists and customers. 

The Foundation Windpower spokesman said one key advantage of his proposal is the smaller footprint compared to solar projects that could produce similar levels of energy.  To produce 1 MW with PV solar requires “nine football fields,” he stated, adding that 1.5 MW of wind needs just 800 square feet. ‘Ours fit comfortably in the corner of the end zone.”  His assessment refers only to footprints, and does not however take into account the visual impacts of height; turbines can tower 500 feet while PV solar is closer to 30 feet tall.   The smaller scale footprints do, however, allow turbines to be placed in urban environments at point of use, minimizing need for transmission to remote and often scenic locations.  The small-scale projects are most viable in high-wind resource areas; urban San Diego is predominantly a low wind resource region.

A downside of the smaller scale projects is that they require the same lengthy process for permitting as major wind projects, 6 to 24 months, with “a high degree of uncertainty,” Pimental said. Another issue is height limits in some markets.  Foreign Chinese equipment has helped bring prices down, he noted.

He also offered tips for industry insiders on how to push through permitting of projects.  He advised telling decisions makers that “housecats kill 100 times more birds than wind turbines” and that turbines are as quiet as refrigerators. “That usually gets it through your town council.”

Those statements are, however, open to dispute.  In Hardscrabble New York, residents just filed a lawsuit over noise levels produced by Iberdrola wind turbines. There, similar promises were made to town planners, but the completed project exceeds legal noise limitations.  As for wildlife kills at wind turbines, raptors (birds of prey) have been decimated at some wind facilities, notably Altamont.  Housecats don’t generally prey on large hawks, owls or eagles.  Plus remote wind projects also require construction of power lines, which take a substantial toll on birds.

Repowering old turbine sites

Virinder Singh, director of regulator and legislative affairs for EDF Renewable Energy (formerly EnXco) spoke on potential for repowering older wind facilities. 

“There are a lot of museum pieces out there put in decades ago,” he observed. 

Mark Tholke, a vice president with EDF, thanked those present who helped push Congress to renew the wind industry tax credits.  He then praised “windsmiths” who “keep these turbines together with wires and duct tape” calling their efforts “impressive.” 

When a wind farm is decommissioned or repowered, he urged developers to “recycle as much as you can” and claimed that revenues from reclaimed scrap  can make the financial cost of repowering close to a wash.  Repowering with newer, taller and more powerful turbines allows for land reuse with less disturbed land and more energy produced, since fewer but larger turbines are required.  The industry claims this also helps reduce bird kills, though avian experts with Save the Eagles International have disputed that point, contending the industry doesn’t search a large enough diameter to find birds felled by the larger blades.

The speakers indicated that 2 Gigawatts (GW) of repowering opportunities exist today in the U.S., mainly in California.  Repowering is most common with turbines over 20 years  old (shorter than the 30 year lifespan that the industry formerly predicted) though some in the 10 to 19 year old range have been repowered. 

Tholke wants to “streamline” CEQA review for repowers.  The key challenge to repowering is the fragmented landscape, since 40 percent of older wind farms are owned by small developers who “may not have the financial wherewithal.” 

As a result some wind developers have simply abandoned older projects, leaving rusting turbines for communities to contend with, as has occurred in Hawaii.

Pricing is another key issue.  “The price of repowers needs to compete,” Tholke concluded, calling the permitting situation in California “challenging.”  Permitting for repowers can be somewhat easier than new projects since developers claim avian impacts are reduced and land use issues are “a wash.”

In a question and answer session after the session, Sandoval was asked how significant imported power will be for California’s future.  She again stressed the importance of “voltage support” via transmission lines from other areas, also voicing support for a Self Generation Incentive Program to encourage commercial and industrial customers to produce their own power.  She envisions “fuel cells and wind turbines in parking lots” and cited the example of a water company that created its own small scale hydroelectric project. Advantages of  such projects are they are close to the load and bypass transmission issues.

Sandoval also warned that regulators in the past never planned for the possibility of both Diablo Canyon and San Onofre being offline at the same time—but she aims to see this accomplished in the future. “Diablo Canyon could be shut down by jellyfish,” she pointed out. “Grid stability is very important.”  San Onofre developed premature tube wear just two years after replacement at one reactor.  “The modeling underestimated vibrations by a factor of four—meaning 400 percent,” she revealed, adding that 7 mililon people live within a 50 mile radius of San Onofre.  “Safety is also our concern,” Sandoval emphasized. 

Delivering the wind: Transmission

At a session by this title, Bob Anderson with the Western Grid Group said $200 billion should to be invested in western states in the next 20 years in electric infrastructure—for either path, renewable or nonrenewables, to upgrade the grid.

Brian Parsons, director of Transmissions and Grid Integration at the National Renewable energy Laboratory within the Department of Energy, said wind and solar are “uncertain” due to fluctuations in weather conditions. “The big challenge is the grid is not designed for weather driven renewable,” he said. 

However a Western Wind and Solar Integration Study found that 30-35 percent integration of these resources is achievable, but can’t be done the way the grid is run today. “Reforms” are needed, not merely engineering fixes but institutional changes, Parsons said.  This includes “using existing wires better” so that “we may not have to build many more.”  He believes we need a “more flexible energy grid” including options such as energy storage through pumped hydro or batteries, for example, as well as improved forecasts for wind and solar.

Edward Burgess, a lawyer at Kris Mayes law firm, is also a consultant in renewable energy engineering and policy.  He helped write a report on transmission and planning for the Western Association of Governors.

“Sixty-six percent of renewable energy demand through 2020 is in California,” Burgess said.  He said that as a practical reality, some companies are hesitant to pursue out of state potential due to regulatory constraints.  One option is to “expand the ISO footprint to other states” and create “more use of dynamic/static transmission capacity” as coal facilities are retired. 

Stacey Crowley with the Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy said Nevada aims to have a 25% renewable energy portfolio by 2050 through wind and solar.

Mark Rathleder, executive director of market analysis and development for the California Independent System Operator Corporation (CAISO) says California has 20% renewable now and aims to reach 33% by 2020.  “2800 megawatts will be integrated this year as we approach 25% by 2014,” he concluded.  “The good news is we have this much interest and capacity. The challenge is where to build transmission to support that?”

Another issue here is that 12,000 megwatts of older power sources are expected to be retired soon.  A key question for California will be finding the “right mix of resources in the right locations” to meet peak demands, he concluded.

“We are potentially going to see overgeneration and patterns of flow never seen before…California may be a net exporter at times,” Rothleder concluded, adding that for the future, an “energy imbalance market” may be needed. 

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