Colorado wind energy’s triumphs and challenges

Colorado Green, a wind farm between Lamar and Springfield, was one of Colorado's first big wind farms. Photo/Allen Best

Colorado Green, a wind farm between Lamar and Springfield, was one of Colorado’s first big wind farms. Photo/Allen Best

Wind energy in Colorado has come far, but can it sustain momentum?

by Allen Best

DENVER – Wind energy in Colorado has picked up some bragging rights in recent years, several times delivering more than half of electricity on Xcel Energy’s power grid while arguably rivaling coal mining in job totals.  There are altogether 3,800 megawatts of generating capacity.

Will this success, like the winds that often scour the eastern plains, die down?

Speakers at the recent American Wind Energy Association conference held at the University of Denver identified significant challenges: inadequate transmission, lack of certainty about the production tax credit, and the chilling effect that the death of eagles in turbine blades has had in siting decisions.

Opportunities were also noted. Effects of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan will take at least two years to sort out, but wind could emerge with major gains. Weather forecasting has reduced the uncertainty of wind and allowed integration of larger volumes with other sources to meet electrical demand.

The Department of Energy certainly sees a larger role for wind in the future. Brian Smith, of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, noted that the agency’s wind report in 2008 identified a scenario by which production would hit 48 gigawatts nationally by the end of 2013. In fact, 61 gigawatts were on line by then.

Looking forward, the Energy Department sees wind energy expanding nationally from 4 percent of all electrical production to 10 percent by 2020. After another decade, this doubles to 20 percent. By mid-century, according to the report, wind could provide 35 percent of all electricity in the United States.

Wind has a marginal increase on consumer bills of 1 percent, according to Susan Reilly, president of RES Americas, a wind developer.

If reduction in nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants, are taken into account, wind looks even more competitive. The Social Cost of Carbon, a methodology created by the federal government’s Interagency Working Group, calculates the benefits at roughly 4.2 cents per kilowatt hour.

Unlike coal-fired power plants, wind turbines require almost no water. “Every drop of water counts,” said Jon Goldin-Dubois, the president of Western Resource Advocates, an environmental advocacy group.

Goldin-Dubois also said that wind-industry jobs have surpassed those from coal mining in Colorado.

The Comanche 3 power plant near Pueblo, Colo., began operations in 2010.

The Comanche 3 power plant near Pueblo, Colo., began operations in 2010.

He pointed to the American Wind Energy Association, which claims 3,000 to 4,000 jobs in Colorado on its website. This may have been before Vestas began hiring again. The company now expects to have 2,800 employees in Colorado before year’s end.

Coal jobs are confusing. The Colorado Mining Association for 2013 claimed 2,047  jobs at mines and 6,200 in direct employment, presumably including jobs at power plants and railroads.

A comparable figure for the wind industry is not available. The Colorado Energy Office does not tally statistics such as might be used to evaluate the claim by Western Resource Advocates.

Benefit to rural economies

Rural economies also benefit. “This has been one of the incredible untold stories,” said Michael Bowman, who grew up on a farm in Yuma County, on Colorado’s far eastern tier, and is now affiliated with 25X’25, a renewable energy advocacy group devoted to rural America.

Bowman said that about $6 billion has been invested in rural Colorado, $1 billion alone in Logan County, in the state’s northeast corner, producing jobs, property taxes, and lease payments of up to $5,000 per year to landowners.

Michael Bowman

Michael Bowman

“We should be unapologetic about what we have achieved in Colorado from 2004 to now,” he said, referring to voter approval of the first renewable portfolio standard.

The American Wind Energy Association website provides somewhat lower total wind capital investment in Colorado of $4.3 billion, but it also reports $7.5 million in total annual lease payments to landowners.

But more could be done, said Bowman. He cited Kit Carson County. It’s split by I-70 and Burlington is the county seat. The single biggest taxpayer? A prison. Kit Carson, and other rural counties, he said, can do better, and he implied that they can do better by more robustly developing renewable energy sources for urban markets.

Bowman also identified one theme that ran through the conference: a broad balancing authority. The West has 38 such balancing authorities, which controls the generation and transmission of electricity within a region to ensure supply meets demand minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day.

In Colorado, Xcel Energy operates independently of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the state’s second biggest electrical supplier. What if the two entities—Xcel and Tri-State—operated together in dispatching power?

In a later interview, Bowman said he believes if the generating assets were tapped and dispatched in a central balancing authority, it would lead to improved operating efficiencies that would open the door for even more development of wind and other renewables in rural areas.

In a subsequent interview, he pointed  to a 2005 study, “Distributed Wind Generation Study for Northeast Colorado,” which identified far more wind generation and the ability to pair it with local demand, such as for irrigation sprinklers.

Why can’t Xcel and Tri-State work together? They have different histories. Xcel came first, through its subsidiary, Public Service Co. of Colorado. The electrical co-operates came later, formed to provide electricity where PSCo didn’t want to service.  The co-ops, in turn, came together to create Tri-State. Xcel, as a privately owned investor-owned utility, is regulated by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Tri-State has no little oversight in state government, because it’s a creature of its member co-ops, who in turn are publicly owned.

Tri-State, with the blessing of most of its co-ops, has shown no interest in a central dispatching of power, charges Bowman. “It’s insanity,” he says.

Michael Milligan

Michael Milligan

Taking a broader perspective, Michael Milligan, the principal analyst in the NREL wind program, said no fundamental barriers have been identified in the capacity of the U.S. grid to absorb large amounts of wind energy.

“There are some as-yet unresolved questions concerning the frequency response and inertia needs when the power system evolves to high penetrations of wind/solar,” he explained in a follow-up interview.

But in Colorado and other interior states of the West, there is no large central-dispatching market. “And that limits what you can do,” he explained.

One emerging possibility is something called the Energy Imbalance Market. “The EIM is an example of a change in operational practice that can help with efficient integration and would likely increase the ability of the system to absorb variable generation,” explained Milligan.

One study done by NREL found that 60,000 megawatts of coal-fired generation could be retired if the transmission was sufficient and larger balancing authorities existed to move the electricity around to meet demand.

“This is an extreme upper-bound estimate that won’t ever be achieved,” said Milligan. “It is the result of a specific wind/solar build-out, assumes ‘perfect’ transmission between all balancing regions and assumes perfectly-coordinated operations. The point of the study was to show that transmission can have a significant impact on resource adequacy.”

Xcel Energy’s push

After opposing Colorado’s first renewable portfolio mandate in 2004, Xcel has pushed hard into the arena, especially with wind. David Eves, president and chief executive of the Public Service Co. of Colorado, the Xcel subsidiary, characterized it as a “back up the trucks to the dock and load up.”

The investor-owned utility is now up to 2,170 megawatts of nameplate generation from wind, with another 450 megawatts scheduled to come on line during the next several years. The maximum capacity for all sources of generation this past summer, including purchased power, was 7,200 megawatts.

Xcel last year used wind to meet 18.7 percent of its annual electricity demand in Colorado, and with the next wind development, expects to push that to 24 percent.

In contrast, coal provides 56 percent of generation, down from 68 percent a few years ago. By 2020, coal is projected to drop to 50 percent.

Early one morning in May 2013, wind delivered 60.5 percent of all electricity to Xcel customers in Colorado, some 1,874 megawatts of the total 3,100 megawatts of demand.

Kurt Haeger, managing director for resource planning at Xcel Energy Services, said advanced weather-forecasting techniques have helped resource managers better integrate wind into electrical generation. “It’s a real important piece of the puzzle,” he said.

Several times, in the early morning hours when demand is low, wind has provided more than half of all electricity used by Xcel customers. One early morning in May 2013, a record 60.5 percent was provided by wind.

Haeger said that because wind power purchase agreements freeze a fixed price for 20 to 25 years, they provide a long-term price hedge against the historic variability of natural gas prices.

Wind turbines near Medicine Bow, Wyoming. 2012

Wind turbines near Medicine Bow, Wyoming. 2012

EPA’s Clean Power Plan

What will be the impact of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan? Steve Dayney, managing director of Senvion  (formerly REpower USA), a distributor of German-made turbines, cited a study that concluded that the Clean Power Plan will have an impact to the wind industry equivalent to the renewable portfolio standards now adopted by 30 states. “The not so-good-news,” he added, is that it will take 4 to 7 years for this demand to be created.

Implementation of the Clean Power Plan will be done state by state, with encouragement by the EPA for states to think regionally. The plan is not scheduled to be finalized until December 2015, and one complaint in Colorado might be that the plan doesn’t acknowledge fully the strides already taken.

If that’s the case, then register that complaint in the public comment period, said Shaun McGrath, regional administrator of the EPA.

Energy storage is also part of the conversation. But as one speaker noted,  “we’re nanoseconds into storage.” In other words, the work has just started to capture wind power and store it when demand is high and winds maybe aren’t so stiff.

Advances in turbine design allow electricity to be generated at lower wind speeds, delivering a consistent 50 percent capacity favor, compared to the 35 percent capacity factor of earlier designs.  This allows newer turbines in less windy areas to generate electricity at a lower cost. This bodes well for wind development in eastern Colorado, where many of the prime locations have already been developed.

But the wind industry does have a major problem with the tendency of turbines to kill eagles, triggering protections under the Endangered Species Act. But that could work to Colorado’s advantage, said Paul Turner, of Invenergy, a wind developer with two projects in northeast Colorado and dozens of others elsewhere in the country.

“When we like to site turbines, we like eastern Colorado more than Wyoming, or Idaho or eastern Washington. Some companies don’t even want to touch those places,” he said. “A few eagle kills could cloud the portfolio. We as a company are very sensitive to the eagle situation and will avoid a (wind) farm that has anything like that.”

After the session, one of the wind industry members confided that indeed it’s not all wine and roses for the industry. “Transmission and eagles – they’re both huge,” he said.

Are they big enough problems to preclude NREL’s rosy optimism about 35 percent of the nation’s energy coming from wind by 2035? The question wasn’t asked, nor was it answered.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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