The Tennessee Valley Authority, a sprawling utility company owned by the U.S. government, has announced that it has begun transmitting 300 megawatts of wind power to its customers courtesy of a wind farm in Illinois. It’s the first installment in a plan to provide 1,380 megawatts of Midwestern wind to the Southeastern U.S.
All those megawatts sound pretty impressive – er, maybe not. TVA generates power from other low-emission or zero-emission sources including hydro and nuclear, but its 11 coal fired plants still account for about half of its generating capacity, weighing in at 14,469 megawatts. It will take a much larger wind purchase program to push coal aside. The way things are going, that could happen sooner rather than later.
Midwest Wind for Southeast Power
TVA’s new wind purchase program echoes the ambitious DESERTEC solar power program, which envisions a ring of huge solar power facilities in sun-drenched North Africa to supply sun-challenged Europe. In TVA’s case, it’s wind instead of sun. The Southeast has a pretty abysmal rating when it comes to local wind power potential, so the obvious solution is to truck it in from someplace where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plains. Not having to negotiate the complexities of international boundaries is a real bonus, too.
More Midwest Wind on the Way
Meanwhile, up in Montana a company called Grasslands Renewable Energy is developing the Wind Spirit Project, which will aggregate ten wind power developers that account for more than 3,000 megawatts. The project includes emerging energy storage and smart grid technologies that create a reliable energy stream. That’s pretty good, but imagine how impressive the Midwest wind market would be today if some bigger investors had gotten involved. How about BP, which has been pitching all that “Beyond Petroleum” stuff for a while? Well, turns out BP’s renewables program is mostly talk. The company spent about as much on advertising in two years as they did on clean energy in six years. In 2009 the company spent about $1.3 billion on renewables, a paltry 0.5% of its $240 billion in revenues for that year.
Wind vs. Fossil Fuels
Speaking of BP, the company’s executives have finally admitted that they don’t have a good estimate of the amount of oil gushing from their broken pipe in the Gulf of Mexico, let alone an estimate of the damage to marine life and to coastal economies. For a hint of what the potentials are, take a look at Appalachia, where the coal economy is linked to chronic poverty and serious public health issues – and which happens to supply TVA with some of its coal. Given that connection, TVA’s move toward renewable wind energy, along with its ambitious energy conservation plan (pdf alert), is not just about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It could also help bring about a seismic shift in the economic landscape of Appalachia.
Image: Pinwheels in the wind by d’n'c on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.