Originally published on Energy & Policy Institute.
Meredith MacDonald kicks off this day’s update. She’s a wind turbine deployment tech in Ontario. She worked night shift as a security guard contracted to keep an eye on local wind farms at night during construction. She loved wind energy so much she started blogging, and taking pictures, and making decals and generally being entranced and enthused. It didn’t go unnoticed and now she’s employed full-time in the industry she loves. She recently won the AWEA #iheartwind competition with this submission. Yeah, that’s a snow-covered wind turbine blade a couple of hundred feet off the ground. Consider this my call-out to AWEA to get her on stage to tell her story and take a bow next year.
That wasn’t the only great part of the kickoff by any stretch. I was lucky to sit next to 40-year raptor expert Joseph Platt of Power Engineering and had the opportunity to ask him some questions. A big takeaway was that bald eagles in every state have recovered to 2-3 times the threshold for endangered species, and that bald eagles just don’t fly much where wind turbines are placed. Bald eagles just aren’t endangered and haven’t been for years, and the incidental take permit is very reasonable.
After iconic birds, it was endearing kids. A team of Grade 7 students came on stage to talk about how they won the Kidwind competition by building the best-producing wind turbine in 11 days. My heart melted, and then I went and talked to a few teams of electrical and mechanical engineering students competing in the more rigorous DOE collegiate level of the competition. These college kids were using sophisticated blade profiling techniques, rapid prototyping and carbon-fibre strengthening along with milled aluminum, casting and rapid-fab electronic boards to achieve their goals. Various iterations of horizontal axis wind turbines were on display as well as repeats of some of the deadends of the wind generation experimentation: vertical axis wind turbines and downwind blade pass turbines were the two that leapt to my attention. Very reasonable if you only want to charge a cellphone, which was the target goal, along with many engineering constraints that made the job more challenging.
Another piece of great news was the continuation of the theme that so-called low-wind turbines are becoming dominant in many wind regimens and greatly expanding potential generation. This chart shows the amazing land area in the US that is now considered economically viable for wind generation given the wind resources. Many other charts showed constraints and inhibitors such as cities, radar, endangered species ranges and the like. Very interesting, but the sheer expanse where it now makes sense to consider wind farms is a poorly told story of innovation.
Bats and Wind Turbines
Bats are the new eagles it seems. At the conference at least, attention has moved on from avian mortality to concerns about bat species. Part of this is because biologists who actually care about species as opposed to individuals are all clear that the average wind turbine annual mortality rate of one in 86,000 birds just isn’t a concern and endangered species mitigations and siting care are well understood. It’s business as usual to not site turbines in such as way that they put endangered birds at risk and wind turbine siting is not impaired by this care.
Bats are different though. Birds are short-lived with very high mortality; the population swings between 10 billion and 20 billion birds in the US every year as birds are born and die over nesting, migration and wintering cycles. They only have a year or two of breeding. Bats on the other hand mature only after a year or two, then have very few babies annually. A female bat killed in the third year of its life might deprive the species of 15 or more years of births.
This is a very important distinction because it means that any given bat death is more significant than any given bird death from a species survival perspective. There’s good news, which is that wind turbines only kill around 200,000 bats annually per the current studies and that 78% of those are unendangered roosting tree bats. However, the dynamics of longer lives and lower fertility mean that even the relatively small impacts of wind turbines are of concern for roosting tree bat long-term survival. What’s more of a concern is there are three types of bats likely to be moved on to endangered species lists due to white-nose syndrome: the northern long eared, little brown and tri-colored bats. The trend to lower-wind speed sitings due to better turbines overlaps with this in an interesting way. So far there is one proven method of reducing bat mortality, which is to raise the speed at which wind turbines start generating power to 5 m/s or around 11 mph (18 kph). This works fine in high-wind resource sites where there is little generating impact by not using the least powerful wind speeds, but as more of the generation load is achieved at lower wind speeds, the impact on total generation increases. Other mitigations are being addressed but there are few solid studies to base decisions on.
That all said, there’s another very good bat story in here. A major wind farm in the US has a major bat colony of a species at risk in a cavern nearby. It’s been studied more intently than any mix of bats and turbines and the wind farm is only killing 0.03% to 0.05% of the bats annually, which is insignificant regardless of other concerns. Wind turbines just don’t kill that many bats compared to population levels either.
There was one concern that was fairly thoroughly shot down, although not resolved everywhere in the real world yet, that of radar clutter. It turns out that old radar sends out a bunch of radar beams at the same time, listens to the reflections and then treats the signals as a unit, more or less. This means that a bunch of horizon clutter from wind turbines occludes planes flying above and near them. Modern radar with better signal process uses more fine-grained radar beams to sweep individual volumes of space, and then does high-resolution analysis which keeps the regions separate. This means that wind turbines are seen where they are and don’t get in the way of seeing anything else. Lockheed Martin’s transportable and quickly deployable TPS-77 system has been solidly proven on every other type of clutter and now fully tested on wind farms. It was the basis of removing military radar concern restrictions in the UK that unlocked 3 GW of permitting for wind farms which are now under construction. They’ve sold about 170 of these world wide and while individually they aren’t cheap, they are fraction of the cost of a GW of wind energy construction. The technology is much more necessary for military installations where multiple, high-speed, rapidly maneuvering bogies with no transponders accurately identified is the requirement. For civilian radars, transponders and much more stable flight paths reduce the need, but don’t eliminate it. This is where the biggest drag will come from in the end. While radar systems world wide are approaching or in obsolescence, replacement of the technology won’t happen overnight. Still, a very good news story on a frequently raised concern, one with an actionable and negotiable solution.
Department of Energy Vision for Wind Energy
The Department of Energy shared its draft updated vision for wind energy with the conference. The primary short-term takeaways were very encouraging. First off, it calls for 10 GW of wind to be added to the grid annually for the next ten years. As the new AWEA Chair-elect, Susan Reilly, pointed out in the panel session, the US industry put in over 10 GW in both 2012 and 2013 so that volume isn’t a problem. And the person directly engaged in getting the needed transmission in place was clear that transmission for the plan was viable. The feeling I was left with was that it was a low-ball estimate, and that given the right demand structure and long-term stability for financing, significantly exceeding the plan would be easy.
The day proceeded on to a very compelling but too sparsely attended session on how to gain social license for wind farms with permitting committees, town councils and local citizens. John Davies of Davies Public Affairs had the best presentation on the approach, tactics and key points I’ve seen. A few gems:
- Opponents consider a wind farm the same as a coal plant
- NIMBYism starts from a good place but there are irrational NIMBYs who are opposed to any change
- Everything we do is driven by stories and the stories we share. Stories pull, not push.
- “Just 3–5% of a community will change a community” … for better or for worse
I won’t get into the tactics, as that requires a much more detailed set of material to do justice, but the question and answer was compelling. The question was put to the panel “Does the wind industry take this seriously enough and are they investing enough in it?” The answer was a resounding no — which, while it was coming from a panel who took this very seriously, resonated with my observations of wind farms in various states around the world. The wind industry still hasn’t come fully to terms with the reality that global social license doesn’t mean that they have site-specific social license, and aren’t spending the time, attention and money necessary to stop significant project delays and potential project abandonment when things go wrong. A lively set of discussions ensued on how AWEA could leverage its position to get CEOs engaged in this directly.
The day closed with a screening of the great documentary Scaling Wind from Utah, which is brilliantly framed to bypass conservative objections to wind energy and state its advantages to things that they care about. This was a deep necessity in very Red State Utah, but a sophisticated approach to understanding how to frame the message was created over years and embodied in the video by its creator, Ed Stafford, who among other roles is a Professor of Marketing at a Utah business school named after a Republican politician. The money shot was George W. Bush in 2006 telling the NREL that America needed to achieve 20% wind energy for reasons of energy security, so start working on how to do that.
The documentary screening was followed by another networking opportunity. I spent a solid block of time exploring how to work through the thickets of Chicago School of Economics perspectives on wind energy with newly minted AWEA Research Director Michael Goggin. His analyses of what is actually happening and takedowns of disinformation by opponents have been rock solid, and his shift into the leadership role is well deserved. Expect great things from him in the coming years.
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