Natural gas has been the fuel of choice to replace the aging fleet of coal power plants in the US, but lately renewables have been flexing their muscles, too. In the latest development, the energy company Ameren is counting on the acquisition of a new 400-megawatt wind farm in Missouri to help fill the void left by a slew of upcoming coal power plant retirements.
The huge wind buy is significant because Missouri has decent wind resources and it is surrounded by states with solid wind energy profiles, but it has yet to tap into its wind potential. With the new wind farm it appears the floodgates are finally open. That would leave a lot less elbow room for natural gas, right?
Missouri (Finally) Discovers The Wind Farm Magic
Whether or not politics is at play, it appears that the usual suspects have had a hand in Missouri’s failure to join the regional leadership on wind energy. The state’s situation is all the more curious because three of the four adjacent states are wind energy champions.
The American Wind Energy Association toted up only seven wind farms with just under 1,000 megawatts of capacity in Missouri as of last year, compared to 7,312 for Iowa, 5,110 for Kansas, and 4,113 for Illinois.
Arkansas is the fourth adjacent state and it is an outlier, with zero megawatts installed as of last year. Arkansas’s wind resistance could fall like a domino once Missouri gets up to speed — which appears to be happening sooner rather than later.
Missouri is already in a good position to double its installed capacity within the next few years. Aside from the new Ameren wind farm, the Canadian energy company Algonquin Power & Utilities plans to bring in another 600 megawatts for its newly acquired Empire District Electric Co.
In addition, according to our friends over at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ameren has pledged to add another 300 megawatts by 2020 as part of a broader renewable energy plan that includes $1 billion for the total of 700 megawatts (do follow the link and support local journalism!).
The turnaround is pretty dramatic. Though local regulators are still a bit balky (the Empire wind buy was originally pegged at 800 megawatts), the Missouri Division of Energy’s wind energy web page makes a good case for accelerating wind farm development.
More to the point, Missouri DOE seems determined to embarrass the naysayers, by drawing comparisons with other leading states:
- Missouri’s wind speed is 10.0 mph, higher than Texas, Wyoming, Illinois, New Mexico, Colorado, Ohio and California — states typically associated with the wind energy industry.
- Five of Missouri’s neighboring states (Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska) are included among the top 20 states for existing wind capacity.
- Missouri and surrounding states have a combined existing capacity of 19,598 MW– nearly 24% of the total US current wind power capacity.
Leaning On Mark Twain For A Renewable Energy Revolution
To give you an idea how quickly things are changing, the last time the Missouri DOE page was updated, there were seven wind farms in Missouri with a capacity totaling just a hair over 658 megawatts.
One factor slowing things down (aside from politics) is the need for new transmission lines, but Ameren already has that in hand.
The new Ameren wind farm will be in the same region as the company’s Mark Twain transmission line, with should be up and running by the end of next year.
The project passed a key approval milestone in January. Once completed, it will run 96 miles from Palmyra to Kirksville in Missouri and hook up with the Iowa border.
The new transmission line is part of a Multi-Value Project identified by MISO, the regional grid operator. MISO studied its grid needs several years ago and came up with a portfolio of 17 new projects including Mark Twain. Projects in the portfolio are required to “increase the overall reliability and efficiency of the regional transmission grid, meet public policy demands for renewable energy, and provide economic benefits in excess of the portfolio costs,” so there’s that.
Interestingly, according to our friends over at Transmission Hub approval for the project was based partly on achieving federal Clean Power Plan goals for Ameren, so it looks another case in which state-level policy making is having a significant impact on renewable energy development regardless of federal policy.
So, What About Natural Gas?
As for natural gas, here’s where things get spooky. As reported by Transmission Hub, approval for the Mark Twain project was also based on its potential to foster wind farm development in the north central and northeast parts of the state (the state’s existing wind farms are clustered mainly in the northwest corner):
…there is significant potential for wind development in north central and northeast Missouri, including in the Adair Wind Zone. The characteristics of that wind zone, combined with the project’s proximity to it and the ability to transmit energy generated within the zone, create the potential for up to 1,347 MW of wind generation to be developed in northeast Missouri…
Yikes! Unlike other states, Missouri has been relatively slow to replace its coal fleet with natural gas (as of last year, coal dominated Missouri’s electricity generation at 81% compared to a national average of 30%). That provides wind and other renewables with a window of opportunity to get a jump on the replacement game.
It’s not going to be a walkover, but the new Mark Twain project will help wind energy go mano a mano with a new bidirectional natural gas line that hooks Missouri up with shale gas regions to the east and west.
There are already signs that natural gas is going to face some stiff competition. The availability of wind, for example, played a big role in Empire’s plans to retire its Joplin coal power plant earlier than expected.
Ameren has also noted that improvements in wind energy technology are opening up new areas of Missouri to wind farm development, and its future plans may include drawing wind power from nearby states.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch hits the nail on the head (emphasis added):
Over the longer term, the company plans to retire more than half of its coal-fired generation within the next 20 years, and replace it with wind, solar, natural gas or energy storage projects, depending on the competitiveness of each technology…
Do tell! It seems that the competition is heating up, if activity in other states is any indication. Last Reuters reported that Vistra Energy Corp. and Dominion have announced they will not build any more gas-fired power plants, citing the low cost of solar.
Meanwhile, CleanTechnica has reached out to Ameren’s wind farm developer Terra-Gen to get a handle on some of the technological advances that have made wind energy competitive in Missouri.
The project is a big deal for Terra-Gen because the powerhouse company — which counts itself among the largest renewable energy businesses in the US — has been focused on the California-Nevada area up to now. The Ameren wind farm will be its first project in Missouri.
We’ve also reached out to the Missouri DOE for some insights into the prospects for renewable energy growth in the state.
It certainly doesn’t seem that the state’s low ranking (#45) in renewable energy consumption won’t last much longer.
Aside from the newly opened wind farm floodgates, the state’s solar stakeholders are hoping to get some love from newly minted Public Service Commissioner Ryan Silvey, who has expressed a hopeful outlook for cost-competitive solar power.
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Image: via NREL.
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