Big Wind Turbines, Big Opportunity for the South

Guest Blog | February 3, 2014 | Energy Policy, Wind
Taller Turbines Benefit the South. Credit: National Renewable Energy Lab

The Department of Energy recently announced a $2 million funding opportunity to improve logistics for taller wind turbines, which is big news for everyone in the South. Not only could the funding go to Southern businesses and universities, but also the research accompanying the announcement shows a giant resource potential in the South that can be “unlocked” with taller turbines.

Taller turbines can access faster and more stable winds that help drive down the overall cost of electricity from wind farms. New wind turbines installed across the country are now frequently about 500 feet tall (150 meters), and turbines even taller than that are already becoming mainstream.

To evaluate the importance of this funding opportunity, NREL calculated the potential wind power resources that could be harnessed with taller turbines. The numbers are astounding.

According to NREL, taller turbines will “unlock” 1,000,000 megawatts (1,000 gigawatts) of additional wind resource potential by looking at wind turbines up to 524 feet tall (160 meters). At roughly $2 million per megawatt of wind energy capacity, NREL found a $2 Trillion (with a capital “T”) opportunity. That figure doubles with turbines up to 650 feet tall (200 meters). Even if just 1% of resource gets developed with the tallest turbines  (and assuredly the whole resource will not be developed), it’s still a huge opportunity worth about $40 billion. And a huge amount of that resource is – you guessed it – in the South.

With the new turbines, NREL reports that Tennessee may have 25,000 megawatts (25 GW) of wind energy potential and Louisiana may have 50,000 megawatts (50 GW) worth of potential– both of those figures are for areas with capacity factors of over 40%. Higher capacity factors increase electricity output, provide more electricity more of the time and reduce electricity prices (NREL considers any area with 30% capacity factors to be economically viable). NREL even gives a special shout out to Alabama: “In states such as Alabama, the unlocked land area approaches nearly 50% of the state’s land area.” (emphasis mine) With bigger wind turbines, those states have more wind energy potential than they have in total existing electricity generation capacity. Those figures are in addition to the available wind power capacity at lower heights that NREL previously identified. Believe it or not, wind turbine proposals or investigations exist in Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee, as well as the other eight states in the South, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, too. The NREL figures are just confirming what many wind developers have privately known for several years – the South’s wind resources are better than previously thought. These facts and figures should silence critics who believe that “no” wind resources exist in the South (as we’ve proved time, and time, and time again).

The new Department of Energy funding is intended to overcome fabrication and installation challenges for wind turbines that can reach nearly 650 feet tall (200 meters) at the tip of the blades. With longer blades, taller towers, heavier nacelles and larger base foundations, transportation logistics can become much more difficult and more expensive. But, those expenses can be lessened by the higher efficiencies provided by the bigger turbine economies of scale.

Already, the South may be answering some of the challenges posed by taller turbines. NREL specifically outlined a regulatory hurdle that may have already been solved in Alabama. Wind farm developers typically have to receive Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clearance for their projects, to ensure the wind turbines pose no threats to low flying aircraft. There has been confusion regarding FAA clearance for wind turbines over 500 feet tall (152 meters). Yet, a wind farm proposal in Alabama, with turbines potentially up to 570 feet tall (173 meters), recently won FAA approval and a determination of no hazard to air navigation. While that project may not ultimately use turbines that tall, the FAA clearance should certainly help boost the Department of Energy’s work on taller turbines.

Since the South would so clearly benefit from taller turbines, perhaps it would make sense that the Department of Energy award should go to companies and universities in the region. We have a lot of transportation and manufacturing companies that could apply for the funding and help solve taller turbine troubles. For example, Barnhart Cranes, located in Tennessee, supports the wind power industry with cranes up to 1,760 tons – the class size needed for bigger turbines. General Electric has turbine assembly facilities in South Carolina and Florida, and the National Renewable Energy Lab used a GE turbine for part of their analysis for this funding opportunity. We also have a litany of top-tier technical universities that can serve up a suit of solutions. Surely, wind farm development in the South is inevitable.

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