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Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006 03:36 pm

The New Wind Rush

With the onset of electricity deregulation in Illinois, the market brightens for wind-power generation

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Terry Gutshall was amazed for the second time. Back when he was principal of Bureau Valley’s shiny new high school, he was amazed to face electricity bills totaling a whopping $150,000 in the school’s first year. The amount was way more than the tiny district had projected, budgeted, or could even afford. Gutshall scratched his head. The 107,000-square-foot building was insulated and energy-efficient, but the design still gobbled up power. Other costs had been correctly calculated — outlays for salaries, supplies, transportation, even heating — yet by the time 470 students began classes, about 100 miles north of Springfield, electricity for lights and central air conditioning had simply skyrocketed out of control.

So Bureau Valley came up with a novel solution. Some school-board members were farmers who had explored generating electricity from wind turbines on their land. Would wind power work for schools?

Gutshall, now superintendent, gets a kick out of the fact that his district calls its sports teams the Storm. The nickname has taken on a double meaning, he says, thanks to a 275-foot-tall, 660-kilowatt wind turbine towering over the high school from an 18-acre field used by Future Farmers of America for alternating crops of corn and soybeans.

After the turbine’s first full year of operation, Gutshall again ran the numbers and again he was amazed. This time, it was because the district’s annual electricity tab had dropped to a mere $61,000 — a $90,000 savings from the school’s inaugural year.

Word spread to Erie Community School District Unit 1, about 30 miles away, which is now constructing its own turbine, twice as powerful as Bureau Valley’s and 100 feet taller. Once it goes online Dec. 15, the wind will supply more than 80 percent of the electricity required for a complex of school buildings and save the tiny district a projected $4 million over the life of the project.

Another turbine has been proposed at Illinois State University to defray electrical consumption, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is moving ahead with designs for three turbines amid the campus’s south farms, capable of churning out 5 percent of the university’s electricity.

Although trailblazers, these schools are just finding out what utility companies may already know: Wind as an energy source has arrived. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, large-scale projects were constructed mainly along windy stretches of California’s coast — a dreamy experiment in hippie-influenced energy policy.

Now, thanks to decades of improved design and advancing technology, today’s turbines generate 120 times the electricity of models from the 1980s at one-sixth the cost, making wind competitive with other energy sources. The industry has also migrated into the country’s heartland, where lower population density and land prices favor large-scale projects. Texas just surpassed California in wind production, and Illinois joins Iowa, Kansas, and other central states where dozens of wind farms and individual turbine projects such as Bureau Valley’s are flourishing.

For the past year, the Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative, west of Springfield, has reduced its dependence on coal-generated electricity from Ameren and kept power bills down for its 10,000 customers in 10 counties. In May 2005, the co-op installed a 365-foot-tall turbine in Pittsfield that generates enough power for 500 homes.

“It’s been an all-positive experience,” observes engineering manager Sean Middleton. “This is available to run 97 percent of the time, month after month; it’s consistent; and we don’t have maintenance issues.”

The results have been so impressive that the co-op views the single turbine as a springboard to a full-blown farm with far greater capacity. The biggest roadblock to realizing that vision won’t be environmental clearances and local permits, Middleton says, but finding a utility to buy the excess electricity.

“The single turbine as a showpiece we fed into our own energy grid, but if we put in 50 to 100 turbines there’s not enough local load to handle that much,” he says. “It would have to be contracted under a power-purchase agreement and a price to sell that electricity back to somebody.”

Horizon Wind Energy, based in Houston, Texas, also doesn’t know where it will sell massive amounts of wind power due online next year from Twin Groves, east of Bloomington. With 240 turbines capable of powering 120,000 homes, Horizon is bidding to supply Springfield’s City Water, Light & Power — if the city-owned utility’s deal with the Sierra Club survives. In a landmark agreement, announced in July, CWLP said it would purchase 120 megawatts of wind energy each year under an environmental compromise aimed at mitigating the impact of a new coal plant now under construction. The deal was scuttled when a local developer filed objections, but environmentalists hope to see it resurrected.

If Horizon can’t sell to Springfield, it can also negotiate with neighboring states or sell its power on the spot market. With the deregulation of electricity, rates statewide will jump significantly next year. For example, customers of AmerenCILCO, which provides power around Springfield and Peoria, have been told they should brace for an increase of 55 percent. Deregulation and rising rates are among reasons why electricity producers are scrambling to stake claims to the Midwest’s best sites, even when they have no buyer for the power. While still in the midst of constructing Twin Groves, Horizon is hotly pursuing land leases and permits outside of Springfield for the 100 megawatt Railsplitter farm, north of Lincoln, and seeking to clone Twin Groves near Pontiac in another 250-turbine project dubbed Blackstone. Horizon, a privately held company purchased last June by Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs, plans to build both in 2008.

In fact, if all the farms proposed in Illinois were already feeding into electrical meters, wind would supply a hefty 6 percent of the state’s power, up from less than 1 percent today — easing reliance on coal, nuclear, and even natural gas. Yet energy experts see no reason to stop there. In an ideal world, wind could handily provide one-fifth of the nation’s electricity, but only if the fledgling technology is nurtured through a mix of government incentives, nonprofit grants, and technological tweaking, they say.

Wind energy as it exists today can also save money, create jobs, and spread the wealth — more than 40 full-time workers will be locally employed to maintain the Twin Groves site, and landowners will pocket approximately $5,000 per year per turbine by leasing small patches of land that barely disrupt crop production. This clean, seductively simple, and reliable energy source is uniting an unlikely mix of farmers, researchers, energy companies, turbine producers, school administrators, nonprofit foundations, and even Wall Street financiers. They all see opportunity, dollar signs, and energy independence where none existed before.

Even with its largest town dubbed the Windy City, Illinois hasn’t been known in scientific circles for its wind. In fact, most historians believe Chicago’s nickname wasn’t a reference to the weather at all but instead was a dig by newspaper columnists in rival Eastern cities in the late 1800s who were ridiculing Chicago’s self-promotional bluster, particularly over having landed the World’s Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair, in 1893.

Today, more than a century after the name stuck, Illinois may get the last laugh. Before Twin Groves, the state’s two wind farms fed about 100 megawatts of electricity to ComEd, enough to power about 30,000 homes: the Mendota Hills farm, alongside Interstate 39; and Crescent Ridge, north of Peoria near Princeton. That output will soon be dwarfed by Twin Groves’ 400 megawatts. Within two years, nine more large-scale projects now in the pipeline will triple the state’s output of wind-generated electricity, according to the American Wind Energy Association, the industry’s trade group.

Advances in blade design mean that 3- to 5-mph breezes start the turbines rotating and winds of 6 to 9 mph generate power, making wind a viable energy source even in wind-challenged states such as Illinois, says Bill Whitlock, Twin Groves’ project-development manager. Computers measure wind direction and rotate the turbines to take advantage of changing conditions. The blades automatically shut down in storms whose gales exceed 55 mph to prevent damage to the system.

“The technology is constantly evolving, kind of like your laptop computer; today’s model is quickly replaced by a new model,” Whitlock says. “The trend in the industry is toward larger turbines. In Twin Groves we’re using 1.65-megawatt; other projects for ’08 and ’09 we’ll be using 2-megawatt to 3-megawatt.”

As one of the largest wind farms in the country, Twin Groves thrusts Illinois into the center of the wind phenomenon and brought Whitlock from Minneapolis to Bloomington. After earning a degree in German and history at Tufts University in 1984, he launched into sales at a sports-marketing firm, where he rose to vice president. An interest in wind energy landed him on the Twin Groves project five years ago, when it was still under the umbrella of Zilkha Renewable Energy, the forerunner to Horizon.

Whitlock’s job is one of persuasion. Landowners and government agencies had to approve a project spanning 200 acres and some 50 square miles — a tough task made tougher by the fact that no other large-scale wind farms were operating in Illinois at the time. Over many months, Whitlock held dozens of informational meetings at churches and town halls, cleared environmental hurdles, and ultimately acquired 200 land leases, along with 20 underground and 18 overhead transmission easements. He also won public support for road-use contracts stipulating that Horizon would repave and strengthen the streets and bridges needed to erect the turbines and transmit power.

Although Whitlock expects future permits to glide through more quickly as awareness of wind energy grows, not everyone is on board with the idea of turbines taking over the prairie landscape.

Some homeowners have objected to the whooshing noise of the rotating blades, and at least one lawsuit is pending over the potential illness caused by the “strobe light” effect that can occur when rotating blades cast flickering shadows on homes. Municipalities such as McLean County have responded by requiring turbines to be located at least 1,500 feet from homes that aren’t involved in the project — a distance that minimizes noise and eliminates shadows except in the early-morning and sunset hours. Turbines have also been redesigned to rotate more slowly than past models have, Whitlock says, down to 14 to 16 revolutions a minute from 40 to 50, eliminating the fast flickering behind most health problems. The slower revolutions and a revamped turbine design have also made the towers safer for birds, say industry representatives, although the farms’ impact on bats is still being studied.

Illinois jumped into the wind spotlight after the U.S. Department of Energy released studies showing that the state harbors about 9,000 megawatts of wind capacity, 50 percent more than previously thought. But how does this translate to wind production?

Instantaneous power is measured in watts. A kilowatt is 1,000 watts, whereas a megawatt equals 1 million watts. On the other end, consumption — what the industry calls electrical load — is measured in kilowatt hours. A 100-watt light bulb left on for three hours, for example, consumes 300 watt-hours of energy.

Air conditioning tends to be the biggest culprit when it comes to electrical consumption. That’s why southern states use more power than those in the north. According to U.S. Department of Energy data, houses here in the upper Midwest consume a monthly average of about 765,000 watt hours or 765 kilowatts. Using this measure, Twin Groves, rated at 198 megawatts in its first phase, will be capable of powering 60,000 homes when some 120 turbines go online this December.

The mandate of the DOE’s Wind Powering America Program is to comb the country for winds strong enough to generate power. Good locations considered “utility grade,” or class 4, consistently blow between 15.7 mph and 16.8 mph. In its most recent update this year, the DOE identified five prime wind zones in central and northern Illinois: around Bloomington — where the Twin Groves farm is being constructed — as well as between Springfield and Quincy, north of Peoria, around Mattoon, and between Sterling and Aurora. But many more “near-good” sites — those with winds between 15.5 and 15.7 mph — have been identified as well. The total of the two classifications are estimated at 1,800 square kilometers, or 1.2 percent of the state’s land area.

It was one of those maps that caught the attention of IREC’s Middleton. He noticed that one section of utility class wind fell within the electrical cooperative’s service area, so he decided to take action.

“We did polls of our membership: ‘Do you think the co-op should be involved in renewable energy?’ and overwhelmingly the answer was yes,” he recalls. “We decided we should do something about that.”

Middleton began researching wind-industry players, products, and permits. “A lot of things have to come together,” he adds. “You have to pick a site that has wind, that does not endanger the environment, that does not endanger airplanes, and that is not too close to houses or people or buildings.” Plus, IREC needed to store energy in a cell connected to the turbine’s base to feed power into the grid and offset the co-op’s purchases of coal-fired electricity, which added cost and required a buyback agreement with utility company Ameren.

After all the groundwork, the co-op realized that the $2 million project wouldn’t repay investment costs and turn a big enough profit without government incentives. Ultimately IREC could afford to install its 1.65-megawatt turbine only with the help of grants that covered half the price tag, one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, another from the Illinois state Department of Commerce, and a third from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, a private nonprofit endowed by $225 million from ComEd to support alternative energies. IREC chose a turbine designed by Vestas American Wind Technology, a division of an established Danish turbine manufacturer that can service its equipment from a regional office in Champaign. Pictures of the installation, along with views from a live camera, may be seen at www.e-co-op.com.

To expand the project further, Middleton says he’s explored selling the excess electricity across state lines, but each entity that transmits the power can “pancake” its own surcharge, making prices at the end point prohibitively high. Currently the state of Illinois has set goals for increasing renewable energy from 2 percent of the power supply in 2007 to 8 percent in 2013 — but until legislation makes such guidelines mandatory, Middleton believes, wind farms such as the one IREC envisions will be slow to take off because local utilities are not required to purchase the electricity they generate.

Even so, industry trade group AWEA sees a bright future in which wind supplies 20 percent of the country’s electricity. Citing U.S. Energy Information Administration statistics, AWEA says that new wind farms completed in 2005 and due online in 2006 will add nearly 5,500 megawatts, surpassing the power capability of new coal- and oil-fired generating plants. Only new natural-gas facilities — which require oil and are subject to fluctuating prices — are being built at a faster rate.

Michael Milligan, who advises the federal government on climate change and wind power as a consultant to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, also sees a growing role for wind energy. In a paper presented in July, Milligan concluded that wind can supply a “significant” quantity of the nation’s electrical power while annually displacing between 200 million and 400 million metric tons of carbon by 2020. The 20 percent figure envisioned by the wind industry is not unrealistic, he says, when viewed as “potential” and not a forecast.

“In my view this is achievable but is certainly not a ‘business as usual’ scenario,” he cautions in an e-mail exchange clarifying his findings. Milligan addresses the finer points that must be addressed before wind can supply one-fifth of the country’s energy — everything from policy goals, such as whether we have the national will to implement a renewable portfolio standard; to whether we can build transmission capable of delivering power from turbines in remote places such as the Dakotas, where winds are strong and reliable; to “load,” the homes and businesses where electricity is consumed.

The government could further encourage wind by imposing limits on carbon-based energies such as coal or natural gas and require trading of wind power for carbon usage, he continues. Other technical issues cover the nuances of grid design and advances in wind forecasting. Because electricity generated from coal, oil, and natural gas depends on fluctuating conditions and varying market prices, in some cases, Milligan reasons, “wind energy is the cost-effective choice ” — and undoubtedly what makes money will further stimulate wind development.

The economics of wind have not escaped the energy industry.

“In the last five years, we’ve grown from 12 employees to about 400 — that gives you some idea of the growth of the wind business,” says Jan Johnson, spokeswoman for Portland, Ore.-based PPM Energy, a division of ScottishPower and a competitor to Horizon, with several projects brewing in the Midwest.

She points to the big players drawn to wind energy — GE, Mitsubishi, and Siemens.

“There’s absolutely some truth to the notion that wind power has come of age and entered the mainstream,” she adds.

What the DOE does mainly for the large utilities, Roger Brown at Western Illinois University does for individuals and schools who want to analyze the feasibility of installing their own small-scale wind turbines. Brown worked in the oil and gas industry for two decades and became involved in early efforts to offset fossil fuels through the use of turbines in the windy Rocky Mountains.

Now program manager for the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, Brown floated the idea that wind power could help rural commerce. He produced a handbook on wind energy and conducted a series of seminars for farmers and rural communities that grew into a four-year project to measure wind resources around the state, financed by a $419,000 grant from the ICECF.

“After payroll, the utilities are one of the highest costs for school districts, and obviously they’re also a cost that’s going up as natural gas and electricity costs are increasing,” says foundation director Ed Miller, “so it’s useful for schools in planning to lock in a price for power.”

What science has learned over the last decade is that air currents tracked too close to the ground don’t accurately reflect the wind’s power 250 or 300 feet up, Miller explains. Most of today’s turbines are designed at a minimum height of 275 feet to capture the energy of large air masses moving across the continent, leading ICECF to finance Brown’s project. By studying specific sites within the federal charts, Brown is analyzing data indicating that the geology of hills or moraines can boost turbines by a significant 50 or 75 feet and maximize the power they generate.

Brown reviews requests from schools or individual landowners and selects 12 to monitor for a full year to measure seasonal variations. He then uses wind-sensing equipment attached to 165-foot-high poles, that capture velocity up in the air and stores it on data cards at the base. Ideally he looks for wide-open spaces, unobstructed on at least three sides by trees or hills or set above the surrounding area atop a ridge or knob that boosts height and gains an unexpected wind opportunity for a turbine. Right now he’s gathering data at Lake Land College, in Mattoon; at Mercer County Hospital, in Aledo; south of Springfield in Macoupin County; and in eight other locations, including three in southern Illinois, where winds are not thought to be of high quality because of the hills and trees. Data are posted at www.illinoiswind.org.

Wind, however, is a variable resource, and Illinois doesn’t have much of it in June and July. In Bureau Valley, for example, the 660-kilowatt turbine meets and even exceeds the school’s power needs seven of the 12 months of the year, generating on average 50,000 kilowatt hours per month. However, periods of light wind coincide inconveniently with the summer, when the school uses more electricity for air conditioning. That’s when the turbine fails to meet the school’s peak load, says Gutshall, the superintendent. By contrast, in the best wind months the turbine cranks out more than the school can use, about 100,000 kilowatt hours. Because the district doesn’t have a way to store the energy, it sells back the excess kilowatts to the power grid through utility company Ameren but at a lower rate — earning about 3 cents a kilowatt hour vs. the 8.5 or 9 cents per hour that Ameren charges consumers to buy electricity.

Generating enough production to meet peak demand is one of the utility industry’s challenges, regardless of the power source, leading to occasional brownouts, power failures, and pleas to homeowners to avoid using appliances on hot summer days. Still, Bureau Valley expects big gains in the long run. The $1 million turbine was financed through $460,000 in grants and the rest in a loan that the district is paying off in 10 years. After year 11, the district will pocket about $90,000 or more in annual savings for the remainder of the turbine’s expected 25-year life.

The economics of Bureau Valley proved irresistible to schools in nearby Erie. Superintendent Mike Ryan says his district first examined Bureau Valley’s success, then went further by choosing a more powerful 1.2 megawatt turbine capable of generating year-round electricity for its 775 K-12th students. In June and July, when school isn’t in session and light winds could stall electricity generation, the district plans to scale back air conditioning to avoid going back on the grid for power.

“Our budget is approximately $160,000 to $170,000 a year for electricity, so our initial concept was, if we can save that times the turbine life of 25 to 30 years, that would be wonderful,” Ryan says.

The turbine project cost $3.5 million, which the district is partially funding with a $720,000 grant from the Clean Energy Foundation. The remainder of the upfront costs will be covered under a partnership with Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, which the school will reimburse with 12 annual payments set according to the district’s current power costs — but those savings will be magnified when electricity is deregulated on Jan. 1, and the district won’t have to face escalating energy bills, Ryan adds.

The district posts news on the turbine at www.erie1.info. Construction of a concrete pad 42 feet wide, 42 feet long, and 8 feet deep to support the 230-foot tower, which will hold three 114-foot-long blades, is under way. “I’m told when they start pouring concrete it’s going to take a continuous pour of 90 cement trucks for 16 hours,” he says. “That’s the type of base this unit needs.”

Erie has also applied for grants to develop curriculum that will bring the lessons of renewable energy into the classroom.

“Over the next 25 to 30 years we’re going to have to be paying somebody $7.8 million in electricity costs for our school district,” Ryan reasons. “It only makes sense that, instead of paying somebody else, why not pay ourselves? Over the life of the turbine, our school district is going to save $4 million — so, instead of being dependent on an energy company, we’re in control of our own destiny.

“We’re casting our electrical futures to the wind.”

Joan Villa of White Heath, a regular contributor, who has written for Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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