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Will Politics Slow the Wind?

Mar 8, 2010 - Peter Behr - Climatewire - Scientific American

The growth of wind power may be curtailed by a growing coalition of naysayers, ranging from electric utilities to Senators
CURRENT AFFAIRS: The Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy fears that prime conditions in the Great Plains will make the region's wind power too cheap to compete with.

Not many years ago, there wasn't enough wind power coming from the Great Plains to worry about. Now there is, and lots of people are worrying.

A group of mostly East Coast utility companies calling itself the Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy fears that the prime conditions in the Great Plains will make the region's wind power too cheap for its members to compete with, unless developers there are made to pay the costs of moving wind power eastward.

Influential natural gas producers and generators in Texas are worried. They are demanding that the state's wind developers share the costs of backup natural gas generators that must pick up the slack when the wind doesn't blow. The gas industry, threatened by state policies that promote wind power, is asking regulators to impose penalties on wind generators that can't deliver scheduled energy when the wind dies down.

And last week, four senators representing New York, Ohio, Montana and Pennsylvania proposed to deny federal clean energy grants to wind developers that buy blades, turbines and other components from abroad.

"It is a no-brainer that stimulus funds should only go to projects that create jobs in the United States rather than overseas," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, pointing at a proposed Texas wind farm whose backers include a Chinese power company.

Some renewable policy advocates say the problem has less to do with China and more with on-and-off-again federal energy policies, and arguments over how to pay for the vast expansion of transmission lines needed to maximize wind power delivery. Instead of looking at foreign rivals, members of Congress should start with a look in the mirror, says this side in the debate.

"We've had so many studies," said Lisa Barton, vice president for transportation strategy and business development at Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power, a strong proponent of grid expansion. "It's 2010, and yet we still don't have a decision on how to move forward in connecting wind or in building a more robust transmission system."

How 'American' should the jobs be?

The issue of allocating costs for new transmission lines among states and regions is one of the high hurdles ahead for the Senate, if it can get climate and energy legislation to the floor this spring. The debate pits utilities and power generators in the North, Southwest and Pacific Northwest against companies like AEP that hope to move large amounts of competing wind power to the coasts.

Wind power development poses "a perceived threat to the embedded generators," said David Corbus, senior engineer with the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "They color it in different ways. But when you come down to it, that's the bottom line on a lot of these issues." Corbus was project manager for the NREL's recently released 14-month study of wind power.

"You can't ignore the interests of the folks involved in the debate," Barton said.

Schumer and his three Democratic colleagues, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Jon Tester of Montana, say new wind power projects receiving federal stimulus grants should use U.S. manufacturing -- some of which lies in their backyards.

"Companies located in New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere across the United States are fully capable of manufacturing the range of clean-energy components," they said in a letter last week to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.