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Small Community Projects Can Benefit from Wind Power Development

December 13, 2009
[reprinted from EcoForum, November 2009]
John Farrell speaks to SDRC 2009 annual meeting about community-based energy projects.

John Farrell, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, speaks the the SDRC 2009 annual meeting about community-based energy projects.

Reacting to the cancellation of plans for the Big Stone II power plant, Governor Rounds and others have expressed concern that wind generation could be crippled without transmission lines that would have been built for the new coal plant.

Fortunately, lack of new transmission lines need not impede wind power development, John Farrell told a gathering of about fifty persons on October 31 at the Brookings Public Library during SDRC’s annual meeting. Farrell, Senior Energy Policy Researcher at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said the centralized wind farm/long-distance transmission model of wind power development is geared primarily to benefit large utility corporations and large absentee investors.

Community wind bypasses transmission headaches

In fact, Farrell maintained, at this point, South Dakotans can gain more from wind power if they take a different path, bypassing new high voltage transmission altogether.

For landowners, new transmission high lines are bound to bring conflict over use of eminent domain.

For utility customers, new high voltage transmission, whether for renewable or conventional power, will bring higher electric bills. Any new transmission is expensive. Interstate corridors dedicated to renewable energy—dubbed “the Green Power Express” by promoters—are most expensive of all: an estimated $3 million per mile, up to $200 billion all told. Furthermore, the speaker pointed out, costly inefficiency is inherent in long distance transmission, because transmission lines “leak” substantial electricity every mile the current travels.

Where does that leave South Dakotans, who want jobs and other economic benefits from wind power development, as well as renewable energy for their own communities?

If South Dakotans want more electricity or ways to reduce their carbon footprint, Farrell stressed, they are better off harvesting the low-hanging fruit of efficiency improvement and conservation to stretch their existing electricity supply and at the same time looking close to home for additional or replacement supply using renewable resources like wind. He cited his own study published this year. Titled Energy Self-Reliant States, it establishes that the majority of states could get all their electricity from in-state renewable resources.

With many municipally controlled utilities and rural electric cooperatives, observed Farrell, South Dakotans are well positioned to get their own wind-based electricity by the distributed energy path, one which will actually yield more local jobs, more community prosperity, and more affordable electricity than the centralized wind farm/long-distance transmission route.

Since wind doesn’t blow in a completely predictable manner, realizing full benefit from wind will require updating local distribution grids with computer-driven “smart-grid” technology.

As described by Farrell, a smart grid will be able to balance supply and demand virtually instantaneously, communicating with “smart appliances” in homes where customers have agreed beforehand to favorable rates and other efficiency incentives that lower their electric bills.

When enough of an area’s automotive fleet has converted to plug-in electric, electric customers will also be able to earn credit toward their electric bill by permitting a utility to tap into their car batteries to balance a peak demand. The federal National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as planning officials in a number of states and utility groups are already gearing up to pursue this vehicle-to-grid option, as are auto manufacturers.

Towns or coops experiencing unusual demand stress will even be able to call on the systems of other communities with which they are already interconnected along existing longer distance transmission pathways.
Farrell noted that community transition to renewable energy should be based on analysis of the need for upgrades at substations or other components of the local distribution grid, as well as the potential mix of renewable resources. Priority should be given to exploiting the cheapest of all energy sources: conservation and efficiency improvement.

First steps can begin fairly quickly, the speaker assured. It’s already practical for local utilities to begin integrating locally generated power from wind or other renewable resources into existing distribution grids, increasing the power supply without costly new long-distance transmission.

Good example from Willmar, MN

Farrell cited Willmar, Minnesota. Having recently activated two wind turbines to supply up to five percent of the city’s electricity, Willmar now plans further local renewable energy installations. He pointed encouragingly to a study which identified potential for integration of 600 megawatts of locally generated renewable power into existing local distribution grids in Minnesota.

After the main presentation, a panel of five responders exchanged views with Farrell in dialogue which expanded to include the audience. Panelists were generally supportive of Farrell’s message that communities and coops would do well to get busy pursuing renewable energy development in their own towns and coops based on efficiency improvement, thrifty use and upgrading of existing distributive infrastructure, and locally available renewable resources.

Public policy changes needed

From their experience, panelists offered suggestions for changing public policies that currently present barriers to development of community-based distributed energy. Discouraging policies mentioned were weak building codes, lack of law-based and rule-based state renewable energy goals, low-bid contract rules which dictate acceptance of cheap buildings rather than energy-wise buildings, and tax incentives that are skewed to favor large corporations and absentee investors rather than investment by public or private entities on a community scale.

The five panelists were from sectors which need to cooperate to successfully integrate renewable resources into the South Dakota’s energy economy: David Staub, a citizen advocate for building efficiency and renewable energy from Sisseton; state lawmakers Representative Larry Tidemann, Brookings, and Senator Dan Ahlers, Dell Rapids; Greg Zimmerman, electrical engineering research assistant from the South Dakota State University Wind Applications Center; and Scott Parsley, Assistant General Manager for Member Services from East River Electric Cooperative, Madison.

Mr. Parsley stated the rural electric coops were looking at ways for their members to become investors in renewable energy projects.

It was suggested that the South Dakota Legislature should follow the Minnesota model by adopting a standard contract for small (less than five megawatt) wind projects. Small community based projects have a potential for high economic risk. These risks can be minimized by having the small projects become part of a cooperative that would share insurance and maintenance costs.

The SDSU Wind Applications Center is researching small turbines for individual home production.

It was emphasized that small community projects cannot rely just on wind as the sole energy source. These projects should not go off the grid and need to invest in multiple renewable resources.

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