Tales of Giant Kangaroo Rats and Wind Turbine Health Syndrome

Officially, this session at the recent Net Impact conference was called “Hurdles to Renewable Energy Development in the US,” but the moderator provided me with the much more exciting title you see above. Moderator Ian Black opened the session with his story of a failed renewable power project in California. To listen to his version of the story, one might think that the giant kangaroo rats single handedly stopped the project. Actually, his tongue in cheek complaint about the small fuzzy mammal arose from the fact the

Giant Kangaroo Rat

Climate enemy #1: the giant kangaroo rat in his natural habitat

rodent is on the endangered species list. When all attempts to work around the habitat failed and moving the population was not an option, Black decided to kill the carbon-lite power project before it had even broken ground. The story comically indicated his frustration with the regulatory permitting process in the US and implicitly suggested that more renewable power could have been installed by now if it were not for the Endangered Species Act and all of the similar environmental red tape.

Indeed, permitting timelines differ greatly by state, from Texas (under six months) to California (over two years). The lesson to learn for the aspiring MBA hoping to get into renewable energy development was be patient and maybe reconsider your career selection if you are not the patient type. Regulations define the process of citing and developing, say, a new wind farm from start to finish.

If that’s not bad enough, Chip Reading (Director of Development, North American Wind, Acciona) introduced something called ‘Wind Turbine Health Syndrome,’ an alleged disorder that he had hoped to disprove by bringing in medical experts to state that such a thing does not exist. Reading indicated the disorder was simply a tactic that communities use to oppose the development of a new project in their area. The overriding theme for session was that the developer must struggle against NIMBY and BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything) communities. However, beyond these games of cat and mouse, I took away some gems of knowledge from this session about the state of renewable power in the US.

The currently low price of natural gas is making renewable power projects less profitable because they must compete with new natural gas fired turbines. But most renewable generation also uses natural gas as a source of backup power in the case of a shortage of the renewable. Thus, the two competing technologies appear to have a love/hate relationship.

Another extremely important topic was the pending decision in California about whether the state will lift the cap on out-of-state produced renewable power (to 50% from 25% currently) to meet their renewable energy targets. If the deal goes through, there will be many effects. Idle wind capacity in Oregon could be put to use. Of course, BC Hydro would like to market their cheap carbon-free electricity to California at premium clean power rates, but hydro power does not count under California’s 20% by 2010 standard.

However, for me, some of the most interesting ideas were in the area of storage. Wind turbine manufacturers are developing new ways to store and slowly release the stored energy to smooth out supply. One idea is to pump compressed air into on-turbine chambers, or into limestone caves, and feed it back at night or at low wind periods. Another storage technique: make hydrogen with the extra capacity at night.

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