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Wind Power Wafts Into Louisiana, Bringing Jobs And Energy

Posted: 01/10/12 10:16 PM ET

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Jan. 9, 2012 issue.

Louisiana and the rest of the South are starting to harness wind power--something that's done on a larger scale in states to the north and west of us. Wind accounts for 3% of electricity in the U.S. and keeps the lights on in over 5% of the European Union. Gusts have long been used for power, and were captured by wind wheels in ancient Greece and more recently by mills in Holland.

Demand for wind-turbine parts has created jobs in southeast Louisiana. Using state tax credits, UK-based Blade Dynamics set up shop fifteen months ago at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East, and is hiring hundreds of workers. Those jobs are welcome after the downsizing that occurred at Michoud as the nation's space-shuttle program ended last year.

Blade's products won't stay in Louisiana, however. Last week, Blade co-founder Theo Botha said "we just sent out our first American-made blade from the factory. The 50-yard long blade--called Dynamic 49 and designed for a 2 megawatt turbine--is being tested for certification." The Michoud facility has port access, and the company will begin shipping shortly from New Orleans.

Botha said "Louisiana has a wonderful opportunity to embrace wind energy, and we look forward to participating." But he added "for now, our market is outside of Louisiana."

It may take awhile for the Pelican State to fully capitalize on its wind potential. North Louisiana customers depend partly on wind, though it's coming from other states. Shreveport-based Southwestern Electric Power Co. has two, 20-year wind-power purchase agreements, totaling 110.5 megawatts, SWEPCO spokesman Peter Main said. As part of its Renewable Energy Pilot Program, the Louisiana Public Service Commission in December approved a long-term, 31-megawatt contract between SWEPCO and the Flat Ridge 2 wind farm, being built in Kansas by BP's wind-development unit. And in early 2009, SWEPCO contracted 89.5 megawatts from Majestic Wind Farm in Texas for two decades.

The LPSC authorized a Renewable Energy Pilot Program for the state in June 2010.

SWEPCO serves 225,700 customers in eleven parishes in northwest Louisiana, along with nearly 300,000 customers in Texas and Arkansas. Wind power reaches SWEPCO's customers through transmission ties in the Southwest Power Pool, a nine-state group. "Oklahoma, West Texas and Kansas have some of the best wind resources available for companies that are part of the Pool," Main said.

He said SWEPCO continues to add renewable energy to its generation mix, and plans to secure an additional 400 megawatts of wind power by 2014's end. "The LPSC is implementing its Renewable Energy Pilot Program and Texas has a renewable portfolio standard in place," Main noted. Transmission lines are being built in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and other states to take wind power to population centers.

Entergy may eventually harness wind for its New Orleans customers. Entergy Corporation's non-regulated, generation business owns 50 percent interests in two 80-megawatts wind farms--one in Worth County, Iowa, and the other in Amarillo, Texas, Entergy spokesman Michael Burns said. At this time, Entergy's regulated utilities don't own, lease or have purchase agreements for wind power. "But a request for proposals for renewable energy, issued in 2010 on behalf of Entergy Louisiana and Entergy Gulf States Louisiana, is in its final phase now, and we're negotiating long-term, power purchase agreements with third parties, including owners of wind power," Burns said.

Like all energy sources, wind power has its pros and cons. Wind energy doesn't deplete natural resources, and it's clean, producing no carbon dioxide emissions. Wind turbines can create power in remote areas, like villages in Africa. But large wind farms are needed to generate enough electricity for bigger communities. While wind is free, it's a variable or inconsistent source of energy. And manufacturing of wind turbines, which require steel, concrete and aluminum, uses electricity--releasing greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. It can take many months of operation for a wind turbine to be "carbon neutral," saving the amount of greenhouse gases that are required to produce it.

Wind turbines are noisy and when concentrated can interfere with wildlife. Last summer, Palm Beach County commissioners in Florida approved a big wind farm along the shores of Lake Okeechobee, where sugar cane is grown. Wind Capital Group in Missouri has submitted plans to erect a hundred turbines there. But environmentalists say the project could disrupt the patterns of migratory birds, endangered panthers and other animals.

So what's the outlook for wind power in Louisiana? Nicolai Alatzas, sustainable integration director at Kenner, La.-based Comfort Engineered Systems, installing solar and wind equipment, said "winds are strong enough offshore and also in western and northwestern Louisiana to make wind power economical, but solar is more cost effective in the rest of the state."

Louisiana is in a hot, humid air mass and the cost of solar panels has dropped recently, he noted. "Wind power has imbedded technology costs, including the cost of manufactured inputs, two yards of concrete required for the base of a single residential turbine, and maintenance of moving parts." That makes wind more expensive than solar locally, especially for residential customers. Solar panels have 25-year warranties while residential wind turbines have ten-year warranties, he said. For residences, solar has a greater return on investment than wind power.

"But in offshore Louisiana, particularly at the mouth of the Mississippi River and at 150 to 300 meters high, the winds are some of the best in the country," Alatzas said. Someday, wind turbines might be installed on platforms in the Louisiana Gulf by energy companies and others, but so far New England states and Texas have been quicker to pursue harnessing offshore wind than Louisiana.
 
Louisiana has some of the most generous commercial and residential tax breaks for wind power, as it does for solar. "It's the most progressive state in the nation for credits for wind, solar and fuel cells, though some states have higher utility incentives," Alatzas said.
 
While urban areas in Louisiana aren't ideal for wind power, specific sites like barges near the Causeway and the tops of certain office buildings in New Orleans, are suitable for wind turbines, he said. A year ago, Pineville-based energy company Cleco installed an experimental, 60-foot tall wind turbine at the north end of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, and it's providing power for a toll plaza.
 
In late 2010, Comfort Engineered Systems installed two, 1.2 kilowatt WindSpires operating on a vertical axis in Eden Isles, a Slidell subdivision on Lake Pontchartrain. The WindSpires generate 200 to 300 kilowatts per month or roughly 20% of an average home's power consumption. "However, the solar units we installed in Eden Isles are outperforming wind power," Alatzas said. But he added "the WindSpires are an investment in clean-energy solutions, and are also beautiful, providing a sculptural, aesthetic effect."
 
Meanwhile, plans by the city of New Orleans to install wind mills along a downtown, riverside park have been jettisoned. "They aren't in the current project as it has been designed and funded since August 2010, when we announced our 100 committed projects," said Ryan Berni, press secretary for Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Industry members across the nation hope that Congress will extend the federal, wind-power Production Tax Credit before it expires at the end of this year. That credit for wind farm owners, based on kilowatt hours produced, has helped U.S. wind power expand in the last decade. end