Wind Turbines Could Rule Tornado Alley
The reason that Pilger, Nebraska was so badly hit by tornados last month is the same reason that wind is a great energy source in Tornado Alley. The wind blows hard and often. So wind energy should be the major part of a sustainable energy mix in this region of the United States.
We don’t yet know how to protect our towns from tornados, although we’ve gotten very good at protecting our people with new shelters. But we do know how to harness that power using wind turbines.
In 2013, wind generation made up 4% of America’s 4 trillion kWhrs of electricity production, up 50% from 2009 (PowerMag). At the same time, coal resurged to 39%, retaking the lead over natural gas which dropped to 27%. Nuclear remained steady at 19%, as did hydropower at 7%.
Biomass dropped to 1.5%, geothermal was 0.4% and solar was 0.2% (EIA).
So wind has become our fifth largest power generator, and will capture fourth place from hydropower before 2030 since we’ve basically tapped out hydro in this country. However, although wind turbines are strewn throughout America, most of this generation is coming from Tornado Alley (Wind Electricity Generation In Tornado Alley; EIA).
In the Tornado Alley states of Kansas, South Dakota and Iowa, wind generated 20%, 26% and 27% of the total electricity produced, respectively, and is now the second-largest electricity source in those states (EIA States).
Some advantages of putting large numbers of wind turbines in Tornado Alley is they are ideally shaped to withstand extreme winds, they generally displace coal, and they don’t need to be on pristine natural lands. This last point is very different from most of the windy areas in many other states like California or Washington, where there is little coal and most of them are on public lands, beautiful coastlines or pristine mountaintops where the wind blows often enough and at the right speeds to be useful.
Even better is that bird deaths in Tornado Alley from wind turbines are much less than other windy areas because it is outside almost all migratory routes (Chicago Department of Environment; FLAP Canada). Even birds are smart enough not to fly through Tornado Alley.
So just replacing coal in Tornado Alley with a combination of wind and gas, keeping the amount of nuclear we have in place, would achieve most of the goals of the carbon rules recently announced by EPA.
Our ideal power generation mix for America is ⅓, ⅓, ⅓ – a third fossil fuel, a third renewables and a third nuclear (Progressive Policy Institute). This mix could be achieved by 2040 and would meet all of our electricity demand, satisfy our environmental obligations and fulfill our climate goals.
For the renewable portion, wind would constitute about half, up to a trillion kWhrs/year, depending upon the growth of total energy in America. This would require construction of almost 400,000 large megawatt turbines. A little less than 100,000 turbines exist now.
But can wind generation reach these levels given its intermittency and the need to load-follow with another source like natural gas?
The short answer is yes, providing there is careful planning and placement in regions with the highest capacity factors, like Tornado Alley, and back-up with combined cycle natural gas together with sufficient baseload sources like nuclear and hydro. These numbers depend on a capacity factor for wind between 25% and 30%.
If capacity factors are over 40%, as in Tornado Alley, many fewer turbines are needed. This is extremely important since each megawatt wind turbine requires 500 tons of steel and 1000 cubic yards of concrete to build, even more to connect to the grid.
Capacity factor (cf) is the amount of energy actually produced over a year divided by the amount that the system could produce if it ran at capacity perfectly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The higher the capacity factor, the more efficient and cost-effective is the energy produced, and the less problematic is the intermittency.
Many utilities are emplacing wind generation Tornado Alley (Exelon Wind), but the optimal coupling of wind generation and Tornado Alley is nowhere more obvious than near Beaumont, Kansas at the Elk River Wind Farm. Built in 2005 for $200 million (APEX Energy), the Farm uses 100 GE 1.5-megawatt (MW) turbines to produce 550,000,000 kilowatt-hours (kWhrs) of energy annually with a capacity factor of 42%, the highest continuous capacity factor of any wind farm to date.
But for the full story on wind, it’s best to talk to Greg Wortham, the mayor of Sweetwater, Texas where 1,371 wind turbines produced more megawatts last year than the more than 5,000 turbines in all the wind farms in California. Known as the Mayor of Wind, Wortham will tell you this is because his wind turbines are in an ideal place where the wind blows hard and often, i.e., where the capacity factor exceeds 40%.
So, what’s to stop wind from expanding dramatically in Tornado Alley? It may be politics. Tornado Allen is in the heart of America’s Heartland where wind energy has little political support.
Mayor Wortham became the face of the Texas Miracle that brought thousands of green jobs to the petroleum plains of the reddest of states, making Texas the nation’s leader in wind power. This burst of wind in the Texas portion of Tornado Alley began as a non-partisan effort to make money and create jobs following the closing of oil refineries and the agricultural devastation from years of drought in the region.
But this success story has put Sweetwater in the middle of an unlikely battle with the Koch Brothers and the Tea Party who want to exterminate wind in the State of Texas, and everywhere else (The Mayor of Wind). The explosion of fracking has resurged oil and gas, and the fossil fuel industry has always felt wind as a threat. Many Texan Representatives are supporting an effort to eliminate the wind tax credits and the federal wind tax incentives that are key to wind power expansion in their own districts. These credits were first passed by Bush 41.
The irony is that over 80% of all wind energy capacity in America is within red Congressional districts, and wind-power royalties mostly help farmers and ranchers stay on their land.
We need an all-of-the-above energy plan that includes fossil fuel, renewables and nuclear, and will for sometime. Powering up Tornado Alley with wind turbines should be embraced by everyone.
It’s the best place for it. Just ask the birds.