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The wind industry has been getting a lot of love of late from the Obama administration.

The president spent Earth Day at an Iowa factory that makes wind turbine towers and announced new regulations for offshore wind farms. Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has been talking up the potential of offshore wind to generate as much as 20% of the eastern seaboard’s electricity that is now provided by coal-fired power plants.

But such scenarios won’t come to pass unless the administration seriously tackles the transmission grid problems that are keeping wind from becoming a nationwide source of green energy, according to panel of wind industry executives who spoke at Fortune Magazine’s Brainstorm Green panel this week.

“The real challenge is to connect wind farms in the Great Plains with the population centers of the Midwest,” said Bob Gates, senior vice president of commercial operations for Clipper Windpower. California-based Clipper is one of two U.S.-owned wind turbine makers (the other being General Electric (GE) ).

For instance, Clipper and BP (BP) have signed an agreement to build a 5,000-megawatt wind farm – the nation’s largest – in South Dakota. But the deal is more a dream at this stage because there are no power lines to transmit such massive amounts of electricity to Chicago and other Midwestern cities. (Gates said there is enough transmission available to begin construction this summer of a small 25-megawatt portion of the wind farm.)

The Obama administration has devoted billions of dollars in stimulus package funding to transmission projects and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week approved incentives for a company planning to build a $12 billion “Green Power Express” transmission project to bring wind to Midwest metropolises.

Gates and the other panelists — Andris Cukurs, CEO of Indian turbine maker Suzlon’s North American operations; Don Furman, a transmission executive with Spanish wind developer Iberdrola Renewables, and James Walker, vice chairman of French-owned wind developer enXco – said the development of wind offshore from East Coast cities would ease transmission bottlenecks.

“Connecting offshore wind to cities is relatively cheap and easy compared to bringing wind power from the Dakotas to New York City,” Gates said. Another way to work around transmission gridlock would be to develop highly efficient small turbines that could be placed near cities and existing power lines, said Gates.

Despite Obama’s embrace of wind, the executives said they don’t see the industry resuming its record growth in 2008 – when U.S. wind capacity more than doubled – until 2010 or later. The credit crunch delayed or scuttled numerous wind farms and turbine orders have fallen dramatically.

One bright spot: Growing interest from well-capitalized utilities in directly investing in wind farms.

“Utility ownership is about 15% of the U.S. turbine fleet,” said Furman of Iberdrola Renewables. “I see more utility ownership in the coming years,, perhaps up to a third of the fleet.”

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three_in_row_hi_mediumWave farm developers must overcome more hurdles to get their projects approved under an agreement signed Thursday ending a feud between two federal agencies that warred over the regulation of offshore wind and wave farms.

A jurisdictional dispute between the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had left in limbo a number of wave energy projects planned for the outer continental shelf, particularly applications from Grays Harbor Ocean Energy of Seattle to build half a dozen combined wave-and-wind farms from New Jersey to Hawaii. The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service had challenged FERC’s right to approve approve projects on the outer continental shelf. Last month the agencies agreed to end the water fight but offered few specifics on how offshore wind and wave farms would be regulated.

On Thursday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and FERC chairman Jon Wellinghoff signed an accord detailing how their agencies will deal with such projects. FERC will license the construction and operation of wave farms on the outer continental shelf but the Minerals Management Service will issue leases and rights-of-way for those projects. The Minerals Management Service also will be the sole agency to license wind and solar projects on the outer continental shelf.

Previously, a wave energy developer applied to FERC for a preliminary permit to explore the feasibility of a project in a particular stretch of ocean. As such permits award developers first rights to build a project in a given locale, there’s been something of an offshore land rush over the past couple of years to stake claims on the best sites. (The city of San Francisco and Grays Harbor Ocean Energy, for instance, are feuding over competing claims.)

Under Thursday’s agreement, FERC will no longer issue such preliminary permits for wave farms on the outer continental shelf and will not license any projects until developers first secure a lease or right-of-way from the Interior Department.

That should slow the land rush as developers will now be dealing with two federal agencies when it comes to floating their projects.

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Can Google help defuse a simmering green civil war between renewable energy advocates and wildlife conservationists in the American West?

That’s the idea behind a new Google Earth mapping project launched Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society. Path to Green Energy will identify areas in 13 western states potentially suitable for massive megawatt solar power plants, wind farms, transmission lines and other green energy projects. The app will also pinpoint critical habitat for protected wildlife such as the desert tortoise in California and Wyoming’s sage grouse as well as other environmentally sensitive lands.

“This was information that was unavailable or very scattered,” said Google.org program director David Bercovich at a press conference. “The potential cost savings from this will be enormous. If we can get people to the right areas and streamline the process that will have enormous benefits in getting clean energy online faster.”

NRDC senior attorney Johanna Wald said her group already is using Path to Green Energy in New Mexico to help plan a new transmission project. “Careful siting is the key to renewable energy development,” she said, noting that NRDC has mapped 860 million acres. “We’re not greenlighting development on places that are on our map but we’re providing a framework for discussion.”

siting2The unveiling of Path to Green Energy comes two weeks after California Senator Dianne Feinstein announced she would introduce legislation to put as many as 600,000 acres of the Mojave Desert off limits to renewable energy development to protect endangered wildlife and their habitats.  Solar developers have filed lease claims on a million acres of federal land in the California Mojave and there are state and federal efforts already under way to identify green energy zones across the West.

Path to Green Energy is designed to give regulators and developers a tool to choose the best potential sites for solar and wind farms so they don’t get bogged down in years-long and multimillion-dollar fights over wildlife.  Ausra, BrightSource Energy and other developers of the first half-dozen solar power plant projects moving through the licensing process in California have spent big sums on hiring wildlife consultants who spend thousands of hours surveying sites for desert tortoises, blunt-nosed leopard lizards and other protected species.

The Google Earth app won’t do away with the need to do such detailed environmental review but puts in one package a variety of information that developers must now cobble together themselves — if they can find it. Path to Green Energy could also prove valuable to utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) as more and more projects are proposed and regulators scrutinize the cumulative impact of Big Solar power plants across regions.

For instance, in California’s San Luis Obispo County, three large-scale solar farms are being planned within a few miles of each other by Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR). That has resulted in delays as wildlife officials initiate studies looking at how all those projects affect the movement of wildlife throughout the area. Going forward, Path to Green Energy will give developers a snapshot of where the wild things are, as well as wildlife corridors to help them avoid siting one plant too close to another in a way that may impede animals’ migration. That could save millions of dollars in mitigation costs – money builders must spend to acquire land to replace wildlife habitat taken for a power plant project as well as avoid fights with environmental groups that have become increasingly uneasy about Big Solar projects.

If the desert tortoise is the critter to avoid when building solar power plants in the Mojave, the sage grouse poses problems for Wyoming wind farms. Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming, said Path to Green Energy shows the densities of sage grouse across the state, allowing developers to stay clear of those areas.

“We get a solid indication of where energy development shouldn’t go,” he said. “Just as important, we get a better sense of the places that should be evaluated for wind turbine farms and transmission lines. The maps make clear that there is plenty of room for green energy.”

The payback from using Web 2.0 software could indeed be tremendous, given that Google (GOOG) spent a scant $50,000 in donations to NRDC and Audubon to create the maps.

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Infighting among U.S. federal agencies over regulation of wind and wave energy development on the outer continental shelf ended Tuesday with an accord that gives the Department of the Interior oversight of offshore wind farms while the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gets jurisdiction over wave and tidal projects.

While the deal brokered by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and acting FERC chairman Jon Wellinghoff will allow wind and wave projects to proceed, it’s still unclear what the impact will be on proposals to build combined offshore wind-and-wave farms.

As Green Wombat wrote earlier this month, a Seattle company called Grays Harbor Ocean Energy has filed applications with FERC to build such combo plants off several states. Among them, California, where the city of San Francisco is attempting to scuttle Grays’ proposed 100 megawatt project that would be located in a marine sanctuary in favor of its own 30 megawatt wave farm that would be built closer to shore.

Environmentalists, surfers and sailors also have objected to the Grays Harbor wave farm and the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service had challenged FERC’s right to approve combined wind-wave projects.

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Worldwide revenues from the solar photovoltaic, wind and biofuels industries jumped 53% in 2008 to $116 billion and is on track to grow to $325 billion by 2018, according to a report released Tuesday by West Coast market research firm Clean Edge.

Last year’s boom, however, is unlikely to be repeated in 2009, given the global financial crisis. Signs of the slowdown were apparent last year as new global investment in green energy grew by a paltry 4.7% to $155 billion, compared to a 60% rise between 2006 and 2007. In the United States, however, venture capital investments in green tech grew 22% last year to $3.3 billion, representing 12% of all VC investments, according to figures compiled by research firm New Energy Finance.

“2009 is a year to get through,” said report author Ron Pernick during a conference call.

Of course, growth projections for renewable energy are inherently speculative. Green energy investment is strongly dependent on government policy and what the Obama administration gives today in the form of billions in subsidies and incentives a successor can take away. And then there are calamities like the extent of the meltdown of the global economy that few foresaw even a year ago.

The wind industry accounted for a third of renewable energy revenues in 2008, becoming a $50 billion business. Clean Edge projects that employment in the wind and solar industries will grow from a combined 600,000 jobs in 2008 to 2.7 million by 2018.

“As the market transitions to low-carbon fuel and electricity sources, conservation and efficiency efforts, and the deployment of a smart, 21st century grid, we believe clean energy offers one of the greatest opportunities for both local and global economies to compete and thrive,” wrote Pernick and co-authors Joel Makower and Clint Wilder.

They identified as growth areas smart grid technologies, energy storage for wind and solar farms, the Eastern Eureopean market,  power grid infrastructure and micro power grids that provide electricity to self-contained facilities or areas.

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Image: Principle Power

Portugal has become a prime spot for wave energy farms, given the coastal conditions and the government’s support for renewable energy projects. Now Portuguese energy powerhouse Energias de Portugal has signed an agreement with Seattle’s Principle Power for a deep-water floating wind farm.

It’s the second floating wind farm for Principle Power, which last October inked a contract to construct a 150-megawatt turbine power plant off the Oregon coast. The Oregon plan calls for 30 floating platforms that will each sport a five-megawatt wind turbine – which is about twice the size of the biggest land-based turbines in commercial operation. (General Electric (GE) makes a 3.6-megawatt turbine designed for offshore and Clipper Windpower is developing a ten-megawatt prototype.)

Details of the deal with Portugal’s EDP, however, are next to non-existent. Principle Power president Jon Bonanno told Green Wombat that the size of the Portuguese wind farm, the type of turbine it will use, its cost and build date are confidential. “What I can say is that the phased build out will result in a utility scale project, within a reasonable time frame for a plant of its size and nature,” Bonanno wrote in an e-mail.

The Seattle startup did reveal that the agreement with EDP calls for it to first deploy a single floating turbine platform, which it calls a WindFloat. “Innovative features of the WindFloat dampen wave and turbine induced motion, enabling wind turbines to be sited in previously inaccessible locations where water depth exceeds 50 meters and wind resources are superior,” Principle said in a statement.

If the WindFloat is successful, then a demonstration project will be built and a commercial wind farm will follow. Deep-water offshore wind farms pose a number of technological and economic challenges but the expected payoff is the production of  cheaper electricity from massive turbines that will be located far enough offshore to avoid the NIMBY problems that have plagued projects in the United States and elsewhere.

EDP became one of the world’s biggest wind farmers in 2007 when it acquired Horizon Wind Energy from Goldman Sachs for $2 billion.

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img_1216_1photo: Todd Woody

The numbers are in, and as expected 2008 set a record year for the worldwide wind industry as new wind farms generating a total of 27,000 megawatts of greenhouse gas-free electricity came online, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.

The quick-click headline was that the United States overtook the world’s green superpower, Germany, by installing 8,358 megawatts in 2008  – a 50% jump from the previous year and enough wind energy to power two million American homes. But the big story this year will be China’s rapid emergence as the next global wind power.

China last year doubled its wind energy capacity – for the fourth straight year – adding 6,300 megawatts of new electricity generation for a  total capacity of 12,210 megawatts.  A third of the world’s new wind capacity last year was installed in Asia, with China  accounting for 73% of that power. China reached its 2010 target of generating 5,000 megawatts of wind-powered electricity in 2007 and is expected to hit its 2030 goal of 30,000 megawatts years early.

“In 2009, new installed capacity is expected to nearly double again, which will be one third or more of the world’s total new installed capacity for the year,” Li Junfeng, Secretary General of the Chinese Renewable Energy Industry Association, said in a statement.

Of course, 30,000 megawatts of wind is but a flicker in a country with more than 300,000 megawatts of coal-fired energy online but it’s huge by world standards and has spawned both a burgeoning domestic wind industry and growing investment by overseas companies. Denmark’s Vestas, the world’s largest turbine maker,  will open its fifth factory in China this year and it received orders for another 200 megawatts’ worth of turbines at the end of 2008. General Electric (GE), one of only two U.S. turbine makers, also operates a factory in China and in January the company announced a joint venture with China’s A-Power Energy Generation to make turbine gearboxes. In a separate deal with A-Power, GE will supply the company with 900 turbine gearboxes starting next year.

As the financial crisis slows growth in the U.S. and Europe, India is another potential wind power. It ended 2008 with 9,645 megawatts of wind energy and added more capacity that year – 1,800 megawatts – than former world leaders Germany and Spain. Indian turbine maker Suzlon also has been moving onto European turf, relocating its international headquarters to Denmark and acquiring German turbine manufacturer REPower.

Installed global wind capacity now stands at 120.8 gigawatts with the 2008 turbine market worth $47.5 billion, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.

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photo: Todd Woody

When Green Wombat offered up as a “talking point” the observation that the wind industry now employs more people than coal mining, the post set off some vociferous chatter in the blogosphere, fueled in part by my inadvertent error of referring to the “coal industry” in a subsequent reference rather than “coal mining.”

Eoin O’Carroll at the The Christian Science Monitor‘s Bright Green Blog called the comparison between 85,000 wind industry jobs and 81,000 coal mining jobs “bogus,” citing sources pegging direct industry-wide employment in coal at 136,000 to 174,000. Other commentators pointed out that wind power currently provides only about 1-2% of the United States’ electricity while coal supplies around 49%, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Fair enough. But let’s add some context. As Salon‘s Andrew Leonard pointed out, “The key takeaway shouldn’t be employment, but growth rates.” Employment in the wind industry grew 70% between 2007 and 2008 as a result of a 50% jump in the amount of installed wind capacity in the United States last year. And this number bears repeating: 42% of all new U.S. electricity generation in 2008 came from wind farms, the equivalent of building 14 600-megawatt coal-fired power plants  – without the environmental devastation that comes from strip-mining and releasing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That extraordinary growth in wind power was, until the recession hit, reviving abandoned factories in the industrial Midwest as European turbine makers and their suppliers set up shop close to what has become the world’s largest wind market.

While wind produces a tiny percentage of the country’s total electricity today, the U.S. does not have a national power grid and energy generation varies widely by state. (For instance, in-state coal-fired power plants supplied 86% of Ohio’s electricity in 2006, according to the Energy Department, but only 1.1% of California’s – though the Golden State obtains about 20% of its electricity from out-of-state coal plants, a practice being phased out by its global warming law).

In Texas, wind accounts for 4.9% of the state’s electricity generation, according to the state grid operator.  Last week, Texas regulators announced they would invest $5 billion to expand transmission lines to bring wind power from remote west Texas wind farms to big cities like Dallas and Houston. That $5 billion, no doubt, will also generate quite a few green jobs and trigger even more wind development once the credit crunch eases.

Jon Wellinghoff, the new acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has identified the Great Plains – dubbed the Saudi Arabia of wind – as the prime candidate for a massive power grid project to connect the region’s wind farms to metropolitan regions currently dependent on coal-fired power. Again, such an initiative would generate thousands of jobs. (A 2008 Department of Energy report found that if such transmission hurdles were overcome the nation could obtain as much as 20% of its electricity from wind farms.)

Obviously, coal is not going away any time soon. (And those wind turbines are made of steel, after all.) But with the Obama administration willing to spend billions on a smart power grid to expand green energy production and half the states mandating renewable energy targets – not to mention a looming national cap-and-trade system that would assign a price to the environmental cost of coal-fired electricity – it seems clear which industry will be generating the jobs of the future.

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photo: Todd Woody

Here’s a talking point in the green jobs debate: The wind industry now employs more people than coal mining in the United States.

Wind industry jobs jumped to 85,000 in 2008, a 70% increase from the previous year, according to a report released Tuesday from the American Wind Energy Association. In contrast, the coal industry mining employs about 81,000 workers. (Those figures are from a 2007 U.S. Department of Energy report but coal employment has remained steady in recent years though it’s down by nearly 50% since 1986.) Wind industry employment includes 13,000 manufacturing jobs concentrated in regions of the country hard hit by the deindustrialization of the past two decades.

The big spike in wind jobs was a result of a record-setting 50% increase in installed wind capacity, with 8,358 megawatts coming online in 2008 (enough to power some 2 million homes).  That’s a third of the nation’s total 25,170 megawatts of wind power generation. Wind farms generating more than 4,000 megawatts of electricity were completed in the last three months of 2008 alone.

Another sign that wind power is no longer a niche green energy play: Wind accounted for 42% of all new electricity generation installed last year in the U.S. Power, literally, is shifting from the east to west, to the wind belt of the Midwest, west Texas and the West Coast. Texas continues to lead the country, with 7,116 megawatts of wind capacity but Iowa in 2008 overtook California for the No. 2 spot, with 2,790 megawatts of wind generation. Other new wind powers include Oregon, Minnesota, Colorado and Washington state.

But last year’s record is unlikely to be repeated in 2009 as the global credit crisis delays or scuttles new projects because developers are unable to secure financing for wind farms. Layoffs have already hit turbine makers like Clipper Windpower and Gamesa as well as companies that produce turbine towers, blades and other components.

The Obama administration’s $825 billion stimulus package includes a three-year extension of a key production tax credit that has spurred the wind industry’s expansion. But given the dearth of investors with tax liabilities willing to invest in wind projects in exchange for the credits, the stimulus is unlikely to be stimulating to the industry unless the tax credit is made refundable to developers.

The U.S. wind industry is dominated by European wind developers and turbine makers – General Electric (GE) and Clipper are the only two domestic turbine manufacturers – and those companies’ fortunes rise and fall with the global economy.  As the U.S. market has boomed, European companies have been moving production close to their customers – the percentage of domestically manufactured wind turbine components rose from 30% to 50% between 2005 and 2008, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

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photo: FERC

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, is one of those acronym agencies that regulates a key aspect of the United States economy – the electricity grid – but tends to operate under the radar.

Not any more. With President Barack Obama’s appointment of FERC Comissioner and renewable energy advocate Jon Wellinghoff as the agency’s acting chairman, FERC will play a key role in the administration’s efforts to digitize the nation’s aging analog power grid to promote solar and wind energy while creating green jobs. The largest chunk of the stimulus package devoted to renewable energy – some $54 billion – has been set aside for modernizing the grid.

At a Nov. 18 briefing on Capitol Hill, Wellinghoff showed that he’s been thinking extensively about how to upgrade the grid to connect renewable energy produced in remote areas to population centers on the coasts. “In the whole Midwest of this country there are virtually no high- voltage transmission lines,” he said, displaying Google’s  (GOOG) proposal to wean the U.S. from fossil fuels by 2030.  “If you overlay where the wind is, all the wind is in the middle of this country – all those areas where we do not have sufficient transmission. Hopefully we can get the structure to put renewables on the grid and improve the grid to make it a smart system that can ultimately deliver these resources in an efficient way.”

Wellinghoff in a December interview with EnergyWashington.com advocated reviving domestic manufacturing of big transformers – now made overseas – to support the expansion of high-voltage power lines across the U.S.

On Monday, Wellinghoff called for electric cars to be integrated into the electric grid, according to a report by Dow Jones. He said FERC could structure rates to pay car owners for returning electricity to the grid from their vehicle batteries to help balance the power supply as more solar, wind and other intermittent sources of energy come online.

At the November briefing, Wellinghoff called electric cars part of “the glue” that will hold a green grid together and said the federal government should consider giving automakers like General Moters (GM) and Ford (F) incentives to produce plug-in hybrids.

“To modernize the grid, we need to define our goals and define a national tranmission planning process,” he said. “Let’s do it. We just need to get it done.”

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