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Why Is Large-Scale Wind Power So Hard To Build?

Wind Farm

The Bureau of Land Management faces a problem and wants to shake up the rules around wind farm approvals. The problem is straight-forward on its face, but difficult to reconcile logically: Why are so few new large-scale wind projects being built? Despite the fact that nearly everyone – environmentalists, government regulators, and business interests –wants to build more wind farms, precious few are making it over the goal line.

Since 2009, the Obama Administration has approved 46 wind farm projects that would cover a proposed 216,356 acres of public land. Yet only 15 of these 46 projects have made it into operation. The rest are stuck in limbo with years of mandatory environmental analysis ahead or have been cancelled outright.

Against this backdrop, it is little wonder that renewables are still only a tiny fraction of total power output. The Power Company of Wyoming exemplifies exactly this issue with its massive 1,000 turbine windfarm still waiting for construction to begin almost a decade after it was proposed and with $50 million in administrative costs sunk into the project.

The BLM’s solution to this issue is to change the way it deals with land allocation. Essentially the government has two methods for dealing with private use of public land: first-come, first-served, and competitive bidding. The former method is used for cases like power line right of ways and engineered ditches. The latter is used for natural resource leases like oil and gas rights. Currently, wind farms operate on the former system. The BLM is proposing to switch to leasing windfarm acreage under the latter system as it does with O&G properties.

Essentially, the BLM believes this will speed up the process of building windfarms because it can pre-select areas most likely to get a quick environmental project approval and then auction off those properties in a competitive process. In theory, that may speed up the process, but it also means that the lease tracts will cost significantly more, which in turn will likely lead to fewer project proposals in the first place.

The proposed new rules virtually guarantee more revenue for the government, assuming that agreeable tracts can be found to build wind farms on. Part of the problem with renewable projects have consistently been a NIMBY attitude. Nearly everyone likes the idea of renewable solar and wind farms, as long as they are located somewhere else. Local environmentalists have consistently risen up time and again to protest about new local area renewables projects despoiling local views or hurting local frogs, turtles, bugs, and birds. Related: Proving Them Wrong: How The U.S. Oil And Gas Industry Survived

The BLM system can only address that to a degree – in order to actually auction off tracts of land for lease, regulators must identify which tracts they are willing to see renewable energy farms built upon. Thus far, the BLM has identified 19 proposed tracts for solar power, but none for wind.

Environmentalists are generally supportive of the new rules from the BLM as those rules would theoretically identify the least objectionable areas for development. By contrast, the industry is predictably against the new rules given the increase in costs associated with those rules. It’s unclear what the eventual rule will be, but with only 15 of 46 approved wind farms actually making it into operation in the last 7 years, it is clear that the current system is not working.

The alternative to the BLM system is instead what many wind power producers appear to be banking on – wind power development is increasingly being done on existing private lands like farms which have wind open space and are likely to face far fewer environmental hurdles. It is possible then that the BLM is building a system and no one will come to use it. Only time will tell.


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Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Sep 3, 2016 3:14 pm GMT

I’ll give you a hint.

Warren Buffet’s companies are the biggest developers of wind and he also owns the most miles of rail in North America.

Logistical complexity is a bitch.

Cost effective turbines just keep getting bigger! Every single new turbine design pumps up the blade length it seems like.

Having to design custom made transport solutions isn’t very economically efficient.

NIMBY issues typically go away when the local governments and residents get a piece of the action / profit sharing.

Solar PV on the other hand is by far the most logistically simplistic. A regular person can receive a palette of solar pv panels and start building an array. Small and modular is kicking the crap out of big and centralized right now. A lot of that is due to logistics and also substation builds / extensive line builds.

Small wind just doesn’t work unfortunately, it has to be mega-scale. What’s the point of building a wind farm when you have to build an entirely new rail infrastructure and substation and line support system? Not much.

A true 21st century grid requires a continental scale grid, no one on Earth has that yet. Western EU is the closest but they are running into huge logistical problems as well. Imagine the entire paradigm of export / imports changing in under 12 months. Business models can’t even handle that, they’re literally imploding in real time.

These old timers don’t know how to move at Silicon Valley speeds, no one does. I can only imagine the frustration that is going on in these board rooms.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Sep 3, 2016 4:01 pm GMT

Solar growth in Europe has halved since 2011-2012. It is kindof saturated, while the US is a late adopter and still growing. Wind however, had its best growth year in Europe in 2015. It added some 62 TWh, whereas solar added 13 TWh. There is no year in Europe where solar has grown better than wind, in TWh.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Sep 4, 2016 2:41 pm GMT

You have to analyze off-shore wind vs. on-shore wind for EU.

EU is doing AWESOME with off-shore wind. The best of all wind, essentially super high quality baseload assets.

Plus the best countries for solar PV in the EU are still doing very poorly, Spain, Italy, and France.

You’re not wrong, but you have to look at the details a little closer.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Sep 4, 2016 5:18 pm GMT

Super high quality baseload? That was today’s overstatement I think. And 3 GW offshore in 2015 isn’t that great. One reactor’s worth.

Spain and Italy got burnt on solar but have fairly high penetrations. France doesn’t need it.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Sep 4, 2016 10:02 pm GMT


Keep living in your fantasy world as your fossil fuel pension assets terminate to 0 and you’re screwed.

Enjoy that retirement bro.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Sep 4, 2016 10:21 pm GMT

If renewables truly terminates fossils, I’ll celebrate. But that article is sadly misleading. Especially this:

Wind output variations “are being canceled out by totally unrelated changes in supply and demand,” Goggin said.

Anyone who knows something about statistics knows that’s false. Unrelated changes will sometimes cancel out changes in wind and sometimes add to them.

The article makes a big deal out of little need for fast-acting reserves, but does mention that the need for slow-acting reserves will increase. And that’s the problem, and that’s why it ain’t baseload. Beware the German scenario where nuclear is replaced by wind and in the process locks in the need for natural gas. It’s no coincidence that natural gas companies love intermittent renewables.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Sep 4, 2016 10:32 pm GMT

It’s clear your mind is made up and you refuse to objectively look at new information.

Do you get paid to troll this site or do you just do it for free like Bob?

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Sep 4, 2016 10:40 pm GMT

Rather, I don’t get carried away by the RE industry’s propaganda, but look at the facts objectively.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Sep 5, 2016 1:58 pm GMT

“Beware the German scenario where nuclear is replaced by wind and in the process locks in the need for natural gas.”

Not a comparable scenario. Germany phased out nuclear rapidly, US is doing so by attrition. Germany has poor solar resource, US has world class solar resource. Germany has reasonable wind resource, US has excellent land based wind resource. 65% CF if we go to 140 meter towers and it is largely decorrelated from solar that is coming in at near 30% CF. Wind and solar are variable but in these high CF sites solar is not intermittent, i.e. it is highly predictable. Similarly with the high CF wind. And the two combined have powerful synergies. Since solar peaks when the grid demand peaks the grid is supported. I cases where there is a ‘notch’ from the not perfect timing when solar dies down but wind hasn’t fully ramped up, gas peakers can be used. And, BTW, Europe should be viewed as a whole, whether nuclear or renewables, Europe and the US are best served by aggregation through super grids.

The anti renewables folks would have us believe that renewables can only produce 30% of the country’s power. Third grade math shows that solar alone could provide that due to its 30% CF and peak coincidence. Add the high CF wind, much of which is decorrelated from solar, and before the analysts even sharpen their pencils and look at load shifting we are already well above 50%. 10% more is highly synergistic hydro and 20% is nuclear. That gets us to 80%. The usual folks will jump in and say that hydro is only 7%, so be it, 50% renewables is a low ball so it all works out.

So the gas lock-in folks need to concede that their concerns begin at the last 20% or they are simply spouting groundless propaganda.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 5, 2016 3:28 pm GMT

Clayton, as always, you give way too much credence to NREL, a govenment organization whose paycheck depends on hyping their own field of study. They admit it:

NREL is the only federal laboratory dedicated to the research, development, commercialization, and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

Is there any peer-reviewed source which agrees with them, or are we forced to accept their groundless propaganda as gospel?

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Sep 5, 2016 8:57 pm GMT

Still trolling with baseless innuendo. Amazing that TEC hasn’t banned you.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Sep 5, 2016 9:10 pm GMT

“experts with the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) explained”

The AWEA explained?

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Sep 6, 2016 8:24 am GMT

You say “Germany phased out nuclear rapidly”. Does that mean you think it is done? In reality, it is phasing it out over a ten year period starting with Fukushima, and most of the large nukes will be decommissioned in 2020-2022. That will undo the progress made in the years leading up to that. It doesn’t matter much if it is done by attrition or by law. The climate doesn’t care.

Wind and solar is intermittent even if predictable. Again, the climate doesn’t care if you can predict in advance that you need to release carbon. I’d agree that some sites in the US has world-class RE resources, but some of the largest metropolitan areas such as New York and Chicago aren’t close to those, AFAIK. I doubt the business case and desirability of continent-wide grids.

Even though I think you overstate the synergies and the ease of having wind and solar penetration equal to CF, I certainly agree that it is technically possible to do high-penetration RE. It can be done if one has the almost limitless resources, will and money to defy value degradation of high-penetration intermittent power, create continent-wide supergrids, put in storage, do some overbuilding and curtailment and on top of that keep the current amount of nuclear going and the current fossil fleet as backup (for when the supergrid fails, if nothing else). But in the end, this comes down to economics, and in the absence of a dramatic shift in the US regulatory landscape, economics will favor medium-penetration RE, nuclear decommissioning and at least 50% gas/coal.

I’m pointing out that a nuclear roadmap wouldn’t have those limitations and difficulties. It would be straightforward and distributed, without any uncertainty as to how it scales, no need for supergrid, storage, overbuild, value degradation and large fossil backups.

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