Trimming the sails

Although rational people can (and obviously do) differ on a topic as complex as utility-scale wind power in Western North Carolina, some of the recent rhetoric has been less than rational. I've heard supporters of ridge-top wind turbines cast themselves as “real environmentalists” who are somehow superior to mere “conservationists," standing John Muir's epic battle with Gifford Pinchot on its head. I've heard the issue framed as a fight between the implicitly trivial (“pretty scenery”) and the deathly serious (climate change and mountaintop removal). But the oddest twist has been the charge that the N.C. Senate is “anti-wind.”

To recap: In August 2009, our senators in Raleigh codified a statewide permitting process, encouraging industrial wind installations by defining a clear procedure for developers to follow when proposing them. Approved 42-1, Senate bill 1068 included language reaffirming the clear intent of the 1983 Mountain Ridge Protection Act. At the end of this year’s session, the house version was still in legislative limbo.

SB 1068 is almost perfectly aligned with the Sierra Club's energy resources policy, which strongly supports wind energy, but also “opposes energy development on public and private lands and in waters that are currently protected” by legislation such as the ridge law (see I'm sure the Sierra Club's 625,000 members would be surprised to learn that they aren't “real environmentalists.”

For those who truly love mountains, SB 1068 is a win-win deal. WNC's most precious nonrenewable resource gets the continued protection of the ridge law, and coal country gets a process designed to jump-start utility-scale wind development in North Carolina. Now, however, several regional activist groups, unhappy over the Senate's insistence that the ridge law matters, are deliberately delaying the bill’s passage in the House while holding out for more. Apparently, they don't want any of the pie if they have to share.

One tricky subtext in any renewable-energy discussion involves investor-owned utilities' desire to protect their monopolies on generation. In the early 1900s, exclusive generating franchises were granted (along with monopolies on transmission and distribution, aka “T&D”) for valid reasons. In the 1970s, technology essentially rendered those reasons obsolete, and in the ’80s, deregulation was supposed to eliminate them. Instead, however, the market has kept them essentially intact.

But now, small-scale renewables are mounting a viable challenge. Grid-tied, net-metered photovoltaic panels generate electricity reliably, predictably and closely correlated with periods of high demand. Typically, PV capital costs are borne voluntarily by the owners of the buildings on which the panels are unobtrusively mounted. Generating power in small blocks throughout the distribution network reduces T&D costs while enabling immediate, incremental deployment. Solar water heating is even more effective, and general energy-efficiency improvements better still. All are financially accessible to middle-class individuals and can be installed by small, local contractors.

Utility-scale wind, on the other hand, must be located on the transmission network. New high-tension lines would be needed to support 750 megawatts of turbines on 100 miles of WNC ridge tops. A single industrial wind machine costs several million dollars; typical projects involve many of them. Deployment is a multiyear maze of financing and regulatory obstacles, navigable only by organizations with access to major investment capital. Construction is done by nomadic crews of specialists.

PV is often cast as economically infeasible, usually by citing obsolete cost data and the red-herring storage issue. Electricity is the world's most perishable commodity. For now, at least, storing the output of grid-tied PV would be foolish. And if, in several decades, we’ve somehow managed to overdeploy PV, there’s already sufficient storage capability on the grid.

Pumped-storage lakes such as the Bad Creek/Jocassee/Keowee complex were built to soak up the excess off-peak output of nuclear plants, which can’t simply be throttled up and down. Even now, quite a few Southeastern rivers run uphill at night, an inefficient side effect of our over-reliance on "electricity that's too cheap to meter."

Thirty square meters of PV per WNC resident would produce as much electric energy as 750 MW of wind machines. My wife and I have well over 60 square meters of south-facing roof on our house. Our driveway alone gets enough sun to generate significantly more electricity than our household consumes. How many acres of such roofs and parking lots exist in Asheville alone?

The monopolistic, centralized generation model exemplified by coal, nuclear and industrial wind is a dinosaur, albeit one that won't become extinct anytime soon. But if it's to evolve in a healthy direction, we need to focus our capital on a more robust, equitable, distributed model of efficiency, solar thermal and PV. It's way past time we stopped paving paradise in the name of mundane, fungible commodities like energy.

— Dave Erb lives on a small lot within walking distance of UNCA, where he teaches engineering.

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6 thoughts on “Trimming the sails

  1. Thanks for the clear explanation of the realities of power generation. Having lived off the grid for 20 years I can attest to both the efficacy and the drawbacks of stored solar power. Grid-connected PV is the smart solution for all of the reasons you mention, plus the fact that there are no moving parts reduces maintenance. Though I’m on the grid now, the panels I purchased in 1979 still work just fine (with some decline in efficiency).

  2. zulu

    Great article. The most clear-headed exploration of the issue that I’ve read in some time.

  3. Henry Kennesaw

    I think “off the grid” power solutions should be mandatory. In order to not be the hypocrite he is at present, Cecil needs to get back OFF the grid and BE GREEN! Cecil should also fund his new sidewalk/bike lane proposals with private money raised from his large group of rich yuppie yankee transplant friends. Then I’ll join him and be green too!

  4. 1. Am unaware of having any rich yuppie transplant friends. Please advise.
    2. Have actually advanced an idea for private funding for at least one sidewalk adjacent to V.A. (waiting for update on Federal funding before that one goes forward.)

  5. Piffy!

    Either that troll has access to a million different IP’s, or the MX is SERIOUSLY clueless.


    on topic. Great article. For all the reasons cited by Mr Bothwell and zulu.

    Too many people have unrealistic expectations for how ‘off-grid’ technologies work, and think that we can make a smooth transition, without taking into account how our energy grid is laid out, and what are REAL levels of energy consumption are.

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