Saturday, October 22, 2011

From Poder Magazine, Oct-Nov 2011
Turbine or not Turbine
Twenty years since Denmark became the king of wind power, Florida’s clean energy story remains a tale of woe

by Kirk Nielsen

I spent much of August quite literally chilling in Denmark and returned to muggy Miami with a partial solution for ending the Sunshine State’s addiction to oil, coal, and plutonium. Prince Hamlet’s former realm, like much of Florida, is a flat, low-lying land with vast expanses of drained wetlands next to the Atlantic Ocean.

But parallels with Florida pretty much stop there. Among the enormous dissimilarities are the clusters of giant white, sleekly-designed wind turbines on Danish landscapes. One day while feeling a 60-degree breeze on Denmark’s western-most island, Jutland, I looked east over the marshes and pastures and saw a line of six windmills in the distance. Beyond them, through the haze, I detected two more rows probably 20 and 30 miles off. To the south, there were 19 windmills along the horizon. Another day, back in Denmark’s eastern-most island, Sealand, I counted a line of 27 slowly swirling above the sea just off the entrance to Copenhagen’s huge shipping channel.

Meanwhile, my (sweltering) fellow Floridians gazing out from Miami Beach or any other point along Florida’s breezy Atlantic coast saw no wind turbines. Nor would they have seen any to the west, even had they driven all the way to the Gulf.

Why no wind power in Florida, two decades after Denmark pioneered the world’s first wind farms, and one since George W. Bush affirmed our “addiction to oil?” One culprit: an outdated wind-velocity map published by the Department of Energy in 1987, which long held that Florida’s wind speeds were “marginal” for electrical generation purposes. Thanks to better computers and measuring devices, DOE recently released a new, higher resolution map based on measurements that are more nuanced and precise. 

The map also reflects the potential of much taller turbine towers. “Generally, the higher you go, the better the wind speeds,” explains Simon Mahan, renewable energy manager for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an advocacy group. “Wind turbine hub height has grown to over 80 meters, a 40-percent increase over the models installed in the late ‘90s.”

So, now DOE tells us that Florida’s on-shore wind speeds are much higher than previously believed—they average around 14 miles per hour. That isn’t radically lower than Iowa’s average of 19 miles per hour. Had we looked into it ourselves, we might have known sooner and now ranked among the nation’s leaders in wind energy, which provides Iowans one-fifth of their state’s electrical needs, rather than one of the country’s renewable energy laggards.

In addition, we might have realized that for several years now technological advances have made it viable to harness low-velocity winds. “New highly efficient large-scale turbines are commercially available that can begin to generate electricity in wind speeds as low as 6.7 miles per hour,” Mahan says. “Longer and lighter turbine blades help improve the efficiency of these new turbines.” The latter have 145 percent more capacity, he adds, meaning fewer are needed than before to generate the same amount electricity. 

Moreover, the 
Atlantic Ocean should have given us an advantage over those resourceful midwesterners. “Florida likely has better wind resources offshore,” Mahan tells me. But the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory hasn’t even conducted an offshore wind resource assessment for Florida, in part because of our (and our congressional delegation’s) lack of organization, as meteorologists like to say.

So, is it because turbines kill birds that we lag so? No. Researchers have found our feathered friends tend to avoid the new longer, lighter, more slowly-spinning blades. Recent nationwide surveys indicate bird fatality rates range from zero to 39 birds per turbine per year. When built in sensible locations—as opposed to, say, a golden eagle flyway in California’s Altamont Pass—windmills kill far fewer birds than American coal and nuclear plants, tall glass buildings, cars, or cats, according to various scientific studies.

After returning from Denmark, I learned that some breezes of change have been blowing in Florida. Wind Capital Group, a Missouri-based company, is securing leases and permits for dozens of turbines on sugar cane farms southeast of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County. Florida’s only other major wind venture is one Florida Power & Light is considering off the coast of Port St. Lucie. It’s taken four years for FPL just to get permission to start building a 90-meter tower to measure wind speeds in that area.

Overall we remain in some major doldrums when it comes to developing wind power in Florida. Other states, including Georgia and the Carolinas, have Wind Working Groups, federally-sponsored partnerships in which public officials, entrepreneurs, conservationists, and others collaborate on wind projects. We don’t even have one of those. I’m not sure if something’s still rotten in Denmark, but Florida’s renewable energy efforts certainly have been.


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