The answer, my friend, is blowing in Wyoming
October 3, 2011 8:59 AM   Subscribe

The best wind in America is in Wyoming. It is a door-snapping, heart-pounding wind that barrels in from the west, chasing the truckers along Interstate 80 as they race to make Omaha by nightfall. It is sometimes described with words ordinarily associated with dark chocolate or exceptional pinot noir. It has been called dense, world-class, consistently extraordinary, special, and fabulous.. Advocates of wind power though are faced with a conundrum.

It doesn't help that the state is in denial about climate change. But amusingly, the power of the buck can help. "Gov. Matt Mead, who took office in January, is also one of those [climate change] skeptics, but he's focused on jobs and smart enough to understand that his views on science don't matter much in the marketplace....Mead says Wyoming ought to stay agnostic about the sources of power that flow from the state. He says leases to wind farms could keep some ranch families on the land, and the appeal of wind energy might help lure data centers.
posted by storybored (29 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
whether an energy source that still depends on tax credits and set-asides is worth all the trouble.

Unlike oil and natural gas, which run only according to the unfettered laws of the Free Market, of course....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:17 AM on October 3, 2011 [12 favorites]

Maybe he's afraid of breaking the wind.

I'm here all week; try the veal.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:38 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Many years ago, I was on vacation with my dad in Wyoming. We were at Fort Bridger, where the wind was so constant and strong that I could unzip my jacket, hold it open, and lean forward without falling over. The nature of this wind was unprecedented for both of us, so my dad asked the tour guide, "Windy today, isn't it?"

Without missing a beat, the guide looked quizzically at my dad and said, "What do you mean?"
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 9:45 AM on October 3, 2011

I'd be curious to see one of these maps that indicates coal-burning plants. What does the existing infrastructure look like?
posted by shakespeherian at 9:47 AM on October 3, 2011

You know why the wind always blows in Wyoming?

Because Utah sucks.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:49 AM on October 3, 2011 [11 favorites]

You don't have to believe anything about climate change to think that wind power is a good idea. You just have to be a savvy business person - no? Realize that something new is likely to become increasingly cost-effective as political strife, oil exploration, cost of transport/shipping, and increasing government regulation (okay, well, we can hope on that last one, no?) are going to continue to drive up the price. Shit is GOING to change - it's just a question of when, and how much the oil companies kick and scream about it.
posted by entropone at 9:50 AM on October 3, 2011

Subsidize this:

Renewable energy tax breaks: 6 billion
Fossil fuel tax breaks: 54 billion
posted by stbalbach at 9:56 AM on October 3, 2011 [12 favorites]

Population density is low where it's really windy, always. Transmission needs to be where people are. So there's an eternal problem about bringing wind power to market. It's going to be tough for Wyoming to do wind right, because it really needs carbon pricing for long-term acceptance. and that's not going to happen in an established fossil state.

The article's a pretty good primer on the balance of introducing renewables almost anywhere. I might almost forgive them the execrable mis-description of wind capacity factor. Almost.
posted by scruss at 10:05 AM on October 3, 2011

Shakespeherian - this map from the NPR site, via the EPA eGRID database, is a decent overview of the national grid plus generation sources/types.
posted by FairWitness at 10:47 AM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was just in Kansas the other morning. 3am, ran out of gas (something about high velocities and higher fuel consumption...) and had to hoof it ten miles to the next station. Out in the distance were the turbines. Ghostly, silent lights, glowing in sync on the horizon like God's runway. The people there, even the folks that would seem like obvious, red-state "we don't need that green bullshit", are proud of their wind farm.
posted by notsnot at 11:16 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Population density is low where it's really windy, always. Transmission needs to be where people are. So there's an eternal problem about bringing wind power to market.

This is really confusing to me. I'm not an expert by any stretch, but it seems like there's nothing in that argument that's specific to wind power. Every major form of power generation almost necessarily occurs far away from civilization. (Or maybe it's just that the factors that make a place a good power source are uncorrelated with factors making it a good place for people to live, so as a result they end up far away, on average...?) Seriously, what's a power source that tends to be where people are? Coal? Dug out of the ground and burned in power plants far away. Nuclear? Kept deliberately far away for safety reasons; the uranium comes from places like Utah and Wyoming and the waste gets shipped to Nevada. Oil? We drill for it in places like Alaska (and the damn ocean!) and pipe it everywhere else. Natural gas? Ditto. Hydroelectric? Whatever civilization there was before the dam was built is now underwater.

Is it that we've just already solved this problem for energy sources, so now we shouldn't bother solving it for wind?

Where I used to live in California, it didn't seem like a very long drive to the Altamont Pass Wind Farm, and that was near a very densely populated region. Same for Tehachapi Pass (near Bakersfield, I think). Just looking at a few maps, I don't get the sense that the wind farms of west Texas are any further away from civilization than the oil and gas fields are. So, yeah, Wyoming's far away, but it's not the only windy place on earth.

If anything, the main benefits of wind power (and solar) seem to be: (1) small scale generation units that can be deployed in and around populated areas without displacing people, (2) the lack of any kind of waste product that would pollute the surrounding environment, (3) an alternating cycle of production--solar during the day, wind mostly at night--that allows for power to be used as it's generated without creating a surplus/storage problem. What am I missing?
posted by albrecht at 11:35 AM on October 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Altamont Pass is certainly not far from lots and lots of people, but it itself is an unpopulated area. Best I can tell, it has a population of approximately 3 cows.
posted by maryr at 11:41 AM on October 3, 2011

I've heard that the net reduction of a region's wind energy caused by large wind farms could be disruptive to the local ecosystem. Can anybody familiar with the matter confirm/deny that? As much of an advocate for renewable energy as I am, I'd hate to inadvertently harm the planet by building a bunch of these. Solar power seems the least likely of all energy sources to disturb anything, as far as I can tell.

Not that wind isn't taking steps in the right direction, I just think circumspection is important. Extracting kinetic energy from the atmosphere could (maybe, possibly, I dunno) have side effects of its own.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 11:50 AM on October 3, 2011

"I've heard that the net reduction of a region's wind energy caused by large wind farms could be disruptive to the local ecosystem. Can anybody familiar with the matter confirm/deny that?"

Don't worry its nonsense, a large building has a much more dramatic effect, the only difference is that a turbine actually harnesses the wind energy it captures.

Wind energy across the country tends to happen where rich people already have pretty views and has attracted powerful opponents who can hire those merchants of doubt who ply their trade so well.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:03 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

We had a major wind spill in the UK recently and a ton of birds got buffeted around a bit. I heard an old lady got her hat blown off too. And what have British Windoleum done to clear up the mess? Just put a load of these everywhere. Useless. NO BLOOD FOR WIND.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:15 PM on October 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

Also I heard if you build too many solar panels then they absorb all sunlight and it's just permanently dark.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:16 PM on October 3, 2011 [14 favorites]

Actually, having read the article again more closely, I think I can answer my own questions. The transmission problem for wind power seems like it has almost nothing to do with the technical challenge of how to deliver it (i.e., power lines) or some geographic inevitability that the source and consumer are separated by great distance. It's just a regulatory and political clusterfuck, exacerbated by a dominant fossil-fuel industry.

From the article, comments mine:

"Building interstate power lines is a daunting task. There's a regulatory thicket at the state and federal level, and transmission projects tend to isolate perceived costs from benefits."

Right, and guess who benefits from that regulatory thicket?

"there's a perception tinged with just enough reality that the second-home crowd -- trophy ranchers as they are derisively called -- are out to protect their views at the expense of the less fortunate."

In other words: fuck you, got mine. Lot of that going around these days.

"From a technical standpoint, it's not really any harder to build a power line than a natural-gas pipeline. But from a regulatory standpoint, it is. Unlike electricity, natural gas has always relied on third parties to move fuel from the gas fields, and it often needs to travel across state lines. Those differences -- and the fact that pipelines are underground and largely out of sight -- carry enormous implications for licensing and construction."

The pipelines sure are out of sight until one of them accidentally explodes and kills a few people, or the gas leaks into your groundwater and kills your livestock. But no, you're right, a power line is ugly.

"The rancher -- independent and tall in the saddle -- may dominate the state's psyche, but it's the miner who pays the bills. A third of state spending -- $1.6 billion last year -- comes from severance taxes and federal mining royalties for coal, gas, and oil. In essence, utility customers across the nation are footing Wyoming's tax bill."

This can't be emphasized enough. We pay your taxes so you don't have to. You're welcome, Wyoming.

"Wyoming's resistance involves more than tax policy. The idea of renewable energy as slightly illegitimate is pervasive here... The coal trains there stretch to the horizons, and the mines have brought growth and prosperity to her district and the state. The wind industry's lack of traction doesn't surprise her."

Funny how all it takes is a couple centuries of profitable industry for something not to be considered an interference to the "natural beauty" of the state. Seriously, a fucking coal train is a-ok, but a wind turbine spoils your view?! Fuck you very much.

Goddamn it, this stuff pisses me off. Wind power is here--we have the resources, we have the technology, there are no remaining technical obstacles. All we need is the political will to stop sucking at the teat of the oil industry.
posted by albrecht at 12:19 PM on October 3, 2011 [7 favorites]

I lived in Wyoming for about five years, until about six months ago, and the previous governor (oddly enough, a Democrat) was always quite clever with economic arguments. "It doesn't really matter what you think about climate change--California has decided it exists, and they buy a ton of our coal. So we might want to look into that clean coal stuff."

That said, it is hard, when you live in a state with a very small population and an enormous amount of federal land, to realize that just about everyone in the country has more say over the land that surrounds you than you do.
posted by newrambler at 12:45 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

... just about everyone in the country has more say over the land that surrounds you than you do.

You mean an individual X -- say bad ol' liberal me from San Francisco -- has more say over WY public lands than someone who lives there?

No, that's just a "sagebrush rebellion" dog-whistle -- I spent many happy years in ID/UT/AZ, and I'm quite familiar with all that. You have just as much say over Federal Land as any other private citizen in the country. More, because you can show up at your local Forest Service or BLM office to express your displeasure, but it would be quite inconvenient for me to make it to Lander.
posted by phliar at 1:33 PM on October 3, 2011

I really want wind power. However, I also really *really* want to know that it isn't going to kill off migratory birds en masse.
posted by RedEmma at 2:48 PM on October 3, 2011

I really want wind power. However, I also really *really* want to know that it isn't going to kill off migratory birds en masse.

tbh I'd take "might kill loads of birds, we're not sure yet" over "100% proven to kill loads of birds, has killed loads of birds, continues to kill loads of birds".
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:08 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I realize that it takes a lot more money to put the transmission lines underground, but wouldn't one of those tunnel digging/building machines make pretty good progress thirty feet under the prairie (as opposed to digging through solid granite)? And why can't we use all that "inaccessible" power locally to power high-speed electric transportation of goods and people across all those empty miles of prairie?

What am I missing?
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:17 PM on October 3, 2011

Transmission lines?--I seem to recall seeing them in every state of the union. Am I imagining them?

Stbalbach, thank you for posting that link--that one gets passed on.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:48 PM on October 3, 2011

Germany has huge plans to convert wind watts to hydrogen which will be stored in caves to take care of baseline needs.

Under [Merkel's] nine-point plan, the share of renewables would climb from the current 15 percent to 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 at a cost of around 800 billion euros ($1.15 trillion) over 40 years

Hydrogen pipelines would be a lot cheaper and more accessible at multiple points than DC lines. Too bad we in the US don't hand the problem to our technocrats to try to mini-max the best possible solution before we waste any more money that we don't have. There are so many retrogressive forces trying to trip up alt-energy sources that they really need a posse.
posted by Twang at 9:29 PM on October 3, 2011

Damn, wish I weren't half cut from the preparatory drinking for the Canadian Wind Energy Association conference here in beautiful downtown Vancouver. Anyway ...

> I've heard that the net reduction of a region's wind energy caused by large wind farms could be disruptive to the local ecosystem. Can anybody familiar with the matter confirm/deny that?

Not really. The "controversy" appeared after David Keith's thoughtful paper Wind Power and Climate Change, which modelled the effects of continent-sized wind farms. More than about 500m downwind, the wind speed reduction from a turbine is negligible, and also remember that the atmosphere is ~10km high and these things are maybe 150m.

> I also really *really* want to know that it isn't going to kill off migratory birds en masse.

That's why we do bird studies to avoid heavy migration areas. The article even had radar in the picture. Maybe a couple of birds per turbine per year, so an outdoor cat or my little house's front window kills slightly more.

> I realize that it takes a lot more money to put the transmission lines underground

Less than you'd think. We're getting quotes in for overhead and buried TX, and they're pretty close.
posted by scruss at 11:11 PM on October 3, 2011

Is either more expensive to service? Or, over a lifetime, I really mean. I'd imagine underground to need slightly less servicing due to weather. Is that the case?
posted by maryr at 7:57 AM on October 4, 2011

phliar: Yeah, but there are WAY more people in the US sending letters to their congress people about banning snowmobiles in Yellowstone than there are Cody residents showing up to meetings (and there were 600 at the one I went to, just for the spectacle, which was pretty amazing) trying to defend the practice.

For the record, I'm generally pro-windfarm and anti-snowmobile, but it's interesting to realize the many different kinds of minority populations that exist, regardless of whether or not one agrees with them. For people in incredibly sparsely populated places, it can feel as though the much greater population on the outside has more say than you do.
posted by newrambler at 1:20 PM on October 4, 2011

Anything published in Forbes is immediately suspect of being overtly biased. That said, there is an outlet capacity issue, one that would likely be circumvented in a shit-kicking turd-blossom moment if hydrocarbons were involved.
posted by onesidys at 6:01 PM on October 6, 2011

maryr writes "I'd imagine underground to need slightly less servicing due to weather. Is that the case?"

Above ground lines don't have an insulative coating instead depending on the dielectric strength of air. Underground lines need insulation and it pretty well doesn't matter what you do when burying a line it is exposed to water. Eventually the insulation will break down and need replacement.

And back hoes are a constant danger. One advantage to High voltage transmission lines is people rarely interact with them by accident. Buried cables get damaged by digging all the time.
posted by Mitheral at 6:32 PM on October 10, 2011

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