Mythbusting facts about wind energy in the southern U.S.

Renewable energy sources (like wind power) and energy efficiency can help the southern U.S. meet what is expected to be growing future electricity demand, but a lingering set of myths is hampering their development in the region, according to a new study, "Myths and Facts About Electricity in the U.S. South," by researchers from Duke and Georgia Tech. These misimpressions could have serious consequences–the South’s population is expected to increase by 28 percent over the next 20 years, and wise use of resources will be needed to satisfy energy demand while reducing energy-related pollution.

The researchers used economic and energy modeling to examine the myths. To avoid repeating the myths and thereby giving them further credence, I’m going to list some selected findings with the most significance for wind power as a set of "mythbusting facts" instead:

Future growth in electricity demand in the South can be met by renewable energy and efficiency: "… [I]nvestments in energy efficiency and renewable energy over the next two decades could meet incremental growth in electricity demand and eliminate the need to expand fossil-fueled electricity generation… Besides the energy saving from energy efficiency policies, the growth of renewable energy also produces energy savings. In particular, customer-side renewable energy such as combined heat and power and heat pump water heaters could reduce future consumption significantly. On the supply side, renewable generation such as wind turbines and biomass are forecasted to grow significantly to meet future demand in a cleaner way."

The South has enough renewable energy resources to meet requirements of a federal Renewable Energy Standard (RES): The researchers examined this issue using "[updated] resource availability for wind farm and hydropower and the capital cost for residential and commercial solar PV … The results indicate that if an RES is implemented, the share of renewable electricity generation would increase significantly, to 22% in 2025, due to the strong growth of wind farm and biopower on the utility side as well as the customer-side renewable generation such as CHP and solar photovoltaics. The RES program described in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 [a proposed bill which was not passed by Congress] includes provisions that would allow credits for qualified state energy efficiency programs to satisfy up to 20% of the RES requirement, which translates into requiring only 20% of the total electricity demand in 2025 to be met by renewable sources. [Accordingly], the South as a whole would have sufficient resources to comply with the standard."

Renewable energy can be expanded substantially in the South without a major impact on utility bills: "Our modeling results show that the effect of an RES on rates in the South could be negligible … For the average household in the South over the next two decades, monthly energy bills under an RES are expected to change by less than $2 relative to the Reference case … Moreover, with complementary renewable policies and updated resource availability inputs, as represented in the RE scenario, forecasted rates in 2030 could be slightly lower than in the Reference case … These reductions are largely the result of greater renewable resource supply and increases in customer-owned renewable generation such as CHP, heat pump water heaters, and demand-side solar PV. As a result, the RE scenario could save the South’s residential sector on the order of $100 billion over the next two decades, while driving a large expansion of renewable generation in the region." (emphasis added) (Some utilities in the South are already finding that buying wind power from the southern Plains states can save money. For an example of one such recent purchase, see More savings for ratepayers in Southeast as Louisiana utility ups wind purchases, January 26.)

Renewable energy and energy efficiency can complement each other to effectively reduce fossil fuel use: The researchers looked at an "RE scenario," focusing only on renewable energy growth, and an "EERE scenario" which combined efforts to increase both renewable energy and energy efficiency. The results? "Though the EERE scenario leads to less new renewables in 2030 than seen in the RE scenario, renewable generation still increases significantly, while simultaneously displacing over 170 billion kWh of fossil generation … Furthermore, a comparison of the new incremental generation in 2030 shows that while the RE scenario reduces non-renewable energy growth by 50% relative to the Reference case, the EERE scenario leads to negative growth. Combining the policies would retire 80 billion kWh of existing natural gas generation in addition to avoiding 204 billion kWh of incremental fossil fuel generation … The truth is that rather than being caught in rival relationships, energy efficiency and renewable energy are aligned. Certainly, there is less renewable growth over time when aggressive efficiency policies are adopted, but that is because there is less generation growth overall. They both work towards the same goal of realizing a clean energy future, and our scenario analysis indicates that they are compatible in this pursuit."

The implications of electricity generation choices for water use should be considered: The effect of various generation options on water consumption is rarely considered, even though more than half (54%) of all freshwater withdrawals in the South are for thermoelectric (nuclear, coal, gas) generation. The EERE scenario mentioned above, which combines energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, was projected to save 865 billion liters annually by the year 2030, or an amount equal to roughly three weeks’ household water use by all of the homes in the region. In part, this is because major renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar PV, use no water for cooling (see also New report highlights power plant stress on freshwater supplies in Southeast, November 21, 2011).

(The Southeast’s growing prominence in the wind power supply chain will be a major focus of the WINDPOWER 2012 Conference & Exhibition, scheduled for June 3-6 in Atlanta, Ga. Atlanta is a manufacturing hub, and holds tremendous potential to play a major role in the further expansion of wind turbines development as a source of competitive energy for America. Atlanta’s global access, innovation, and talent create an unparalleled logistics network that could prove to be an important link in the wind industry supply chain, helping to supply demand and boost the efficiency, predictability, and consistency of wind farm project development in the U.S.)

Tom Gray,