WINDPOWER 2014: Wine angels, amazing experts and Canadacon

Las Vegas isn't exactly a familiar haunt for me, but I've been here several times for conferences (and one wedding). I had seen the wine angel in the Mandalay Bay floating up in her harness beside the several story wine cellar a few years ago, but didn't go further than the entrance. This time I went in for a night cap with the Crazy Canucks (and deep environmental toxicity experts) from Intrinsik, Loren and Melissa.

The day was mostly as expected: extraordinarily deep and broad expertise in all facets of wind energy everywhere.

Perhaps the most unlikely experts were the principals from B&K Trucking, a specialized logistics company that pulled 75% of their 2012 revenue related to wind energy, trucking 400 wind turbines around the continental USA for BP Wind, including shipping a tower from Houston to Pennsylvania, mostly off of the interstates because they just weren't built to accommodate wind turbine-sized loads despite having been built to facilitate major US military materiel movement in the event of an invasion.

 

  Wind turbines: heavier than truck loads of M1 Abrams. Who knew? And in 2013 they were victims of the PTC shutdown as so many US entrepreneurial organizations were, able to weather the doldrums but planning to shift their business to oil & gas instead of wind. Great people, salt of the earth, and shifting to carbon- and pollution-intensive industries because of short-sighted politics. What's up with that?

The PTC gap was illustrated graphically in the extensive Navigant training session, which featured a stellar cast of experts from multiple fields. Sure, some of it sounded a bit like a Navigant sales pitch, but then the transmission engineer started talking about placement guidelines for upstream/downstream positions related to load and rapidly achieved the most deeply geeky presentation of the day. Not bad for a sales pitch, if that's what was intended, and very insightful. My understanding of the intersection of wind resource and transmission resource improved significantly due to Dwayne Stradford of Navigant.

Ryan Wiser of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) hit the most Tweets/Facebooks from the day's sessions (despite my giving him an almost completely different name in Tweets… sorry Ryan).

  • Utility scale solar PPA prices just over 5 cents / KWH - Eric Riser LBNL #windpower14
  • 2013 PPA prices in US interior averaged 2.1 cents / KWH - Eric Riser LBNL #windpower14
  • Eric Wiser LBNL - ‘low-wind’ turbines dominating US installs up to 9 m/s wind sites #windpower14

These are interesting facts for a few reasons. PPA stands for Purchase Power Agreement and is a long-term agreement for the rates paid to a generator by a utility. These are the bottom end of the range and include the benefits of the Production Tax Credit, but they are extraordinary. By comparison, many parts of the wealthy and competitive developed world are paying 25-30 cents per KWh, and these wholesale prices are three to seven times cheaper than those wholesale prices. That's a big gap. It's a long way below any US consumer prices as well. And renewables are projected to continue to decline substantially over the next two decades.

It's worth comparing this to the real Eric's presentation (Eric Lantz of National Renewable Energy Laboratory or NREL) on the comparison between renewable prices and gas generation fueled by unconventional gas (aka fracked gas). 

  • Broad-based shift to renewables based on economics alone won’t occur until late 2020s - PTC/RPS required - Eric Lantz #windpower14

His analysis pulled in both the lifecycle cost of electricity (LCOE) but also the externalities from the LCOE such as full dispatchability, transmission costs and ancillary values of generation. It showed clearly that unconventional gas still has a pure market price lower than wind energy. However, that gap is narrowing constantly as wind energy decreases in price -- per comparison of numerous projections -- and unconventional gas -- once again per numerous studies -- increases in cost. In the mid-to-late 2020's the projections cross and US renewables will explode regardless of incentives because the market demands lowest cost nine out of ten times. In the meantime, public policy still demands the PTC because human mortality impacts, costly environmental impacts and climate change all have values exceeding the minor gap. USA: renew the PTC.

A subject of interest for me is when offshore wind energy will finally become real in the USA. The consensus from people such as Bruce Hamilton of Navigant and Nema Darani of Tradewind New Energy Advisors LLC is that Cape Wind will be functional in 2016. It's expected to delivery 468 MW from the waters off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and has just won its 24th straight court victory over 'vexatious abuse of the democratic process' according to Federal Judge Richard Stearns. I'll continue to test this over the week as offshore wind is a significant step in wind maturity in a jurisdiction. 

  • Most optimistic offshore wind projection sees 40% cost reduction by 2030 Navigant #windpower14

Eric Lantz of NREL continued to provide an excellent pragmatic baseline to the discussion, presenting analysis that showed that offshore wind was in the 18 cents per KWH range and that the most optimistic projection of 40% reduction by 2030 in the USA was still well above new wind, solar or gas generation. Offshore wind is simpler to deploy from an overall stakeholder perspective, but still complex as twelve years of litigation in the US and challenges in northern Europe have shown.

Mark Bielecki of Navigant and Emily Capello of Aspen Environmental also had key points, both explored during Q&A sessions. Mark's assessment showed a trend toward replacement of meterology masts with sensors such as LIDAR and SODAR, which are currently more expensive but increasingly competitive at the height of modern wind turbines and with much better mobility. Emily is deep into the environmental assessment aspects of permitting in California. The key takeaway from her material was the increasing regulatory hoops surrounding wind turbines despite having the lowest average environmental impacts. Natural gas has a target of a year, although it often doesn't make it, but still progresses more smoothly than wind energy in part due to familiarity and density. This is an area where energy density actually has an argument, albeit a weak one. It's easier and faster to perform and review an environmental assessment on a small site than a large one. As environmental assessments are comparatively minor costs pre-capital investment, this is a deferral of major investment rather than sunk capital, but it's still jarring to see fossil fuel generation get a relatively free ride compared to much more benign wind energy.

Expecting something more network-ish from the House of Blues reception, I actually stood in the remarkably long lineup to get into the tiered, Grand Ole Opry style performance space replete with ear-splitting noise, smoke, narrow aisles and long lineups. I left quickly because I was actually hoping to be able to find people and speak to them, both of which were impossible under the conditions. That led me to the B&K couple as well as a very interesting discussion with a Shell Wind guy whose name, due to my namelexia, escapes me. A key point he made was that wind farm electronics now not only enable wind farms to behave responsibly on the grid with regard to frequency and voltage standards, but also -- given lower than maximum output -- act as frequency and voltage ancillary services. This is important as coal generation is being displaced in developed countries and hydro is drought-stricken in many cases, and they have traditionally provided these ancillary services for 'free' as part of their characteristics. With them off lined, grid stability declines, at least slightly, but now wind energy has the ability to provide those services and contribute directly to grid stability rather than being a minor grid destabilizer. What's the economic value of this? I'll keep asking.

And so to wine angels. They are sommelier-performers who are hooked into harnesses that are then hooked to cables which winch them up the vertical wall of a tall and narrow wine rack. The winches smoothly lift them up the face of the three- or four-story wine rack to select the bottle the patron wants. All electric of course, and hence environmentally sound.

I've been in contact with members of the Canadian consulting organization Intrinsik who have a focus on wind energy for quite a while. I've read their testimony and the plaudits given to them by judges in court cases for a couple of years. There are two of them in Las Vegas for WINDPOWER 2014 this year, Loren Knopper and Melissa Whitfield Aslund. I've been in touch with Loren for a while and Melissa recently, and they are also Canadian, so this gave us a tremendous opportunity to both network and be extremely nice without worry of inadvertently offending anyone. Both are fascinating individuals, not only because of their nationality. Loren was originally studying veterinary science so of course this required research stints in the Galapagos and a tiny island halfway between nowhere and Hawaii. Melissa is an expert on using earthworms to assess toxicity of soil, which led to several riffs on the B-movie about carnivorous earthworms of course. Many Canada-centric references were bandied about, but I won't incur boredom in the non-Canadians who are reading.

This is, of course, a skim across a deep day which will require further thinking and analysis over the coming months. Any errors, misapprehensions or superficial understandings are mine alone. Until tomorrow.

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