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Wind power is catching on

Alex MillerDaily Staff Writer
AP photo Turbines blow in the wind at an Xcel Energy wind farm located on the border of Colorado and Wyoming south of Cheyenne, Wyo. Wind from the farm is available for purchase by Holy Cross Energy customers.
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EAGLE COUNTY – Holy Cross Energy customers are champs when it comes to buying wind power, landing in the top 10 nationwide.That’s according to Blaire Swezey, principal policy advisor at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, which tracks renewable energy efforts. The rating is based on the percentage of customers buying wind credits – about 5.6 percent of Holy Cross customers buy some wind power.Not all wind programs are as successful, but Swezey said that’s changing.”The idea of wind credits is becoming much more prominent across the country,” Swezey said. “They’re being traded among utilities to meet particular standards, such as the new renewable energy standard we have in Colorado.”But there’s a lot more to it than simply convincing people to buy wind. Earlier this week, Denver played host to the American Wind Energy Association’s national convention, where topics such as new technologies, markets and federal tax credits were on the agenda. In a press conference Tuesday, Xcel Energy CEO Wayne Brunetti said federal tax credits were critical in keeping wind energy prices down – at least until it becomes more economically viable on its own.

Transmission and varying state standards for wind, he said, are other big factors.”Most of the good wind is not where we have load, so siting of transmission will take a lot of cooperation,” Brunetti said. “Currently, state standards are all different, and we think we need uniformity. I testified to that in Congress recently.”The technology that allows wind to be transferred into electricity and distributed to utility customers is improving every year, Swezey said. While current turbines average about 1.5 megawatts of annual production, he said new models being tested now can range up to 5 megawatts. “When it comes to wind (turbines), bigger is better,” Swezey said, adding that there are limits to how big they can get simply due to the constraints of what a typical rail car or tractor trailer can transport.Fertile farmlandWhile the southeastern U.S. is a poor place for a wind farm, many areas of the Midwest are ideal, Swezey said. The northern and eastern parts of Colorado, with their wide-open spaces and consistent winds, are also good for wind-power generation. Colorado, which ranks 11th in the nation for wind energy potential, currently has two wind farms: the Ponnequin Wind Farm in Weld County on the Colorado-Wyoming border and the Peetz Table Wind Farm near Sterling.

“There’s plenty of wind and room out there and plenty of interest from farmers, ranchers and landowners,” Swezey said. “Those counties see it as a way to increase revenue and create jobs, and there are lots of other rural areas throughout the Midwest clamoring for wind projects.”While it is a clean, renewable source of energy, wind does have its problems. Even in a windy area, the wind doesn’t blow all the time. There’s also the issue of getting it from the source to the customer, as Brunetti noted. Even so, as wind farms become more numerous and technology improves, the cost of electricity generated by wind goes down. “We’re light years from where we were with the earliest turbines in California in the 1980s,” said Christine Real de Azua, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization. “Turbines are much more productive and efficient, so it drives prices down.”The cost of a kilowatt hour of electricity from wind has dropped to as low as 5 cents, although de Azua said that varies greatly by location.”You see a broad range, depending on the average wind speeds, the location, the availability of transmission and other factors,” she said. Big buyersCompared to coal and natural gas, though, there’s never a cost for the fuel itself. Building a wind farm may cost more than a natural gas or coal-fired facility, but the plant pays for itself eventually, and running it takes less maintenance, de Azua said.

Federal tax credits for wind energy, worth nearly 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, also help keep the cost down. But those credits are set to expire at the end of this year. “We’re working very hard to have them extended,” de Azua said.Swezey said another area where tax credits are helping with wind energy is in the corporate world. National corporations like Whole Foods and Colorado companies like Aspen Ski Co. and New Belgium Brewery buy wind energy in larger blocks from multiple utilities and also receive tax credits.”It lets these companies use wind or other renewable energy to ‘green’ their own energy footprint,” Swezey said. “I think the industry will see a time when they don’t need that credit, but the transition to that can be tricky.”At the wind convention earlier this week, Assistant Interior Secretary Rebecca Watson said the Bush Administration supports extending the tax credits. The issue is now being considered by Congress.Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or amiller@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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