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Putting wind to work 

Arkansas has a ways to go.

click to enlarge BIG BLADES KEEP ON TURNIN': These are from the LM Glasfiber.
  • BIG BLADES KEEP ON TURNIN': These are from the LM Glasfiber.

Texas got the oil and Arkansas didn't, and now Texas is hogging the wind too. We see again that life is not entirely equitable.

As the world heats up dangerously, and America remains dangerously dependent on foreign oil, there's a great demand for renewable, non-polluting energy sources here in the homeland. Clean wind is more appealing than dirty coal, and it turns out there's a Wind Belt in America, a place where, experts say, the wind blows heavily enough and often enough that the potential for energy production could match that of Middle Eastern oil fields. Arkansas barely touches the eastern fringe of this belt, which extends from Texas north, up through the Plains States.

U.S. Rep. Mike Ross of Prescott looks at the maps and says that Arkansas can't count on wind for large-scale energy production. Arkansas will get Clean Coal before it gets Big Wind, Ross believes.

Environmentalists say that Arkansas's wind potential has not been reliably measured, that it could be considerably greater than the standard studies show, and that in any case, the state must make the most of energy sources such as wind and solar because the burning of more coal would be intolerable. They don't believe in Clean Coal.

And then there are some who leave the question with, and put their faith in, a higher power. This would include the congregation at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Springdale. The church has installed three wind turbines on its property, called the Trinity Wind Project. (See cover). The wind provides only about 10 percent of the church's needs. That's still a savings, the pastor, the Rev. Pamela S. Morgan, notes, but the fact is, the turbines will likely wear out before they repay the $42,000 it cost to put them up. Morgan can accept that. The three turbines, one 60 feet tall and the other two 45 feet tall, have symbolic value, expressing the Trinitarian faith. And, as the church's web page says, “Wind has long been regarded as a sign of the presence of God's Spirit upon the earth.” Mainly, the turbines are there, Morgan says, “to show that we care about the earth's resources, that we're interested in sustainable energy.”

 

A few weeks back, environmental groups called a news conference at the Dunbar Community Center in Little Rock to show off a wind turbine they've installed at the center and to announce the results of a poll. They said the poll showed that “81 percent of Arkansans support a renewable electricity standard, which would require utility companies to generate a certain percentage of energy from clean, renewable sources such as wind and solar,” and that Arkansans also supported policies to reduce energy usage and carbon emissions. “All three policies are included in the American Clean Energy and Security Act, recently passed by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee — though committee member Rep. Mike Ross (D-AR4) voted against the landmark bill,” a news release said. 

Ken Smith, director of Audubon Arkansas, elaborated: “It is clear Arkansans are engaged and supportive of new climate and energy legislation. We need members of Arkansas's congressional delegation to play leadership roles in this crucial debate. We are disappointed that Rep. Mike Ross would not vote for this critical legislation, despite Arkansans' support for increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy and reducing global warming.”

Disappointment in Mike Ross is not limited to Ken Smith. The NRDC Action Fund, a national environmental group, recently ran a large ad in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette saying that by voting against the American Clean Energy and Security Act, “Mike Ross said No to better jobs and lasting opportunities for Arkansas.” The ad urged Arkansans to call U.S. Reps. Vic Snyder of Little Rock and Marion Berry of Gillett and tell them “that they can do better.” Evidently, the NRDC doubts that Arkansas's other congressman can do better. The ad didn't mention Rep. John Boozman of Rogers, the only Republican in the delegation.

 “There is no energy bill,” Ross says. “There's only an energy tax. Basically, the premise is if you emit carbon, you buy allowances. Those are passed on to rate payers. Half the power in America comes from coal [a high-carbon emitter]. We're gonna have an electricity crisis within the next 20 or 30 years. Instead of saying ‘no coal,' we should embrace new technologies and find ways to clean coal up. If we can put a man on the moon,” etc. Ross supports the construction of a coal-fired generating plant in his district, a project that environmentalists are resisting with every weapon in reach. (Last week, the Arkansas Court of Appeals ruled that the plant had been improperly approved by the state Public Service Commission, a ruling that will further delay construction of the plant if not prevent it entirely.) He says he supports wind energy too, but “Arkansas is not a wind state.” He makes a slighting reference to the “mini-turbine” on display at Dunbar. “A real turbine is 400 feet tall.” That's a big commercial turbine.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a part of the U.S. Energy Department, is the source of one of the maps that shows states west of Arkansas wind-rich and Arkansas wind-poor. The map has only a few small spots in Arkansas representing places with significant wind-energy potential. One is in the Northwest Arkansas Ozarks, another is in the Ouachita Mountains of west central Arkansas — in the Ouachita National Forest, actually, and some people say there'll be no wind farms in the National Forest anytime soon. Rob Fisher, director of the Ecological Conservation Office (ECO) in Little Rock, says that's not necessarily true. “National forests are logged, there's drilling for natural gas, they're used for many purposes.”

Fisher and others are not overwhelmed by the maps, anyway. “Arkansas isn't Oklahoma or Texas, but to say we don't have wind potential is misleading. Crowley's Ridge would be a great site. It has the steady wind that's needed. Wind speed [what the maps usually measure] doesn't always translate into wind energy.” Energy companies fearful of competition encourage the view that Arkansas can't have wind energy, Fisher said, but small operations could function all across the state, and “I think we could also do some large-for-Arkansas operations of 50 to 100 turbines.”

Tom Riley, director of public policy for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, said that lack of reliable data is “a real problem” in evaluating Arkansas's wind potential. “Some people who might have the data have a proprietary interest in it. They're not willing to share.”

Along that line, the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas are working with the U.S. Forest Service to measure wind in national forests, according to Carmie Henry, the co-ops' vice president for governmental affairs. The co-ops aren't widely regarded as wind-friendly, but Henry says “We're interested in every source of fuel we can get.”

 

Stephan Pollard of Fayetteville works for a company that develops wind farms. It has projects under way in other states, none in Arkansas. Pollard, who has a doctorate in environmental dynamics from the University of Arkansas, says there are many problems to be overcome in Arkansas, including a lack of up-to-date transmission infrastructure. In Northwest Arkansas, which has enough wind to make commercial production possible, development is further hampered by federal restrictions preventing interference with airport radar, Pollard said. The FAA and the Department of Defense fear big turbines getting in the radar line of sight. Pollard thinks the feds are overly restrictive.

The upshot is that development of a large-scale wind farm in Arkansas would require a long time and a big investment. The only thing that makes wind a viable energy source at all is the federal production tax credit, Pollard said. “When you factor that in, wind becomes just barely a viable alternative to coal.”

Wind power's detractors like to say that the industry is not market-driven but government subsidy-driven. Wind proponents say that other fuels are subsidized too, though the subsidies are often hidden — the true environmental and health costs of coal, the military expenditures to protect the shipping of oil from the Persian Gulf, the government's promise to pay catastrophic costs resulting from an accident at a nuclear plant. “We're not paying anywhere near the real cost of coal-produced electricity,” Pollard said.

What about the small user who just wants to save some money and protect the environment in the process? Pollard helped install the Trinity Project. He says that poultry farmers and home owners often ask him about small turbines. “The small-turbine business is comparatively new. There'll have to be a lot more customer-service development before small wind is ready for prime time. So what would I say to the energy-conscious? It's a whole lot cheaper to make your home energy-efficient than to try to create a lot of energy using wind.”

There's more than one way to harness the wind. Even if Arkansas doesn't generate a lot of wind power in-house, it can profit from the energy produced in other states. Four manufacturers of wind turbine parts have announced plants in Arkansas, each plant expected to employ hundreds, but some plans have been delayed by the frailness of the economy. Only one of the plants, the LM Glasfiber factory in Little Rock, projected to be the largest of the four, is in operation.

These plants do not just blow in, of course. The Arkansas Economic Development Commission recruits wind power-related industry heavily, and has many inducements to offer, courtesy of the legislature, the governor and the taxpayer. Most are available to all types of industry, although the legislature this year approved legislation for incentives aimed directly at wind power.

LM Glasfiber got $8 million from the Economic Infrastructure Fund and $6.9 million from the Governor's Quick Action Closing Fund for infrastructure; $3,500 per employee for training assistance, and several “performance incentives” — a corporate income tax exemption for 25 years, a sales tax refund on construction materials, and a cash rebate equal to 4.25 percent of the payroll for 10 years.

Such incentives helped lure Nordex to Arkansas, too, according to Paul Mixon, who is an associate professor of electrical engineering at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and a sort of liaison with the Nordex people. A state doesn't have to be a big-wind state itself to attract parts manufacturers, not if it has government incentives, a central location, access to road, rail and river  transportation, a comparatively low cost of living, and cheap labor.

Like Ross, Mixon says “I'm a huge proponent of wind and solar, but wind power and solar power are never going to replace coal.”

The long-term solution will be nuclear power, he says, unless “wacko environmentalists” get in the way.

Ross has now introduced his own energy bill, one that calls for “thoughtful investments in biofuels, nuclear, hydropower, clean coal technology and domestic oil and natural gas.” He introduced this legislation last year too. It didn't pass then, and won't now, but, according to Ross, neither will the other bill unless it's heavily amended. (The house approved the bill last Friday. It's expected to have tougher going in the Senate.)

Except for a relatively few “environmental extremists” — well-meaning,  but misguided — the people of his district are opposed to the American Clean Energy and Security Act, Ross says, and that may well be true. South Arkansas is more into oil than wind, and Lion Oil Company said last month that if the ACES bill passed in its current form, Lion would have to close  its El Dorado refinery, putting 1,200 people out of work. That sort of thing will get a congressman's attention quicker than the most extreme of environmentalists. Support ACES? “I told President Obama no, I told Speaker Pelosi no, I told the Energy and Commerce Committee no.”

Rob Fisher of the Ecological Conservation Organization (ECO) knows the depth of Ross's feelings. Fisher says he's met with the congressman, and tried to work with him, but “He drank some of the bad Kool-Aid.” As for Lion Oil's statement that the company would be forced to close its El Dorado refinery if ACES passed, “It's ludicrous, completely false. They fabricated some numbers.”

 

At least every other
day, according to the Rev. Pamela S. Morgan, somebody stops by St. Thomas Episcopal Church to look at the windmills out front and inquire about them. The church is happy to exhibit its love and care for the earth, she says, and also happy to be a testing site for a new industry, “A place where they can learn, and improve the use of wind power.”

The Trinity Project makes an uplifting and appropriate image for the wind power cause. Those windmills may not be cost-efficient, at least not at the moment, but if global warming is real — and the evidence points that way — the world can't give up on wind as a possible alternative fuel. Faith helps.   

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