One of the best-known clichés of industry is that bigger is better – that a larger plant is more efficient, reliable and cost-effective than a smaller one would be. We've heard that observation from many folks in the utility business. They know the advantages of wind power, but some assume that a large wind farm will somehow automatically be better than a small one or a distributed series of small ones.
Having worked with wind farms large and small across the U.S. and having witnessed firsthand that when it comes to wind farms, smaller really can be bigger, I thought I’d list a few of those ways.
A Bigger Success Rate
Anyone who has developed wind farms can tell you that navigating the maze of bureaucracy in the development process can be one of the more frustrating roadblocks in the process. Long before construction can begin, or financing sought, or a power purchase agreement negotiated, there are any number of permissions that have to be obtained – zoning, land use, and environmental impact, to name just a few – from a whole alphabet soup of agencies at every level of government.
We have found that the time it can take for any given permit is directly related to the size of the project: the bigger the wind farm, the longer it takes at this stage of the process. Simply put, with smaller wind farms, more projects can get to construction faster than with a single, larger one – which means that communities can start enjoying the economic benefits that wind power development brings sooner.
Smaller projects are frequently developed under a business model called Community Wind, in which there is local ownership in the project and size range of no more than 100 MW. These local owners, rather than simply leasing their property to a wind development company, have an ownership interest in the project. This results in some well-documented further benefits to community. Studies prepared by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that for every dollar spent on the project, Community Wind farms had two to three times the economic impact on the local community as wind farms with absentee owners.
Let’s use a 50 MW Community Wind project as an example. This could produce fifty to seventy-five full-time jobs during the construction phase; four or five permanent jobs (on-site) once the farm is up and running; $155 million in revenue during operating period (25-yrs); more than $7.3 million in income to farmers and ranchers who lease their land to the project and significant equity remaining in the hands of local owners of the project.
It’s often assumed that simply by virtue of their size, the large wind farms must be less expensive to build, megawatt for megawatt, because they have the advantage of scale. The reality of the situation though is that’s not always the case. Although any one of the Community Wind projects we work on may only need a few turbines, because of the number of farms we are involved with, we are able to leverage similar economies of scale when it comes to procuring equipment because we have a portfolio of projects we are developing across the country with our local partners.
One of the major cost advantages a small wind farm has over larger wind farms occurs when it’s time to connect to the grid. Frequently, mega-farms will require substantial upgrades to the transmission system in order to ensure reliability. Smaller wind farms are able to use lower voltage lines, avoiding the problems of system overloads and costly upgrades to the system caused by the large wind farms. A series of wind farms that can use 69 kV lines are easier and cheaper to hook up than a project that needs to connect to the grid at higher transmission voltages such as 230 kV or 345 kV.
When a given capacity of wind energy is divided among a series of smaller farms spread out across a broader, more regional area, it not only helps alleviate transmission difficulties that face large farms, but it also helps address the problem of wind intermittency. Although no single spot will be windy all of the time, the wind is almost always blowing somewhere. Distributing smaller wind farms over a broad regional area can result in electricity being put onto the regional grid.
[Editor’s note: for a complete and heady discussion of whether or not distributed wind farms increase the stability of the energy resource, see these two pieces of commentary: Geographic Diversification of Wind Power Has No Bearing on its Variability, which states there is no evidence that geographical distribution increases stability and this one, Why Geographic Diversification Smooths Wind Power. The latter post argues that we can reduce the volatility of wind power output by building out the national electric grid and considering the correlation of local winds to the output of other wind farms and local electric demand.]
I have been in this industry for a number of years and the one thing I am most fond of when it comes to smaller projects is the community aspect. To know I have had a hand in creating a revenue generating, renewable energy system that will benefit a community for the next 20-25 years is a tremendous feeling. The decision about what kind of wind farm best suits a particular location, community or utility is a complex one. But in looking at wind energy, it’s important to remember that sometimes “thinking smaller” is really “thinking bigger.”
Robert Crowell is Head of Development at OwnEnergy, a wind development company that partners with landowners to help them develop and have an ownership stake in Community Wind farms. He can be reached at email@example.com