SAN FRANCISCO — Fickle West Texas breezes are pushing wind power generators to the state’s 367-mile coast. Texas pulled ahead last decade in the U.S. race to develop wind power thanks to the hardy gusts sweeping across its vast prairies and energy-friendly landowners. Now it’s seizing the lead in building turbines along its shoreline as developers find the slower but steadier air currents there translate to bigger profits.
“One of the main reasons people are pursuing coastal wind is you can make the economics work,” said John Pappas, director of the Texas A&M Wind Energy Center. Winds can fade in West Texas just when they’re needed most, while along the coast, “the wind peaks when demand peaks,” said Pappas, who is part of a university team advising on an offshore project in the Gulf of Mexico with Baryonyx Corp.
Wind farm developers that stampeded to Texas soon found themselves bedeviled by a fundamental flaw: West Texas breezes die down in the afternoon, just as summer temperatures peak and power is most needed.
It’s been a different story for a small crop of wind turbines on the south Texas coast first installed in 2008. The winds along the state’s Gulf of Mexico shores blow more steadily, providing power during those afternoons when residents are cranking up their air conditioners.
Projects have confronted opposition from landowners and environmental groups concerned about the threat to migrating birds and sullied coastal views, but they’re still getting done. Coastal wind farms will make up about 20 percent of the 5,959 megawatts of the additional wind power expected to come online in Texas though 2015, according to a May report by the state grid operator and Bloomberg Energy Finance.
Katharine Lusk, a self-described “wind wildcatter” who scouts potential turbine sites throughout the U.S. Great Plains for big developers, says interest in Texas has focused on the southern coastline since the 2011 summer heat wave. Record heat in August threatened to overwhelm the state’s resources, and grid operators credited the contribution of south coastal wind turbines during peak demand hours for helping Texas avoid rolling blackouts.
“It seemed like almost overnight the developers were no longer interested in anything we had to offer in the state unless it was in south Texas,” said Lusk, founder of AKL Wind Energy, based in Big Spring, Texas.
“They like the consistent summer wind that comes off the coast during the day,” said Lusk. “In west Texas, the wind is inconsistent and gusty, and it doesn’t happen during the day when the peak demands are there.”
Less than a year after bringing its first coastal Texas wind farms online, Duke Energy Corp. said on Sept. 26 it will build an additional 400 megawatts by 2016, doubling its own capacity in the area.
“Coastal wind for us has been successful because it has the wind pattern that has a better correlation to the peak energy needs of our customers,” said Greg Wolf, president of Duke Energy’s renewable unit.
Duke rose 56 cents to $68.85 at the close in New York.
Duke isn’t alone. Other companies including German utility giant EON SE and Spain’s biggest utility, Iberdrola SA, have plans to add to their existing seaside wind farms in the state.
The bulk of coastal turbines have been built on land within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the shore along the southern tip of the state near Corpus Christi. Developers see potential in the offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico as well.
The steady afternoon breezes are one of the reasons why Austin Energy, the utility operator for the state’s capital, inked a 25-year contract to buy power from Duke’s new coastal wind farms, which helped get the projects’ expansion off the ground, said Duke’s Wolf.
While Texas residents have long been used to the sight of oil and natural gas platforms and drilling rigs sprouting along their shores, building wind farms there still generates more controversy than on the wide-open spaces out west.
Potential sites are limited by environmentally sensitive wetlands and worries about the turbines interfering with radar at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Kingsville near Corpus Christi, said Jesse Gronner, managing director of western U.S. renewable development for Iberdrola.
King Ranch, the largest working ranch in south Texas with 825,000 acres, opposed nearby projects now owned by Iberdrola and Pattern Energy Group Inc., saying the windmills create an eyesore and threaten wildlife.
Environmental groups also have raised concerns that the turbines’ churning blades could kill birds migrating through the area.
“The volume of birds moving through the Texas coast is probably the greatest in North America,” said David Newstead, a board member for the Coastal Bend Audubon Society, based in Corpus Christi. “There is no place where the risk is greater. I have huge concerns about it.”
To assuage worries, Iberdrola and Pattern Energy installed radar systems that can detect when large flocks of birds are approaching their turbines so they can be idled.
Despite the hurdles, developers say the Texas coast offers a more favorable climate for development compared with the East and West coasts, where local governments have a bigger say in permitting. Texas’ coast also is closer to transmission line hookups that can deliver power to big cities such as Houston.
“We’ve looked at sites all over the country and in terms of coastal development, Texas seemed to be most viable,” said Patrick Woodson, chief executive officer for EON’s Climate & Renewables North America unit.
Texas also wants to be at the vanguard of offshore wind development. The state’s General Land Office has three active offshore leases including two with Baryonyx, the lead developer of a project that won a $4 million federal grant last year.
The company is a finalist for an additional $47 million in funds from the U.S. Department of Energy to build three new turbines as part of a pilot project in the Gulf of Mexico by 2017.
“We’ve been saying, ‘Hey, come to Texas, we are easy to do business with’,” said Jim Suydam, a spokesman for the Texas General Land Office. “We’ve got a working coast and folks aren’t put off by looking offshore and seeing a structure.”
Copyright 2013 Bloomberg
Lead image: Wind turbines via Shutterstock