Renewables in North America: New Stars of Texas

Long the symbolic home of the U.S. oil and gas industry, Texas begins the new decade as the standard-bearer for a new energy source – wind power.

With an imprint on four counties, the 100,000 acre (40,500 hectare) Roscoe wind farm has an installed capacity of 781 MW from 627 turbines. That makes the E.ON Climate & Renewables facility the largest wind farm operating in the world and a source of pride to a state which likes to do things bigger than the rest.

Roscoe and the many other clean energy projects either underway or planned in Texas make the state a fitting home for North America’s leading event devoted to renewables. As this issue of Renewable Energy World went to press, all roads led to the city of Austin for Renewable Energy World Conference & Expo North America as it prepared to open its doors on 23-25 February.

The event takes place against a backdrop of gathering momentum for renewables in North America. In the case of the US, the Obama administration made clean energy one of the key planks of its plans to reinvigorate the economy, not least because of its potential to create high-skilled, high-value employment to replace manufacturing jobs lost over recent years. Billions of dollars worth of stimulus funding and tax credits followed. Indeed, the renewables community found itself swept along on the wave of expectation that accompanied the first months of the Obama presidency, with hopes that a far-reaching climate bill in the US and international action at Copenhagen would provide a definitive framework and cast-iron targets for renewable energy in the US and abroad.

Neither climate bill nor Copenhagen agreement materialised, however. There are fears that the former has slipped too far down the political agenda for comfort, with healthcare, the general economy and foreign policy now looming larger in a mid-term election year.

As of January, advocates of a full-scale energy and environment bill were still hoping that it will pass in 2010. Many commentators expect a more piecemeal approach to emerge, with specific measures such as grid upgrading replacing a comprehensive cap-and-trade policy.

Another renewables driver may be the US Environmental Protection Agency’s ruling that greenhouse gases are a public health hazard which could be subject to regulation.

The feed-in tariff (FIT), common in Europe, is also gaining a foothold in North America. Ontario implemented a generous series of feed-in tariffs in 2009 that saw wind and solar developers flock to the province. New York and other US states adjoining Ontario have eyed this situation enviously and, in New York’s case, begun to consider possible FITs of its own. Across the US, in Vermont, Oregon, Florida, Washington, Texas, Hawaii and California, all or part of the state has some form of FIT operating.

Even though formidable challenges remain, few doubt that renewables will play a leading role in the development of the US energy economy from this point forward. The US Energy Information Administration, for example, expects renewables to make up 41% of the growth in electricity generation to 2035.

Growth of that order requires scale, and the US is beginning to see renewables projects completed, underway and planned that can hold their own in the big league of the wider energy industry.

Roscoe is but one example of the spectacular growth of wind energy. The US has already overtaken Germany as the world’s largest producer of wind energy and its ambitions don’t end with onshore generation. There are now signs that the US is poised to become a player in the offshore wind sector (see feature, page 46).

PV and other renewable energy technologies can boast their own examples. Whatever the political climate, the push towards renewables is underway with a vengeance. If proof of that was needed, then Renewable Energy World Conference & Expo North America will surely provide it.

The line-up of speakers and participants listed to appear at the Austin event’s Conference sessions reflects both the prestige of the event itself and the growing status of renewables as a force increasingly the heart, not the fringe, of the wider energy sector.

On the Keynote Session agenda are speakers who will focus attention on transmission infrastructure, arguably the key issue affecting project deployment. They include Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is the key US federal agency responsible for transmission policy and approval; Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Public Utilities Commission and a recognized leader in state regulatory policy regarding transmission; and Martin Gross, head of power systems for ABB Inc. in North America. Also joining the Keynote Session is Roger Duncan, CEO of host utility Austin Energy. Duncan has earned a reputation as one of the power industry’s most influential advocates of renewable energy. He retires on 1 March, making Renewable Energy World North America’s Conference the stage for one of his valedictory speeches.

Conference delegates this year will be able to select from 24 sessions across eight tracks, including wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, hydro, utility integration and two policy and finance tracks.

Topics range from how the smart grid enables distributed generation through renewable energy, to financing renewable energy projects in the post-federal economic stimulus environment and biopower applications and case studies in energy storage.

Two mega-sessions are also on the agenda. The first, ‘Post-stimulus policy and finance’, features a panel discussion that draws lessons from the stimulus, identifies areas that warrant attention and discusses the state of financial markets for sustainable investment.

The second session, ‘The transmission imperative’, tackles major policy, development, finance and regulatory issues that affect all renewable resources.

New to REW North America this year is Photovoltaics World Conference & Expo, a co-located event, which addresses recent advances in photovoltaics technology and manufacturing processes.

Information will be presented in two different conference tracks and seven sessions over a three day programme. It also boasts a pavilion on the exhibit floor with PV sector-specific exhibitors.

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