As wind energy achieves a historic milestone – surpassing the total capacity of hydropower dams to become the nation’s largest renewable energy resource – many of California’s pioneer wind projects are in danger of shutting down.
Instead, California should promote the revival of these projects with state-of-the-art technology.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s first administration in the 1970s spawned the initial wave of utility-scale renewable energy, which launched the wind power industry globally. It is a testament to the early technology that most of the wind turbines installed in the 1980s were still in operation some 25 years later, withstanding conditions so tough that new turbine designs are often tested alongside.
Yet these new turbines convert wind into electricity twice as efficiently as the early turbines. Modern wind turbines are also 30 times larger in size and capacity, meaning that a single new one can replace approximately 30 older ones. At the Vasco project in Altamont Pass, 432 older turbines were replaced with just 34 new ones, tripling energy generation and dramatically reducing visual impact.
In addition, considerable technological enhancements since the early 1980s have made wind energy one of the most cost-competitive sources of electricity generation today. Wind energy now supplies more than 8 percent of the state’s power supply.
Ironically, circumstances could spell the demise of many of California’s earliest wind energy projects rather than spur their replacement with new ones.
The power purchase contracts that the state’s investor-owned utilities signed 30 years ago are now expiring when the utilities have no near-term demand for renewable electricity, despite the state’s long-term commitment to obtaining 50 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
The utilities bought more energy from new renewable energy plants than they needed to meet their pre-2020 targets, and they are increasingly losing customers to cities and counties that are buying power through “community choice aggregation” programs.
As a result, many landmark wind projects, primarily in the Palm Springs and Tehachapi Pass areas – which comprise about one-sixth of California’s total – are at risk of shutting down because short-term electricity prices are insufficient to keep them in good repair, much less repower them with modern technology. If forced to cease operations, they could lose transmission rights, making resurrecting the projects later far more difficult.
Letting this situation continue would be shortsighted. These projects were built in California’s prime wind resource areas and could double their electricity production with new technology, which can help power California’s fast-growing fleet of electric vehicles.
Development of new projects elsewhere in California would not be as good for ratepayers or the environment. As importantly, repowering these pioneer projects would sustain a local, specialized labor force, equipment suppliers and contractors while continuing to provide local and state tax revenue and other economic benefits.
While solar is now the fastest growing renewable resource in California, we need wind energy to diversify electricity generation. While solar generation peaks at midday, wind generates primarily in other hours. Together, these clean technologies can reduce our reliance on polluting fossil fuels. But ensuring the revitalization of California’s pioneer wind projects will require the state’s utilities and city and county power purchasers to act now.