Wind Power’s Big Empty Space Down South

It’s a common reaction among those taking their first look at the U.S.Geological Survey’s new interactive map that depicts the location of every utility-scale wind turbine in the country: Whaddup down South?

usgs wind farm map

image via U.S. Geological Survey wind farm map

The Southeastern U.S. is devoid of wind power and has been for a simple reason: It is an area with generally poor wind resource. Check out this map (below) of the predicted mean annual wind speeds at 80 meters, typical turbine height, keeping in mind that it takes average winds of around 6.5 meters per second  “to have a wind resource suitable for wind development,” according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

NREL wind map

image via NREL

Given this reality, the thinking has been that the best way to put wind power to work in the South is to erect turbines in the wind-rich Plains and wire the power on over. Utilities in the South have already been locking up power purchase agreements for wind from the West. But to really make this transfer work, more and better transmission lines are needed, including high-voltage, direct-current lines that can move massive amounts of power with less electrical losses compared to AC lines. DC lines, for technical reasons, also make for a more flexible and stable grid.

Clean Line Energy Partners is looking to build several big transmission lines from wind country, including Iowa and the Oklahoma/Texas panhandle area, out in various directions, including one, the Plains and Eastern Clean Line that would carry power  across Oklahoma and through Arkansas into the heart of the South.

These projects are at various stages of navigating the regulatory process. The company is confident it will eventually get the lines built, but the process is quite a slog. Meanwhile, there is a proposal on the table to actually build wind power in Dixie – but it, too, faces an uncertain future.

A year ago, Pioneer Green Energy, an Austin, Texas, company, proposed building two wind farms – one that would generate up to 80 megawatts, another 18.4 MW – in the northeastern corner of Alabama. As you can see in the map below, that’s a part of the state that does seem to have some decent wind.

alabama wind map

image via NREL

The project, however, has faced legal challenges and just last week the Alabama state Senate passed a bill that would set up stringent regulations on any wind farms – so stringent, Pioneer Green Energy told the local Gadsen Times, that if it becomes law, the wind farms won’t be built.

For one thing, a noise limit would measure decibel levels at property lines, not at actual residences. The bill also “requires the towers to be set back from residential or commercial structures or public use areas a distance equivalent to five times the towers’ height,” the Times reported, a very restrictive standard.

Given the anti-wind sentiment that seems to be carrying the day in Alabama, it looks like we won’t soon see turbines popping up in the South on the USGS wind map.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Critic of Clean Line

    What an interesting article. I do hope people realize the faulty insufficient reporting of the U.S. wind resource map. Where is the off shore wind? As we know the BEST sources of wind are off shore. Creating long haul transmission lines to carry expensive wind generated electricity across the country is irresponsible. The onshore wind industry depends on Federal Subsidies and RPS (Renewable Portfolio Standards) With the influx of cheap power from the fracking boom what are we doing messing with wind when its cost is so prohibitive that it can not survive independently. When subsidies dry up we will look back at the wind turbines and long haul transmission line giants scarring the Midwest and regret that eminent domain was used to seize private property for unnecessary and irresponsible transmission line.
    Off shore, wave generated, tidal generated, or a mired of other truly “Clean” energy sources are available. Why wouldn’t Alabama be critical of wind farms. They just do not make sense for the future.

    • Pete D

      Thanks for your comment. The NREL has a separate map depicting the offshore wind resource, which I’ve attached to this comment.

      I should note, too, that the same incentives that onshore wind has enjoyed have long been available for offshore wind (and wave and tidal, for that matter). The challenge with those forms of power production is that, right now at least, they’re far more expensive than onshore wind.

      As for natural gas, I recommend this piece on its price competitiveness vis-a-vis wind over the long term: http://earthtechling.com/2013/12/how-wind-power-could-beat-out-natural-gas/

      • Critic of Clean Line

        RE: Big Empty Space Down South article.
        This is an article written by my friend Amy Harvey of Polo Missouri. Amy lives in an energy efficient home complete with a composting toilet, wood burning stove for the only heat. She and her family left city life to raise their own food and live off the land. It is ironic Clean Line proposes to put the DC transmission line over the top of her land when she does everything she can to reduce energy consumption and make use of localized generation and self sufficiency. She voices the frustration with Clean Line eloquently.
        Take Aim

        Every night after dinner, my family reads a chapter of world history. It is an amazing thing to study how cultures and nationalities have rubbed elbows over the centuries. In our readings we have found how common it is for mere men and women to find creative ways to off each other for power, money, or land. The espionage, lying, manipulating, stealing; the be-headings, drownings, poisonings, stabbings,…all in the attempt to grasp at what is not rightfully theirs. And then once attained, invariably the power of supremacy grabs them and they begin coining names for themselves with titles like “Great King of Kings” or “Your Most High Majesty” in hopes of gaining allegiance, for certainly respect can not be earned from such mistreatment of fellow human beings. It is unsettling to learn how human nature has not changed over the years. There must be a deep desire for significance that drives human beings to immortalize themselves through public self acclamation inscribed in stone monuments, or in today’s world, print and electronic media; the larger the boast, the smaller the truth.
        Why am I bringing all this up? Because it reminds me of how big corporate business is done in the 21st century. Right now the energy industry is all abuzz with concern over the aging grid system and global warming concerns. Recent severe winter weather has left millions without power.“This is an emergency! We need new transmission corridors!” they say.”We need to solve our environmental pollution problems, and the landowner needs to sacrifice for the better good!” But what is really going on?
        Well, not much money can be made in maintaining power lines and replacing those old, rotting poles along easements already in place. Neglecting the grid requires no out-go of cash and nicely pads the pocketbooks of shareholders within the energy industry. Besides, it makes a great battle story of how linemen go into the field in all kinds of weather to fight and repair those ragged, toppling towers, and save us from freezing to death in the global NON-warming that grips our nation. Nothing like keeping your supporters happy at the expense of everyone else. So rather than keeping the current infrastructure in good repair, it is more lucrative to plot and raid new lands for new transmission lines.
        Now that a “juicy” problem has been created, willing mercenaries protected beneath layers and layers of Limited Liability Company “shields” like “Clean” Line Energy Partners, LLC come along and do the arduous work of gaining Rights-Of-Way. It is so much tidier to have a front-line shell company do the dirty work, especially wearing the disingenuous “cross” of “green” energy while rallying support from county, state, and federal overseers. They hope that they can hold together a geographically far-flung “empire” of easements by bribing and promising titles to smaller landlord commissioners in each county to control the population of simple, minor farmers. It is these farmers who are stubbornly holding onto their own power of land usage, identities, and inheritances that should not include politicians, eminent domain procedures, Grain Belt Express reps, partners of “Clean” Line Energy or any of their private international investors like the Zilka family, the Ziff brothers, or National Grid of Great Britain. Armed with bandwagon propaganda tools of insisting that “this is a done deal,” “Clean” Line claims you need to get on board and mind your betters or you will miss out on all the promises of jobs and money, even though Grain Belt Express has a high probability of abandonment just like other large scale wind energy endeavors, and they have no exit plan nor offer any security. GBE’s lines would not serve, but instead compete with local generation plants, and therefore local tax revenues and permanent jobs, and they won’t be around to look the people of Missouri in the eye and be accountable for the short and long-term costs to Missouri workers, taxpayers, ratepayers, and landowners. Gigantic HVDC power line trash would decrease the value of our land and tax base, and would forever limit the development potential of the prime farmland it crosses that should be used for food, not hair-brained, get-even-more-rich-schemes of a few billionaire investors desiring to rape people’s private property rights. GBE has not calculated ANY COSTS, therefore costs cannot be compared to show that GBE is a better solution over upgrading existing easements, investing in energy efficiency, or LOCAL renewable energy.

        What does “Clean” Line hope to gain? According to under-oath testimony of King of Energy Partners, Michael Skelly, a nice fat check after he sells our land-turned-into easement property as a commodity to the highest bidder. He already has an agreement with National Grid (U.K.) to buy the projects at anytime – including pre-construction. But you don’t have to take my word for it. You can read all about “Clean” Line shenanigans at http://www.BlockRICL.com or see ALL documents on the Illinois Commerce Commission website. Written by Amy Harvey

      • Critic of Clean Line

        Take Aim

        Every night after dinner, my family reads a chapter of world history. It is an amazing thing to study how cultures and nationalities have rubbed elbows over the centuries. In our readings we have found how common it is for mere men and women to find creative ways to off each other for power, money, or land. The espionage, lying, manipulating, stealing; the be-headings, drownings, poisonings, stabbings,…all in the attempt to grasp at what is not rightfully theirs. And then once attained, invariably the power of supremacy grabs them and they begin coining names for themselves with titles like “Great King of Kings” or “Your Most High Majesty” in hopes of gaining allegiance, for certainly respect can not be earned from such mistreatment of fellow human beings. It is unsettling to learn how human nature has not changed over the years. There must be a deep desire for significance that drives human beings to immortalize themselves through public self acclamation inscribed in stone monuments, or in today’s world, print and electronic media; the larger the boast, the smaller the truth.
        Why am I bringing all this up? Because it reminds me of how big corporate business is done in the 21st century. Right now the energy industry is all abuzz with concern over the aging grid system and global warming concerns. Recent severe winter weather has left millions without power.“This is an emergency! We need new transmission corridors!” they say.”We need to solve our environmental pollution problems, and the landowner needs to sacrifice for the better good!” But what is really going on?
        Well, not much money can be made in maintaining power lines and replacing those old, rotting poles along easements already in place. Neglecting the grid requires no out-go of cash and nicely pads the pocketbooks of shareholders within the energy industry. Besides, it makes a great battle story of how linemen go into the field in all kinds of weather to fight and repair those ragged, toppling towers, and save us from freezing to death in the global NON-warming that grips our nation. Nothing like keeping your supporters happy at the expense of everyone else. So rather than keeping the current infrastructure in good repair, it is more lucrative to plot and raid new lands for new transmission lines.
        Now that a “juicy” problem has been created, willing mercenaries protected beneath layers and layers of Limited Liability Company “shields” like “Clean” Line Energy Partners, LLC come along and do the arduous work of gaining Rights-Of-Way. It is so much tidier to have a front-line shell company do the dirty work, especially wearing the disingenuous “cross” of “green” energy while rallying support from county, state, and federal overseers. They hope that they can hold together a geographically far-flung “empire” of easements by bribing and promising titles to smaller landlord commissioners in each county to control the population of simple, minor farmers. It is these farmers who are stubbornly holding onto their own power of land usage, identities, and inheritances that should not include politicians, eminent domain procedures, Grain Belt Express reps, partners of “Clean” Line Energy or any of their private international investors like the Zilka family, the Ziff brothers, or National Grid of Great Britain. Armed with bandwagon propaganda tools of insisting that “this is a done deal,” “Clean” Line claims you need to get on board and mind your betters or you will miss out on all the promises of jobs and money, even though Grain Belt Express has a high probability of abandonment just like other large scale wind energy endeavors, and they have no exit plan nor offer any security. GBE’s lines would not serve, but instead compete with local generation plants, and therefore local tax revenues and permanent jobs, and they won’t be around to look the people of Missouri in the eye and be accountable for the short and long-term costs to Missouri workers, taxpayers, ratepayers, and landowners. Gigantic HVDC power line trash would decrease the value of our land and tax base, and would forever limit the development potential of the prime farmland it crosses that should be used for food, not hair-brained, get-even-more-rich-schemes of a few billionaire investors desiring to rape people’s private property rights. GBE has not calculated ANY COSTS, therefore costs cannot be compared to show that GBE is a better solution over upgrading existing easements, investing in energy efficiency, or LOCAL renewable energy.

        What does “Clean” Line hope to gain? According to under-oath testimony of King of Energy Partners, Michael Skelly, a nice fat check after he sells our land-turned-into easement property as a commodity to the highest bidder. He already has an agreement with National Grid (U.K.) to buy the projects at anytime – including pre-construction. But you don’t have to take my word for it. You can read all about “Clean” Line shenanigans at http://www.BlockRICL.com or see ALL documents on the Illinois Commerce Commission website Written by Amy Harvey

    • Alec Sevins

      Offshore wind is no panacea, though. The towers tend to be taller than land-based turbines, and can usually be seen easily. It’s impractical to put them so far offshore as to be invisible. As more wind projects crowd the horizon (along with oil rigs) we’ll lose the ability to view the sea as uninterrupted vastness, which has many psychological repercussions.

      Wind power is too big and widespread already. I hope most subsidies collapse all over the world. The UK is especially sick of them, being a relatively small area already saturated. We shouldn’t wait for that level of landscape desecration to halt more U.S. projects.

  • Critic of Clean Line

    Thanks for responding. I am very aware of the off-shore wind map. It shows great resources with off shore winds right near the Great Lakes, and Atlantic Coast Line which borders the populated areas needing to meet RPS. I do not think long haul transmission lines are the answer. Not only have energy corridors been tagged terrorist friendly but they are not efficient as ions are lost as they travel long distances or in the case of the NEW Direct Current transmission lines being proposed at the converter stations.
    Another consideration is the burden these long haul lines place on land owners in their path. Clean Line Energy Partners, LLC is a private company which is proposing to build 5 lines to move wind energy. They have the misconception that landowners will sell them easements if they offer 70 to 100% of the lands market value. They do not compensate for the burden having towers that could be close to 200 feet tall and in the case of the lattice structures 48 sq feet at the base. The inconvenience and loss of yields incurred for perpetuity due to compaction, DC corona, inability to aerial spray, and the impact of access roads across field to reach easements running through the center of fields farmed by GPS aided equipment that can be over 20 ft. wide.
    Landowners are often tied to their property through heritage and plan to pass it on to their children. In many cases they are stewards of the land families have put blood sweat and tears into and they do not perceive it as a commodity easily replaces. As you can imagine landowners are reluctant to sign voluntary easement agreements which means Clean Line Energy would have to acquire easements through eminent domain. This creates quite a problem as a private company doesn’t qualify for eminent domain. If you visit the Illinois Commerce Commission testimony (docket 12-0560) you will find Clean Line has major problems with their finances and plan. National Grid admitted they have pledged 40 million dollars toward the approximately 8.6 billion dollar Clean Line projects. National Grid is called a major investor and admitted they have an option to buy any of the Clean Line projects even preconstruction. Clean Line is a shell company and their plan has major flaws. Please check into the company and the opposition and challenges it faces. I think you may reconsider your support for wind generated energy being the answer to RPS half way across the country.

  • EMartin

    Wind power does not make sense in many southeaster states. That’s no big surprise. But you know what does? Solar. They get a lot of sun down there, so it makes sense to utilize it.

    • Pete D

      Agreed.

  • Alec Sevins

    Many of us look at that map and envy the South for it’s remaining un-scarred landscapes. Wind turbine energy sprawl (and desert solar arrays) are part of a huge construction boom that angers people with aesthetic values. Instead of massive towers all over the place, solar panels should be installed on all existing structures that will hold them. This would minimize the growing human footprint on nature and be far more green.