Gulf Energy Purveyors Get Second Wind

A 3.6-megawatt GE wind turbine at Arklow Bank offshore wind facility near Arklow, Ireland. i i

A 3.6-megawatt GE wind turbine at Arklow Bank offshore wind facility near Arklow, Ireland. There are about a dozen offshore wind farms operating worldwide, mostly centering around Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Robert Thresher hide caption

itoggle caption Robert Thresher
A 3.6-megawatt GE wind turbine at Arklow Bank offshore wind facility near Arklow, Ireland.

A 3.6-megawatt GE wind turbine at Arklow Bank offshore wind facility near Arklow, Ireland. There are about a dozen offshore wind farms operating worldwide, mostly centering around Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Robert Thresher
Engineer B.C. Fernandez, left, and Harold Schoeffler, co-founder of Wind Energy Systems Technologies i i

Engineer B.C. Fernandez, left, and Harold Schoeffler, co-founder of Wind Energy Systems Technologies, stand at the factory where some of the turbine platforms may be built. Schoeffler hopes to build the United States' first offshore wind farm. Christopher Joyce, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Joyce, NPR
Engineer B.C. Fernandez, left, and Harold Schoeffler, co-founder of Wind Energy Systems Technologies

Engineer B.C. Fernandez, left, and Harold Schoeffler, co-founder of Wind Energy Systems Technologies, stand at the factory where some of the turbine platforms may be built. Schoeffler hopes to build the United States' first offshore wind farm.

Christopher Joyce, NPR
The wind-turbine platforms are being modeled after oil-rig platforms, like this one. i i

If the project suceeds, about 50 giant wind turbines will be planted eight miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. The wind-turbine platforms would be supported by the same type of structure that secures oil platforms to the Gulf sea-floor, like this one. Christopher Joyce, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Joyce, NPR
The wind-turbine platforms are being modeled after oil-rig platforms, like this one.

If the project suceeds, about 50 giant wind turbines will be planted eight miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. The wind-turbine platforms would be supported by the same type of structure that secures oil platforms to the Gulf sea-floor, like this one.

Christopher Joyce, NPR

Wind's Bad Rap

Wind turbines can't yet provide a significant source of energy, but the technology is also running into some misconceptions. There's an element of truth in each of these, but the wind-power industry says it's dedicated to making wind work.

  

"Every energy source has an impact," says Laurie Jodziewicz, a policy specialist with the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), "and we feel that wind-energy impacts are reasonable, certainly when you consider that it's emissions-free energy."

  

No Wind = No Lights

  

Right now, with wind power currently supplying less than one percent of U.S. electricity, this isn't a problem. Wind farms are hooked into larger electricity grids; they're just one of several power sources, including hydroelectric and coal-fired plants, feeding into a utility system. So on a still day, coal-power may make up the difference and the lights do stay on.

  

But this could be a problem as more wind farms are built to provide a larger percentage of a community's energy; transmission lines that allow communities to reach out to farms where the wind is blowing on any given day could help with wind's unreliability.

  

Not Enough to Replace Coal

  

There's plenty of wind in the United States, but inadequate transmission lines and NIMBY-ism are some of the potent blocks to development. As of December 2005, U.S. wind-power capacity was 9,149 megawatts, enough to supply juice to 2.3 million average homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). In February, President Bush said that wind power could someday provide 20 percent of the United States' energy needs. But for now, wind-power advocates are pushing for wind to make up six percent of energy supplies by 2020.

  

The wind industry agrees that wind is not the solution to the United States' reliance on fossil fuels, says Jodziewicz, "but we feel wind energy is part of that solution. There's no silver bullet, but we're part of the silver buckshot."

  

Wind Farms Are Noisy

  

The blades do make a swooshing noise as they cut through air, but it's not an overpowering sound, says Jodziewicz. "You could stand below a wind turbine and have a normal conversation," she says. And in very windy places, she adds, wind drowns out the swoosh of the turbine.

  

Wind Farms Kill Birds

  

Birds do collide with wind turbines, as they do with other tall, man-made structures. Bird kills are considered quite a problem at Altamont Pass in California, the first commercial wind project built in the United States. But studies indicate turbines can be designed to minimize bird-kills, and site placement is key.

  

But even if bird problems can be solved, some biologists are now worried about the impact that turbines can have on another flier: bats.

  

Overall, according to the AWEA, the impact of wind turbines on birds is "low compared with other human-related sources of avian mortality," such as collisions with buildings, high-tension lines, pesticide use, habitat pollution and even cats.

  

Wind Power Isn't Economical

  

Wind-power providers do get a production tax credit to make wind energy affordable on the consumer end, but as the U.S. Department of Energy points out on its renewable-energy Web site, every energy source receives significant federal subsidies. — Vikki Valentine

Wind energy is growing fast as an alternative energy source, but it's creating some friction in areas where it's being pursued. Some people complain that the wind turbines are ugly.

One solution is to put the turbines in the ocean where the wind is steady and there are fewer eyes to offend. An offshore project has been proposed in Massachusetts, but beachfront landowners are trying to stop it.

That puts a pair of entrepreneurs in Louisiana — a Cadillac salesman and an oil-rig engineer — in the running to build the nation's first wind farm in the ocean, if they can get the money.

A state-by-state look at the number of megawatts produced by wind power.

A state-by-state look at the number of megawatts produced by wind power. As of December 2005, the United States had a total wind-energy capacity of 9,149 megawatts. One megawatt of wind capacity is enough to supply 240 to 300 average American homes. AWEA hide caption

itoggle caption AWEA

An Unlikely Environmentalist

One of those entrepreneurs, Harold Schoeffler, is a regular at the Blue Moon cafe in Lafayette. His daughter owns the place, a magnet for zydeco musicians and their fans. But Schoeffler is known here as a Lafayette's unlikely environmentalist. He says it's not so unlikely.

"I live the outdoors," Schoeffler says with gusto. "I'm out in the swamp, fishing in the Gulf, hunting rabbit, squirrel, woodcock, turkeys. You name it, I've hunted it. We have a 60-day duck season. I'll probably hunt 40 of those 60 days."

Schoeffler's a regular church-goer and a Boy Scout leader. He joined the Sierra Club more than 30 years ago and runs the local chapter.

So why an unlikely environmentalist? Well, he owns the town's biggest Cadillac dealership and sells gas-guzzling cars to the local high-rollers, "to all of the guys who are polluting the hell out of the world," he says with a laugh, "you know, who run the engineering companies, dredging companies, even to the guys we've had in adversarial roles. They still buy cars from us. Amazingly."

Schoeffler sees no conflict between selling V8s and being a Sierra Club leader who sometimes has to sue his customers to protect the environment.

Oilman Turned Windman

During a lawsuit to stop a dredging project, Schoeffler consulted an expert for advice, a 6-foot-3-inch engineer named Herman Schellestede. They've been friends ever since.

Now, these two men have hatched a plan to build 50 giant wind turbines out in the Gulf of Mexico.

"This is Galveston Island," says Schellestede as he spreads out a map of the Gulf on his office desk. "That is our power line and this is our two blocks — 18 square miles."

Schellestede hardly needs a map of the Gulf. He's built rigs there all his life. He rode out a hurricane on a rig once. He says the days of oil and gas are numbered. Schoeffler convinced him that offshore-wind technology was no mystery.

"We found out that in Europe, it was proven technology and of course on land it had been proven," says Schellestede. "So we took the land technology, modified it, and then made a plan."

The plan is to spend $250 million to build a wind farm that will generate as much power as a small coal-fired plant.

To do it, Schellestede and Schoeffler formed Wind Energy Systems Technologies. It's housed in a former girl's school at a convent in New Iberia. Paintings of nuns still hang on the walls.

Tapping into the Gulf's Oil Knowledge

Schellestede says that by combining oil-rig and wind-turbine designs, his turbines can withstand Gulf hurricanes and still generate electricity cheap enough to compete with coal and natural gas.

He says he can save money by using local talent — people who've built the Gulf's oil and gas platforms. People who work at Twin Brothers Marine, for example, a sprawling fabrication plant that sits behind sugar cane fields on the Louisiana coast.

A stroll through the plant with Schoeffler and company engineer B.C. Fernandez gives a sense of how big these structures will be. You can stand inside some of the pipes used to build the underwater foundations for oil and gas platforms. They're also being used to build a 280-foot wind tower.

Twin Brothers hasn't built one yet, but Fernandez says it's time.

"We like the windmill idea because I think America has to reduce its dependence on petroleum products," says Fernandez. "It's the wave of the future and with the (high) cost of gasoline, oil and natural gas, it's economically feasible now."

"It's not a conflict with oil and gas; what it does is prolong the life of oil and gas," Schoeffler adds.

There is the question of the ocean view. The Gulf is a popular vacation spot. But Schellestede claims these are "friendly coastlines." People are used to seeing big metal on the horizon. And the turbines will be eight miles offshore, he says.

"If you were there on the beach having a martini," Schellestede says, "if you looked very carefully you'd probably be seeing the tips of the blades."

The Bird Question

There is one potential problem for the offshore wind farm: Environmentalists say the 125-foot blades from the turbines might kill too many birds. Schellestede says he'll pay for the research to find out whether the wind farm is a threat.

He has reason to worry; the nation's first offshore wind venture, the Cape Wind Project in Massachusetts, was stalled by unexpected local resistance.

"We're saying, 'Be very careful,'" Schellestede says. "We cannot fall into the Cape Wind situation and have money thrown at the wall and nothing happens. That's not reasonable. We are excited but cautious."

A visit to Galveston, Texas, explains why birds could undermine the project. A spit of land nearest to where the wind farm will be is the first landfall for millions of migrating birds that will fly over the wind farm.

Across from Galveston, on the mainland coast is a place called High Island. It's higher, by a few feet, than the pan-flat scrubland surrounding it. There are water-oak and hackberry trees, and the birds love it.

At the Houston Audubon Society's Boy Scout sanctuary, binoculared birdwatchers count off the migrating species: blue-headed vireos, wood thrushes, orchard orioles, northern orioles, summer tanagers and scarlet tanagers, just to name a few.

Audubon's Winnie Burkett is the refuge guide and she's part of a team of environmentalists who are monitoring the Galveston wind project.

"What we worry about is that weather events will concentrate birds," Burkett says. "A front comes and they are pushed together, and on those days you might have a million birds together and they go through a wind farm and what happens?"

They could get chopped up. Biologists say migrating birds normally fly much higher than where the turbine blades will be, unless bad weather pushes them lower.

So the project designers will put two towers in the Gulf where radar and infrared cameras will track bird flight patterns. But Burkett isn't convinced these will get a true picture of the migration.

She says it's something of a dilemma for environmentalists.

"We want wind power. But there may be places where wind generation is inappropriate, and that might be the Texas coast," says Burkett. "I think it's up to us to learn how we can avoid them."

The Texas coast is a bird paradise, but it's also wind paradise. Texas is second only to California in wind energy.

An Unlikely Wind Advocate

The project has an enthusiastic backer in Texas: Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the General Land Office, which leases tracts in Texas waters, traditionally for oil and gas drilling.

Patterson, a former Marine pilot, has decorated his office in Austin with his gun collection. As a state senator, he sponsored a law to allow Texans to carry concealed weapons. In fact, he's got one in his boot.

"It's just a five-shot .22 Magnum revolver," he says as he pulls it out. "It's smokeless powder."

Patterson knows he's an unlikely wind advocate. But he views wind as a bargain.

"The nice thing about it is it's energy income," Patterson says. "One kind of energy, that's hydrocarbon-based, is going away. We think wind energy will be here to stay and will be a source of income for hundreds of years to come.

"When the wind stops blowing," he says, "we got some bigger problems."

Patterson leased the offshore tracts to the Galveston wind project. He says the only valid obstacle is the danger to birds, but he thinks that can be solved.

"We're going to do anything we can to mitigate the impact," he promises. "Changing the location of the platforms, shutting them down during migration, changing the structure of the platforms so it's not inviting to the bird to rest. We're going to have offshore wind off the Texas coast."

And, he and his Louisiana partners hope they get there before Massachusetts does.

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