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A survey reveals coastal Louisiana to be America's best potential source for wind energy. Is the answer to the state's economic and environmental problems blowing in the wind?

Earlier this month, Jason Tournillon went out to preach to the choir. Tournillon, a co-founder of the New Orleans-based environmental market services firm GT Energy, joined a panel discussion with local Sierra Club members. The topic: how to make Louisiana a global leader in the development of wind power.

Not surprisingly, everyone in the group agreed on the need to create a wind power industry in the state, pointing to the environmental benefits wind offers over fossil fuels. But beyond environmentalists, a broad base of support is starting to develop in Louisiana for wind power, in large part because of a 2003 Stanford University study that cited coastal Louisiana as the top potential source for wind power in the United States. Stanford scientists surveyed nearly 1,800 sites across the country for wind power potential. While finding that roughly 25 percent of the land is suited for wind power, it ranked specific locations on a scale of one to seven, with seven being the highest. Only seven ratings of seven were awarded in the United States, and six of those were in coastal Louisiana.

The ramifications of the Stanford report are far-reaching: some politicians and business leaders see the potential of something akin to the state's oil boom -- a new industry that could create countless quality jobs and establish a massive, lucrative and long-standing economic engine in the state. Environmentalists, meanwhile, say the move to wind power could reduce pollution and literally save the planet.

The prospect of huge profits and helping the environment has produced strange bedfellows. Along with Tournillon, the panel at the Sierra Club meeting included GT Energy partner Andrew Fielding; Tulane University graduate Craig Morris, who currently lives in Germany and works in international renewable energy production; and Harold Schoeffler, a Lafayette Cadillac salesman and Sierra Club member who established Wind Energy Systems Technology (WEST) with noted oil and gas industry veteran Herman Schellstede.

Morris spoke first, delivering graphics and facts to reveal how far ahead Europe -- in particular, Germany -- is in using renewable energy sources. Germany plans by 2050 to reduce its energy consumption by 50 percent through improved technology and efficiency, with the vast majority of its sources being renewable. "The differences between the United States and Europe on this issue is not existing technologies, but attitudes," Morris said.

Germany's wind energy program began in 1998 under a directive by the right-leaning Christian Democrats party, which held power at the time, Morris said. Since then, it has since grown under stewardship by the left-leaning Social Democrats and Green parties now in control. "In Germany, everyone agrees you must get started developing renewable energies," Morris said. "In the United States, it's a political roller coaster. Up and down. You get some momentum, then politics stops it, and you start all over. It accomplishes nothing. With the current American mindset, no politician with a renewable energy platform will get elected anytime in the near future."

Schoeffler spoke next. He started with an anecdote of how he was in the process of selling a used car when the idea to place wind turbines on offshore oil platforms struck him. "This guy was bitching about federal regulations against removing old platforms, and the idea came to me," he said.

Schoeffler took his idea to Schellstede and WEST, which has since partnered with GT Energy, was born. Schoeffler says there are 3,400 platforms in federal waters off Louisiana, and 2,800 in state waters. Roughly one-third of the platforms could support a wind turbine. The platform could derive its own power from the wind turbine. But Schoeffler identified one problem: how to transport the wind power to the on-shore power grid. Can old pipelines be converted for wind power use, or would the system require its own expensive cabling? But the chief obstacle, he said, comes when the wind power reaches the state power grid: "There, bureaucratic chaos ensues."

Schoeffler claimed the state's monopoly utilities -- Entergy, CLECO and SWEPCO -- resist moving to wind power. He proposes lobbying the state Public Service Commission "to change the rules," deregulating on a model based on Texas, which deregulated its utilities under then-Gov. George W. Bush. Texas, which last year produced 1,300 megawatts through wind turbines in the desert climes of west Texas, leads the nation in wind energy production.

Louisiana has the chance to far surpass Texas' output, Schoeffler said, because offshore wind is more reliable than wind collected on land. He further explained the two neighboring states are alike in the advantage of having an energy industry infrastructure already established. "But, we're really not even thinking about doing this," Schoeffler said. By comparison, coal currently represents 50 percent of industry power generation, he said, charging that it's a source responsible for pollution and landscape eyesores such as the ruined historic Mansfield Battlefield, a Civil War battle site that is now being mined for coal.

"Louisiana can pull this off, because not only do we have the offshore technology, but we also designed it and built it," he said.

Schoeffler expects Gov. Kathleen Blanco's office to introduce legislation in the upcoming session that would allow for offshore wind turbines. "But the state legislature scares the hell out of me," he said, "because you can stick something in there that looks like a duck and comes out looking like an elephant."

"At least with Governor Blanco, we have somebody that will listen," Fielding said, taking his turn to address the group. Fielding said that while the private sector is actively pursuing the development of wind energy, the effort requires public interest and education, plus a political mandate. He also recommends deregulation and the establishment, through action by the Public Service Commission, of Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) -- requirements that a certain percentage of energy comes from renewable sources. Nationwide, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that renewable energy sources in 2000 accounted for 2,300 megawatts. By 2010, the group estimates that level to increase to nearly 4,000 megawatts.

"Louisiana has a real opportunity to take the lead in a global industry," Fielding says. "This will reduce greenhouse gas, it'll help stop coastal erosion, plus bring a real industry with well-paying jobs. Louisiana can do it."

ADVOCATES OF WIND ENERGY cite its ability to support -- and ultimately replace -- fossil fuels in an effort combining multiple renewable energy sources. To Micah Walker Parkin, program director for the Alliance for Affordable Energy, the country's continued reliance on fossil fuels poses a clear and present danger.

"Global warming is the most significant problem our generation faces," she says. "We've got to deal with it, the sooner the better, because the longer we wait, the more greenhouse gases build up and stay in the atmosphere, it's going to be that much deeper of a climb to reduce those gases."

Numerous studies credit fossil fuel pollution with causing global warming, which results in the melting of polar ice caps, one of many factors contributing to Louisiana's rapidly disappearing coastline and wetlands.

"It's pretty irresponsible for Louisiana's political delegation to ask the federal government for $14 billion in restoration funds, when we're not even addressing the root causes for this sea level rise," Walker Parkin says. President Bill Clinton initially signed on United States participation in the global Kyoto Protocol, which called for a reduction, and ultimately elimination, of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet in 2001, the Bush administration withdrew the American signature, saying the international effort, widely hailed in Europe and Japan, was "fatally flawed." In October 2003, the U.S. Senate rejected the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, which also required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, by a vote of 55 to 43. Louisiana Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu, both Democrats, voted against the Climate Stewardship Act.

Walker Parkin remains optimistic about the role Louisiana can play in improving the environment. Until the 2003 Stanford study, she says, no one was even discussing wind power in Louisiana. "To be honest, I even didn't think we had wind power potential here."

Renewable energy requires a diversified approach, Walker Parkin says, noting that Louisiana also has excellent biomass potential: sugar cane, from which ethanol can be extracted; a thriving timber industry, with timber residue being a power source; and transforming rice hulls into energy via combustion, a method being explored by Lake Charles-based company AgriElectric. In fact, Walker Parkin says, Louisiana's use of renewable energy is double the national average; 4 percent of the state's power comes from renewable sources.

Lambert Boissiere III, recently elected commissioner of the state Public Service Commission, says he fully supports wind-power initiatives for both environmental and economic reasons. Yet he adds that he wants results from feasibility studies before issuing a recommendation.

Last October, Shreveport-based commissioner Foster Campbell introduced to the PSC a docket supporting the exploration of wind energy in coastal Louisiana. "We want to make sure that wind energy is a real possibility for Louisiana, we want to do everything to give this a chance," Campbell says, adding that he and his fellow commissioners are "objective but interested" on the topic. "If the price for wind energy is competitive, it will work. And I think it will be competitive, because it doesn't have to be that cheap to compete with Entergy.

"Not all the big utilities are for [wind energy development], but I want them to be for it," Campbell says. "And I want them to buy it, if the price is competitive. [Developing wind energy] would be good for the people and good for the state. This energy is clean, good for the environment. And we won't have to rely on OPEC."

Entergy is currently at work on two wind projects -- one in Iowa, the other in Texas. The New Orleans-based company is also petitioning the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for further development of nuclear power, hoping to expand its East Feliciana Parish nuclear plant and explore a future site in Port Gibson, Miss. (a project already approved by the Mississippi Public Service Commission).

"Right now, Louisiana ranks in the bottom 20 percent with regard to wind resources," says Brent Dorsey, Entergy's director of corporate environmental programs. "We don't have the resources to establish a real renewable market. There's an awful lot of unanswered questions about wind."

Dorsey says that costs involved with transporting offshore wind energy for inland use would make costs rise from 20 to 50 percent. He says that Entergy is not fighting Campbell's PSC docket exploring wind energy, but has only made comments to the commission on the topic.

Mandeville-based PSC member Jay Blossman also raises concern about developing wind energy. "The wind is free, but the rest of it is very expensive," he says, adding that developing wind energy with no viable market would simply create a subsidy.

Blossman also worries that the Stanford survey might have averaged in storm winds, skewing the results. Critics also point to the problem of wind intermittency -- when there's no wind, there's no power. Blossman encourages exploration of wind power, yet he says his main focus is on the federal energy bill, and working with newly elected Rep. Bobby Jindal and Sen. David Vitter to make sure the state's plants that operate on natural gas become more efficient. Blossman cites the fact that natural gas prices have increased four-fold in the last few years as damaging to companies and regular consumers in Louisiana.

But, to Walker Parkin, the answer is obvious. "This is an excellent opportunity for economic development in Louisiana," she says. "We've always been a leader in energy, but with fossil fuels. Now we have the chance to be the frontrunners in the next energy, in the next century."

LOCATED ON THE 11TH FLOOR of the Canal Place office tower, GT Energy's office is spare -- the only wall decor is a set of clocks showing the time in Stockholm and Tokyo, where the local group has ties with international companies. But New Orleans native and company partner Chris Dufour, along with Fielding and Tournillon, work in an atmosphere buzzing with a war room-like intensity.

Dufour worked in the energy markets in London with Fielding, a native of New York. Fielding admits he was initially reluctant when Dufour tried to recruit him to start their current venture in New Orleans. "Are you crazy?" Fielding remembers asking. "Nobody in the South gives a shit about renewable energy."

But citing a recent controversy in Nantucket Sound over the placement there of a wind turbine farm that residents find unsightly, Fielding says Louisiana's history can be worked into a positive. "Oil and gas have already established their presence here, so we'd just build from there. There's no NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) argument here, because it's too late. It's already here."

"We see two primary benefits to creating a wind energy power source in Louisiana: the city and state economy, and a cleaner environment," Dufour says. "But there's much more to it than that. It's not just an energy issue, a job creation issue or an environmental issue. For instance, wind will bring lower power bills to residents."

Currently, the utilities in Louisiana are hampered by an "antiquated" power distribution system and inefficient technologies -- costs that ultimately are passed down to the customer, whether it's a citizen or company, Dufour says. Creating an RPS in Louisiana is the first step, he says, but encouragement and investment on the government side is needed to further develop the burgeoning industry. GT Energy is working to achieve such aims on the state level, but Dufour, Fielding and Tournillon think the federal government would bring the best solution, making a RPS nationwide, along with a utility deregulation that encourages "green" companies and a production tax credit for companies investing in renewable energy. "[Renewable energy] is one of the last emerging markets," Tournillon says. "It's like the Internet or cell phones from the last decade. We just need to build on what we already have in Louisiana. We have a real opportunity to make this state better."

click to enlarge "It's not just an energy issue, a job creation issue or an environmental issue," says GT Energy's Chris Dufour (left, with Andrew Fielding and Jason Tournillion). "Wind will bring lower power bills to residents." - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • "It's not just an energy issue, a job creation issue or an environmental issue," says GT Energy's Chris Dufour (left, with Andrew Fielding and Jason Tournillion). "Wind will bring lower power bills to residents."


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