Duke Energy grabs hold of West winds

$1 billion invested; hope is it will grow to $3 billion

The Charlotte ObserverApril 20, 2009 

As Duke Energy works to meet North Carolina's recent mandate to produce renewable energy, an unregulated division is whipping up wind power in Wyoming and Texas.

Duke Energy Generation Services develops, owns and operates power plants for large users such as utilities, municipalities and industries in 18 states. More recently, it has focused on harnessing the winds of the West.

Two years after its first wind acquisition, Duke operates 500 megawatts. Its customers include Wal-Mart's Texas operations. It is developing up to 5,000 megawatts more -- the capacity of more than four of Duke's nuclear reactors -- in a dozen states.

Duke's home state, meanwhile, awaits its first commercial wind farm.

That's just one conundrum of renewable energy: Drawing power from the wind, sun, waves or organic wastes means going to the resource. Though the North Carolinacoast and mountains show some promise, neither can match the wind belt stretching from Texas to the Dakotas.

The energy potential out West is so strong that Duke has invested $1 billion in western wind projects, and hopes that investment will grow to to $3 billion by 2013.

"The real growth," said Generation Services President Wouter van Kempen, "is in renewables."

Duke has its eye on another renewable fuel that North Carolina has in abundance -- the farm and forest wastes called biomass. Last year Duke and Areva, a multinational company best known for nuclear power, started the joint biopower venture Adage.

But wind dominates the décor outside van Kempen's 31st-floor Charlotte office, from a head-tall model turbine to the flat panels that track the operating status of Duke's wind portfolio. Walls are being rebuilt for a control center where technicians will monitor wind data around the clock.

Wind power accounted for 42percent of the nation's new electric generation in 2008, says the American Wind Energy Association.

"The primary reason is that we have renewable-energy portfolio standards in [28] states," said Revis James, who does energy economics analyses for the Electric Power Research Institute. "Combine that with, so far, a consistent renewal of [federal] subsidies, and it's attractive."

By requiring utilities to sell power made from renewable sources, portfolio standards create new markets for those energy sectors. Federal tax credits and favorable depreciation rules help.

If Congress sets the nation's first limits on carbon dioxide emissions, James added, wind assets will look even better compared to fossil-fueled plants that produce the greenhouse gas.

Tough obstacles stand in the way of expanding the sector. The biggest of those: a lack of transmission lines to connect the often-remote places where the wind blows hardest to energy-hungry cities.

Some people won't like the idea of turbines towering 275 feet high amid scenic views -- just ask the wealthy folks of Cape Cod, Mass., who have fought hard against a proposed wind farm.

"They're not the old eggbeaters some people think they are," the Netherlands-born van Kempen said of the sleek designs. "We think they're beautiful."

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