Plugging civil engineers into the renewable power value chain

SEATTLE—February was a big month for announcements regarding renewable power in 2009 and beyond. But, what are the takeaways for civil engineering firms that are in a position to support this sector’s value chain?

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—stimulus bill—received the lion’s share of recent attention. One project, a shovel-ready, high-voltage transmission line, had lacked the $250 million funding, but will now proceed with construction this summer. The Bonneville Power Authority’s (BPA) McNary-John Day 500-kilovolt line will allow for the connection of 700 megawatts of renewable power in coming years, according to the BPA. Seven hundred megawatts of wind power capacity equates to roughly 350 turbines and $1.5 billion in capital cost. The stimulus bill allocates $4.5 billion for transmission projects nationwide.

On Feb. 17, wind and solar trade organizations—American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and Solar Energy Industries Association—jointly released Green Power Superhighways, a conceptual plan for a national high-voltage, 765-kilovolt transmission network. Recalling Eisenhower’s interstate highway program, the paper quantifies the value if U.S. population centers tap into the country’s vast renewable power resources. In recent years wind represented 30 percent of U.S. new energy production, second to natural gas turbines, according to AWEA. Solar power, like wind in 2002, claims a small share (1 percent), but is projected to advance rapidly during the next decade because of recent innovations in technology and lower costs.

At the AWEA’s annual Siting Workshop in Seattle, Feb. 23-24, several key announcements were made by federal and regional agencies on facilitating renewable power. Erin Anderson, attorney for Stoel Rives, a longtime leader in the industry, remarked on the unprecedented spectrum of participants at this year’s workshop. On hand was Secretary of Defense representative Bill Van Houten, introducing his group’s program for more timely reviews of wind farm proposals relative to conflicts with military radar. Van Houten stressed balance between radar, "the national security interest, but also the national energy interest" of wind.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Penelope McDaniel from the Re-power America program introduced a database of 16 million acres of EPA-tracked lands. It assesses the potential for biofuel, geothermal, solar, and wind production. The database has a companion Google Earth Viewer 2 which impressed participants. Other national radar interests, NEXRAD and FAA, as well as several regional wildlife agencies, announced new programs to coordinate review of facility applications, many with GIS-sharing capabilities.

Many of the speakers anticipated that the next generation wind facility will increasingly be sited on public forest and desert lands, as the suitable agricultural lands become less abundant, calling for more proactive participation with wildlife managers. These projects will call on the industry’s best civil engineering expertise, according to Dave McClain, who grew up in the Northwest logging industry, and is now a director at EverPower, a wind developer. McClain remarked on the need for a new cadre of engineers to advance the geotechnical, road, and logistics issues associated with combining wind power with forestry management land.

Another perspective is gained from a leader in the transmission and distribution field. Jim Dykes, P.E., a principal at Stantec Consulting, assisted the firm’s program to cross-train civil engineers for transmission design work to balance resources nationally as its land development sector slowed. Dykes also commented on an abundance of good solar and wind power projects that he is aware of in the industry that are on hold because of delays in permitting of the transmission connections. Based on the recent announcements by agencies, some relief for transmission permitting may be anticipated as well.

Although a big portion of development is stalled until the financial system gets rooted, civil engineers can bank on vigorous growth in the renewable power sector.

— Contributed by Doug Krause, P.E., a civil/environmental engineer in Portland, Ore.,who specializes in wind and water resources. He can be contacted at dougk@kse-engineering.com.


SIDEBAR: Renewable power resources


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