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Wind Power Pioneer Interview: Ed DeMeo, Renewable Energy Consulting Services, Inc.

Ed DeMeo

Ed DeMeo, president, Renewable Energy Consulting Services, Inc., Palo Alto, California. (PIX11953)

Wind Power Pioneer Interview: Ed DeMeo, Renewable Energy Consulting Services, Inc.

Date: 1/1/2004

Location: Palo Alto, CA

"Ed DeMeo has been a champion of renewable energy since the late 1970s. At the Electric Power Research Institute, he provided a bridge from the Department of Energy Wind Program to the electric utility companies in the United States. In this role, he promoted the early testing and deployment of new advanced wind turbine designs in order for utilities to gain valuable experience with this new technology. Ed's most notable accomplishment was providing leadership for the EPRI-DOE turbine verification program, which tested small wind farms in the utility operating environment so that utilities could gain valuable economic and operating experience with this new clean energy source." — Robert Thresher, National Wind Technology Center

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in wind energy.

A. I started my professional career as an electrical engineer. Actually, I've been a tinkerer since I was a little kid — sometimes to the consternation of my parents! My graduate research was in solid-state materials, with an emphasis on magnetic materials. While a member of the engineering faculty at Brown University in the early 1970s, I became interested in solar energy and joined a photovoltaics (PV) research group there.

I was fortunate to spend the summer of 1974 at the newly formed Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) as part of a visiting team tasked with designing EPRI's initial program in solar energy for prospective electric-utility use. This included wind energy, although PV was my primary responsibility. Two years later, I joined the EPRI staff to manage the EPRI PV program. Over the next 22 years, my responsibilities evolved to include more of the renewables, and wind power has become an ever-growing part of my work since the mid-1980s. My EPRI experience provided a wonderful opportunity to develop a solid perspective on the renewable power technologies in general, and it also gave me an understanding of and appreciation for the electric power business.

In early 1999, I left EPRI and began consulting on my own. Although I maintain some involvement in solar energy technologies through assessments and advisory functions for public and private clients, the great majority of my work is in wind power — most of that in support of the Federal Wind Energy Program.

Q. What key wind developments were you involved with while at EPRI?

A. In the early 1980s, while I was managing EPRI's program in solar and wind power, we became intimately involved with turbine performance evaluation for the large wind machines then emerging from the DOE wind program. We also tracked the experience with the smaller early commercial turbines in California. By the mid-1980s, we became convinced that power-electronic variable-speed technology was mature enough to apply to wind turbines and that its incorporation in the turbine would bring significant advantages in mechanical loads reduction and electric-power system integration — provided costs could be affordable.

We embarked on a program to evaluate the prospects for a variable-speed wind turbine system. In my opinion, this turned into the most significant wind power work we did at EPRI — and probably one of the more important wind-technology advancement steps taken by the industry over the past several decades. We partnered with U.S. Windpower, the major industrial player in the U.S. wind business at the time and the only wind firm with the financial strength to carry out a major development program. Jamie Chapman, the vice president for technology, had the vision to see the benefits of a successful marriage of power-electronic variable-speed and wind turbine technologies, as well as the skill to obtain the initial support of his corporate management and the firm's financial backers.

Our initial project manager chose to pursue other renewable technologies, and as the manager of the overall program, I assumed project management duties for the effort. We engaged an outside expert, Charlie Smith of Electrotek, who provided crucial technical and management support throughout the entire development effort. EPRI assembled and managed the development consortium, which was joined by two major utility firms: Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in California and Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation in New York. Shortly after the program's initiation in early 1988, Dale Osborn joined U.S. Windpower as its president, and he immediately recognized the unusual opportunity he had to develop a new product for the electric power industry with the intimate involvement of key players from that industry. He was able to secure the majority of needed funding from corporate sources. EPRI and the utility partners supplied funding for the power-electronics portion of the program.

Over the next several years, this consortium developed a new product that set the mark for energy costs from wind power. But in the mid-1990s, the firm (which had become Kenetech) filed for bankruptcy. That's a story for another day. However, the power-electronic variable-speed development program was a success because the benefits had been clearly demonstrated. The variable-speed portion of the Kenetech machine was reliable and affordable. And in fairness to the whole Kenetech team, many of these machines continue to perform reliably today.

Zond acquired this power-electronic technology in the late 1990s during the Kenetech bankruptcy proceedings, and this allowed Zond to offer a viable variable-speed product in the commercial market. It then evolved further as a cornerstone of Enron Wind's commercial business. And now it provides a key element of the commercial offerings of GE Wind.

Other major EPRI wind activities include the Utility Wind Interest Group (UWIG), the National Wind Coordinating Committee (NWCC), and the Wind Turbine Verification Program (TVP), which are discussed in some of the following questions.

You are active in the UWIG organization and were there at its inception. Tell us about UWIG and its main contributions to wind energy integration.

A. UWIG was formed in 1989 as a result of discussions between Len Rogers, who was then running the DOE wind energy program, and myself at EPRI. Len wanted to enable more utility input to the federal program, and in response, I suggested forming an interest group. We engaged about 10 utility organizations, along with Charlie Smith for technical and management support, and UWIG was born. Bob Thresher, who worked from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in support of Len, also played a key role in shaping UWIG.

Those utility representatives recognized that, in the aftermath of hard times for the wind industry in the late 1980s and much bad press, a solid, positive story about wind was beginning to emerge. They wanted to understand and tell that story to other utilities and to the interested public, so UWIG set out to do that from an objective platform. Throughout the 1990s, UWIG carried that message with a series of topical-issue brochures, seminars in key regions of the country, and technical meetings focusing on utility experience with wind power.

Over the past two decades, wind power has experienced significant ups and downs. Throughout this period, UWIG has, in my view, made a substantial contribution by conveying a balanced story about wind that has been primarily positive. And UWIG quickly became a place where utilities unfamiliar with the wind scene could come and interact with industry colleagues who had experience with and perspective on wind power and were willing to share these. UWIG now has 55 members, including utilities of all types, independent system operators (ISOs), and other organizations in the wind community.

In recent years, UWIG has tackled several key wind power integration issues on behalf of its membership. In 2003, it released the results of a landmark study on the impact of wind plant variability on utility-system operating costs (available at http://www.uwig.org/). A second major project, which is currently underway, involves developing tools to assess the impacts of individual turbines or small clusters of turbines on utility distribution systems. And UWIG is now initiating four users groups for its members — each focusing on a key aspect of wind integration and prospective expansion. As with the entire UWIG program, this work is being done in collaboration with and with co-sponsorship from the DOE-NREL wind energy program.

You are on the NWCC steering committee. Explain the origin of this group and its current focus areas.

A. In the early 1990s, political momentum was building for wind power expansion. Five-cent-per-kWh technology appeared to be on the way, and environmentalists in the upper Midwest were pursuing a clean energy quid pro quo for nuclear waste storage. Although reluctant, several utilities were seriously thinking about adding wind to their generation portfolios. However, environmental concerns — primarily avian impacts — were emerging. As with any new technology, tensions arose among those who wanted rapid expansion of wind power, those who wanted to restrict development, and those who wanted to manage the development so that it would proceed in a rational, orderly manner.

In response to this situation, Ron Loose, who was managing the DOE wind energy program at the time, engaged EPRI, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), UWIG, and the utility trade organizations to form a collaborative for constructive discussion of key issues associated with wind power growth. This collaborative became the National Wind Coordinating Committee. Resolve, Inc., a respected environmental mediation firm, was engaged to help form the group and manage its activities. Representatives from the environmental, regulatory, consumer-advocate, and state-government sectors were also enlisted so that all known stakeholders in prospective wind development would have a voice in the discussions.

At the outset of the NWCC in early 1994, I think that most of us involved in the founding of the group felt that its primary contribution would be to help manage the inevitable expansion of wind that many expected. From the beginning, the NWCC articulated a shared and thoroughly discussed vision of sustainable markets for wind power — sustainable in economic, environmental, and political terms.Interestingly, shortly after the NWCC's formation, the wave of restructuring in the electric power business began. This arrested many initiatives in the utility industry, as managers who were uncertain about what the future would bring were reluctant to pursue anything that looked risky. Many have described utility managements as "frozen in the headlights" for the remainder of the decade. In addition, Kenetech, the major U.S. wind industry player at the time, fell on hard times in the mid 1990s. Hence, shortly after its formation, the NWCC's role shifted from helping to manage inevitable growth to helping ensure the survival of wind power.

The NWCC's first major contribution dealt with avian-impact issues. Along with the NREL wind program, the NWCC helped bring credible biological science to a topic that had become — and still is — highly emotional. As a result, avian concerns have been handled fairly effectively over the past few years. But they are now emerging again, as wind power expands to new locations. Hence this issue, in a broader context of wind-plant siting issues, continues to be a major focus for the NWCC.

Another major focus over the past several years has been electrical transmission. The addition of new wires is highly contentious in many regions of the country, and their addition would often facilitate wind power expansion. The NWCC has organized broad-based discussions of transmission issues in several regions so that divergent views can be expressed and discussed and so that a better understanding of wind power's contributions, limitations, and characteristics can be fostered. The NWCC's underlying assumption is that rational discussion of key concerns and issues will improve both the operation of the existing transmission system and planning for transmission additions — and this in turn will help wind power.

Other current NWCC interests include evaluation of local economic impacts of wind development and participation of wind power in emerging markets for environmental attributes such as absence of air and water emissions.

Q. You have stated that we shouldn't expect utilities to take the lead in wind deployment in the United States. Would you expand on this?

A. The electric utilities' main job is to provide reliable power at reasonable cost. This is a complex job, which they know how to do very well, and we all take it for granted. The utilities understand their conventional equipment, and the last thing they want to do is change the system. This natural and understandable resistance to change makes utilities reluctant to try something new, like wind power, that doesn't behave like conventional plants and doesn't have a 30-year track record. Hence, in my view, the leadership for change in the power business must come from the public policy sector, reflecting the desires of the public. If regulators and legislators institute policies that encourage change viewed in the public interest, then the utilities will follow the lead provided by public officials — who in turn are following the lead of society. In general, pursuing this avenue is much more effective than beating the utilities over the head to try new things on their own initiative.

You recently participated in the Nebraska Public Power District's (NPPD's) deliberative poll. Tell us about that experience and what the results indicate about incorporating customers' interests into utility planning processes.

A. This was a fascinating experience. The polling was conducted by the same team of people who did this several years ago for the investor-owned utilities in Texas. About 100 Nebraska citizens — a statistically accurate sampling of the NPPD customer base — took the time to become better educated on energy issues by studying an authoritative document prepared by the polling team and a balanced group of advisors and by discussing relevant issues and questions with their peers and with panels of experts during a day-long session. I was impressed with the ability of these folks to zero in on a number of the key questions — even though they normally spend very little time thinking about energy. I believe the NPPD management and board of directors were also impressed with the quality of the input they received on preferences and values and with the tremendous good will the effort engendered toward NPPD. People really do appreciate being asked how they feel, particularly when there's reason to expect that decision makers will take their comments to heart.

There aren't many tree huggers in Nebraska. The major environmental organizations generally don't focus on Nebraska. Someone once related to me a comment from a fellow Nebraskan that, in Nebraska, some consider the National Rifle Association to be an environmental organization. Nonetheless, I saw a great deal of concern expressed for the environment — both now and perhaps more important, in the future. But this is not so surprising when one realizes that the agricultural community has a great appreciation for and dependence on nature and understands the concepts of long-term sustainability and conservation of resources. These folks are also learning that the fish in their pristine streams have high levels of mercury — much of which enters the atmosphere from the combustion of coal, which is Nebraska's primary electricity fuel.

One of the strongest messages voiced by participants in the process is solid support for wind power development in the state. They showed an appreciation for wind's environmental advantages, for its local economic development benefits, and for the use of an indigenous free fuel instead of sending more than $100 million annually to Wyoming for coal. They also understood that NPPD could not rely on wind for a large fraction of the state's electricity needs because of wind's natural variability.

When asked if NPPD should pursue the development of 200 MW of wind power in the state, about 95% of the participants said yes. In addition, a large majority felt this plant should simply be included in NPPD's resource portfolio, with costs borne by all customers, rather than offering the wind energy as a green product for those electing to pay a premium. These folks could also see that any premium resulting from the wind plant would be small and might actually be negative, leading to reduced overall system costs. These results have given NPPD a strong basis for moving forward with a 50- to 75-MW wind plant over the next couple of years — an initiative that internal champions at NPPD have been pursing for several years.

Q. Environmental impacts, both wildlife and aesthetics, have created controversy within the environmental advocates' community. What is your view of the environmental pros and cons of wind energy?

A. As with any energy option, wind has environmental pros and cons. I see the cons far outweighed by the pros. The major environmental objections expressed about wind power are wildlife impacts — particularly avian — and visual impacts. The latter are highly subjective: Some folks like the appearance of wind turbines, some folks don't, and some are indifferent. In most of the cases I'm familiar with, opposition on visual grounds is strongest before a project is built. After the machines are in place, much of the earlier opposition seems to dissipate. The project developers can have a major impact here. If they work closely with the community from the beginning and accommodate concerns, then the probability of acceptance is high. On the other hand, if a project is sprung on a community after much of the groundwork has been done, then there is a high probability of polarization among the local residents that can bring development to a halt.

Avian and wildlife concerns have been particularly strong in a few locations so far, but awareness of these concerns has spread to many other regions. In fact, the wind industry, with the help of the federal wind program and the NWCC as discussed earlier, has learned a great deal about site screening to avoid potential problems. Disturbance of wildlife habitat is probably a more significant issue than direct mortality, and the industry is sensitive to this concern as well. Nonetheless, avian mortality is a very emotional issue for a number of vocal people, so the wind community is paying close attention to this issue. Everyone wishes there were fewer bird deaths, but the reality is that there are billions of bird deaths in the United States every year. For example, a recent study on bird deaths from glass buildings estimates 1 billion killed annually from that cause alone. In contrast, bird kills by wind turbines have been estimated — reportedly with far more study depth than for any other source of avian mortality — at about 50,000 to 100,000 per year for the total installed wind generation in the country.

On the positive side, wind turbines produce no emissions of any kind during their operation. This means no sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, particulates, mercury, and no greenhouse gases. Wind power offsets the production of these pollutants by conventional power plants, with attendant public health benefits and associated reductions in health costs. And global climate change has become a key issue for almost all major political entities worldwide.

The key question with respect to wind and the environment is: If we don't build wind turbines, what will we build instead? The environmental impacts of conventional alternatives will probably be far higher than that of the wind turbines. But many people seem to evaluate potential actions in isolation rather than comparing alternatives. They might say that they don't want more birds to be killed, but they don't consider the sometimes-fatal impacts of conventional, polluting generation on young children and elders with respiratory diseases — and they don't consider conventional-plant impacts on wildlife habitat. And I haven't even addressed the issues of nuclear waste management and transportation — problems that have already cost taxpayers billions of dollars with no end in sight.

Q. You've stated that natural gas and wind have a good synergy in today's utility portfolio. Can you elaborate?

A. Natural gas prices today are in the range of $4 to $5 per million BTU. Gas industry analysts expect prices to be at least this high for a number of years, since the demand for gas continues to rise and new production is not keeping pace. At these prices, the fuel-cost component alone for a kWh generated in most gas plants exceeds the total cost of a kWh generated by a modern wind plant. So a utility with both gas and wind plants can use wind energy when it's available, back off on the gas plant during those periods, and then ramp up the gas plant to maintain total system output when the wind dies down. The savings in gas resulting from the wind plant operation can more than cover the total wind plant costs, and the gas plant can maintain system reliability when the wind is fluctuating or not blowing. Total-system operating costs are thus reduced, total-system environmental emissions are reduced, and system reliability is maintained. Sounds good to me!

Q. What must happen for the United States to meet the AWEA 2020 goal of 100,000 MW?

A. Because the economics of wind power are becoming competitive, because the technology continues to improve, and because support for clean energy continues to grow, I believe we'll see substantial progress toward that goal — barring a major unforeseen catastrophe — no matter what happens. However, to reach 100,000 MW, which to me is highly plausible, I believe we need major policy initiatives — national, regional, or both — that encourage clean-power growth. Examples include a national renewables portfolio standard and national or state tax incentives. Such policies, reflecting the will of the public, are driving wind power expansion in several European countriesat rates much higher than those in the United States.

Q. What has been the highlight of your wind industry career thus far?

A. This is a tough question, but several things stand out. I think that the activity with the greatest impact that I've been involved with is the power-electronic variable-speed wind turbine development program we pursued at EPRI with U.S. Windpower/Kenetech and co-sponsoring utilities. That program was instrumental in maintaining interest in wind power during the difficult period of the early 1990s. More important, it resulted in technology that was central to the Kenetech product, became critical to the Zond/Enron Wind products after they acquired the Kenetech patents in the bankruptcy proceedings, and now is a kernel of GE Wind's products. In all honesty, I think the basic variable-speed wind patent should never have been granted because significant prior art dating back to the 1970s existed. Deep down, I wish power-electronic variable-speed wind were in the pubic domain so that all could use it. However, if that were the case, it's possible that without that piece of significant intellectual property GE may not have been as likely to re-enter the wind business. And that would have been unfortunate. Of course, we can only speculate, but things often do evolve in unforeseen ways.

Serving on the founding teams for UWIG and NWCC are also highlights. I think both of these groups, over an extended period, have provided a great deal of education on wind power's status, strengths, and limitations, and have helped the wind industry better understand the arena in which it works.

The Wind Turbine Verification Program (TVP), formed jointly by EPRI, DOE, and NREL in 1992, is also a highlight. Through that program, we facilitated the entry of several major utilities into the wind power arena and helped several turbine manufacturers refine their products and correct shortcomings before they hit the big time. I am particularly proud of the TVP project at Green Mountain Power (GMP) in Vermont. Budget pressures at EPRI, GMP, and at DOE nearly killed that project on several occasions, but several of us, representing all of these organizations, were able to keep it alive. In addition to the contributions mentioned above, this project demonstrated that a wind plant could be built in an environmentally sensitive location like the Green Mountains of Vermont and actually be embraced by the local community. I believe this provided a critical proof of concept for wind development in the Eastern United States. Central to this success was the GMP wind staff's outstanding job in involving the community in its plans from the outset.

This information was last updated on August 02, 2011