But such a flat-out assumption could be wrong according George Kendrick, environmental scientist and senior principal for Stantec, a project management firm and engineering consultancy in the US.
“Renewable energy sources like wind power are seen as vital components of sustainable infrastructure across the country, but balancing their benefits with their impacts and finding ways to measure those benefits can be challenging," he says.
That notion is a driver behind “Sustainability Aspects of Large-Scale Wind Developments,” the chapter Kendrick contributed to the new book, Infrastructure Sustainability and Design, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure.
One of the many fundamental messages in this wide-ranging book -- which covers everything from road and bridge construction to the best way to lay out a new city park -- is that how a piece of infrastructure works with other, adjacent pieces, is just as important as its individual attributes.
In his chapter, Kendrick, a 15-year veteran of renewable energy development, describes the sustainability considerations of the wind power development process, including potential impacts of design choices and how wind power’s sustainability is currently being measured.
In that respect, it's almost a pure distillation of the mindset of the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure.
Founded in 2008 with a donation by siblings Paul and Joan Zofnass, the mission of the Zofnass Program is to develop and promote methods, processes, and tools that quantify sustainability for infrastructure. Its goal is to facilitate the adoption of sustainable solutions for infrastructure projects, and expand the body of knowledge for sustainable infrastructure.
Kendrick has provided strategic environmental planning, impact assessments, sustainability evaluations, and technical support for over 100 wind and solar power projects and hydropower facilities in North America over the past decade.
Earlier this week, REM caught up with him to discuss his contribution to the book.
Infrastructure Sustainability and Design is a hard book to characterize in a single sentence. It comes out of academia, includes deep input from professionals like yourself, and is likely to be read by all kinds of people. What is the intended audience for this book?
This is an academic publication, designed for practitioners... folks who are trying to design projects of all kinds. It is also a textbook for students who are trying to learn what they should be focusing on during their careers. And it's also for planners.
See, I told you...
The intent of the book, as envisioned by the folks at Harvard and a Routledge, the publisher, was really to put in one place comprehensive information on how we can look at all infrastructure. We’re not just talking about energy projects; we’re also talking about sort of mundane things like waste water treatment facilities and planning for urban development and highways... and landscaping for parks.
Obviously, the LEED certification for architecture and building design is of part of this, but what's happening in Infrastructure Sustainability and Design is we're taking that LEED design concept, which has been well documented for buildings, and applying the same sort of concept to the much larger-scale infrastructure that the country is putting into place.
It looks at everything from bridges and transportation networks to, "How do we lay out our cities in a way that’s sensible?" That’s not something that’s really been put together before.
But one of the challenges has been to really measure and determine how one design versus another represents a sustainable approach. It’s pretty simple for a building, relatively speaking, because we can measure the inputs and outputs of a building, if you will. We can measure its energy use, its air quality and things like that; And you can look at the materials you may want to put into a building, and look at whether they are going to be derived from sustainable resources or be more consumptive in nature. So sustainability in the building context has been pretty well documented and understood and is easily measured.
What’s less easy to measure are some of the pieces that are in the book -- bridge design or roadways... or what I was focusing on, renewable energy projects. You would think that they are so inherently obvious as being sustainable that you wouldn’t even have to measure, but in fact, as you are no doubt aware, there's considerable disagreement on that point.
Over the years, we've seen outcries from various communities about the visual impact of a project or noise issues or wildlife impacts. With this chapter, we were able to go a little bit deeper into the issue of how they are constructed and what they are made out of…
So for example, there’s a tremendous amount of steel that goes into wind turbine platform poles. Where does it come from? You can’t use recycled products in something like that because it has to be structurally sound. So immediately you recognize that when it comes to this concept of sustainability, there are trade-offs involved.
But now, let's look at this from a larger perspective, a satellite's view. How do we balance that trade-off with the fact that by relying on wind or another renewable source of power, rather than an oil-fired or natural gas-fired power plant?
The purpose of including a chapter on renewables in this book was to put down, so that people could understand them, the kinds of choices and evaluations that you go through when you are putting in a wind farm.
Why wind, as opposed to another renewable, as the focus of your chapter?
We used wind as a stand in for other renewable projects, such as solar, mainly because we have an awful lot more wind projects built and evaluated and understood in the US, than some of these other technologies.
So, how is the sustainability of a wind farm development measured today?
Well, the Zofnass system is brand new and basically, it's a method -- checklists and the like -- intended to help people work through the choices they make. Right now, in North America, there really isn’t a design standard or sustainability metric for these kinds of projects. If you go to Europe or any of the other developed countries that are signatories of the Kyoto accords -- or play in the carbon markets -- there are audit processes in place that are outlined in the book.
I won’t go into it at length now because it’s too much to dredge up, but there are several standards, like the CDM Gold Standard, which is an independent standard in Europe for creating high-quality emission reductions projects through the clean development mechanism. It has very well-documented metrics for these kinds of projects and a verification process you have to go through, with an auditor, you can sell carbon credits [based on the project].
That’s pretty well in place in Europe and in many developing countries; so if you are putting in a wind farm in Romania or Turkey or Afghanistan or someplace like that, you have pretty well set standards by which you can determine how sustainable a project is, and whether it is going to meet the sustainability standards for the carbon markets.
In North America we don’t really have that. We don’t have a carbon market. We have a voluntary market which right now isn’t doing all that great, and we don’t have the same kinds of standards or audit requirements in place. Now, one can use the CDM gold standard here if one wanted to use it, but we actually haven’t had anyone do so. That's primarily because it does cost money to meet these goals and there’s no real reason for people to do that [in the US].
Now, that said, I have done an informal survey, just on my own, looking at projects our clients have done in the past, and happily, most of them actually do comply with that standard. That's the good news -- if you take a standard that's in widespread use internationally and apply it to the US, what you find is that we've been doing pretty well.
Of course, there have been a few projects here and there that have had issues – socio-economic issues or noise impacts on a community that were not anticipated -- and those would not give you good points if you were trying to look at sustainability from a social perspective. But for the most part, on the environmental side of the ledger, most of these projects have been designed pretty carefully.
Now, of course, we’re not talking about old-generation, Altamont Pass sort of things like in California. [The Altamont Pass, located in the Diablo Range in Central California, is one of the earliest wind farms built in the United States. It gained infamy from studies that found its numerous small turbines killed 4,700 birds a year, including 1,300 eagles and other raptors. In recent years, it's obsolete turbines have been replaced by larger, slower moving turbines that, according to the Bonneville Power Administration, are less hazardous to local wildlife.]
We know a lot better now. If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn't have built it that way. But with the wind farm’s we are doing now, we go through a very careful siting process;, permitting in most states requires you to do all kinds of studies that minimize impacts and indentifies impacts.
Minimizing environmental impacts is a major piece of the sustainable aspect. The other piece that’s important is the economic impact, the job creation and tax revenue, that can benefit a community.
Today, and this is particularly true in and near populated areas, developers go through an economic impact analysis as part of their discussions with the community, and also as part of the permitting process. Some states actually require a cost-benefits analysis or a showing of what the economic benefits would be… so that another sustainability component, are you creating jobs? Are you providing revenues to a community that will aid in building new schools and adding educational components to existing schools? Are you building new roads that can be of benefit to the community? Things like that are also part of the sustainability equation.
It sounds like you're saying local zoning regulations here in the US do a pretty good job of making these things sustainable?
I think so. Of course, there are different levels of sustainability. There’s the bare minimum level, where you haven’t done any damage, and that’s certainly what most ordinances are set up to prevent. They are trying to minimize damage to either the human or natural environments. To be sustainable, you’re trying to take it another level beyond that, and trying to actually enhance either the social climate or to be of some other benefit.
I'll give you an example. One of the things wind farm designers need to think about before these projects get under way is the designing of roads. When they design these roads, they need to make them wide enough to get a crane down so that it can be used to erect all the turbines.
But there may be ways to use creative thinking and minimizing the impact of the cut and fill… some developers, for instance, have shifted to crawler-mounted cranes instead of rubber-tired cranes, and the crawlers have allowed them to have a narrower road-bed and much tighter turn radius, meaning less intense construction. So if you really think these things through, you can find situations where a simple change of equipment with minimize the visual and habitat impacts and reduce community concerns.
Now, as far as operations are concerned, this is the tricky area because minimizing impacts and having the depth of management – that’s one of the buzzwords these days – to do that is not always predictable. In some cases you don’t know what the impacts of a project are going to be until you build it, and then you need to monitor and make adjustments along the way. That’s an area where creative monitoring and an adaptive management plan are just part of the sustainability analysis. From there the question is, "Are you willing to modify your operations to minimize an impact that no one anticipated before hand?" There’s less of that now. We know a lot now. And we know how to site these things better that we used to.
Can you go back to older projects and make them more sustainable now?
That’s a really great question. I think it depends on the site. Take the repowering that’s going on in California right now as an example: We installed hundreds of relatively small turbines back in the 1980s… and now some of those projects are going back into a repowering mode where [clusters] of turbines are being removed and replaced with a single turbine. Now, in terms of impacts, that is obviously going to be an improvement because you’re only going to have one turbine instead of 10 serving as potential source of mortality for birds and things like that.
You also may have the opportunity to do habitat restoration or replanting and re-vegetation in between where you have taken out the old turbines. So in terms of the natural sustainability, you do have opportunities to bring the habitat back to where it was originally. I think that would be a question of achieving the minimum level of sustainability. You're returning it to the "do no harm" level.
But if you are trying to take it to the higher level and actually trying to enhance the site, that would depend on the location. In some places it might be pretty tough to bring a disturbed area back to better than it was before, but certainly you can bring things back to pretty darned close to where they were before.
The other thing is, in operations, and this may sound very simplistic, sustainability in operations is simply a green way of running your company, or running your program.
It’s simple things like, how you choose the materials that are going to go into your building, your maintenance and operations facility. Are you going to use recycled materials or sustainably harvested wood? Are you going to use green products for all of your onsite staff to use?
There are typically lots of vehicles on site. Are you using natural biofuel-powered vehicles or is there a way to incorporate solar on the site to power some of your other energy needs when the wind isn’t blowing? There are all kinds of ways that the engineering staff can look at their designs, not just for the turbine itself, but also everything around it.
Are manufacturers thinking of green materials?
I don’t think they’re there yet. I can’t really speak to the blade manufacturers, but they are making huge leaps and bounds in materials and composites and decreasing weight and increasing flexibility and longevity… and I think that’s what everybody has been focusing on. I’m certainly not knowledgeable enough in material science to know whether one could use recycled materials in any of those components. Obviously, it’s something worth looking at, but I think the bigger issue for these projects is to take a look at the triumvirate of sustainable measurement: the social side, the environmental side, and the economic side, and see if the project as a whole, with all of its components combined, helps meet some of those goals.
And remember, the nature of the project itself... is in itself a huge benefit. You're harnessing a renewable source of power as an alternative to fossil fuel generation. Perhaps that alone will offset the fact that you are using turbines made of carbon fiber, a petroleum byproduct. Everything is a compromise, right?
In addition to renewable energy, I also write a great deal about the oil and gas industry, particularly, the decommissioning side of the business. Where people are looking at end-of-life issue related to oil platforms and so forth. Is there a foreseeable end-of-life for a wind turbine? And do you have to consider that in the design phase?
Absolutely. The whole thing about a true green analysis of anything is that we should be looking at the origin of materials and where they will end up when we are done with them. Now, to what extent that's being done, I can't say. I think a lot of project developers and operators have a good heart and are trying to do the best they can, but at the end of the day, you have to select materials that meet your needs, and that are economically feasible. One of the things we're saying with this chapter is, to be truly sustainable, you have to look at materials and practices that result in the wind farm having the least impact on its surrounding during the lifecycle of the project.
I’ve heard it said that when it comes to wind farms in the US, all of the best, easiest locations to work in have been taken and developers are moving into more difficult terrain. Isn’t it harder to take a sustainable approach to development in more difficult to access sites?
I think that’s probably something you can say in general. If you look at a map showing wind projects that have been installed across the united states, I think we have wind projects now in 37 states and there’s exploration and predevelopment going on in most of the others. Part of that is the wind technology, and turbine technology, has improved to the point that we can go into much lower wind regime areas for projects that may be feasible.
Now, as for that notion of "easy" areas and "difficult" areas, sure, one site can be more benign than another. There are places, in the mid-continent in particular, where projects have been built on a fairly large scale on agricultural lands, with fairly minimal impacts.
We had a fairly easy time to building them. We don’t have massive soil erosion problems, the wildlife issues have already been avoided, and the farmers are happy because they are getting payments, taxes are being contributed to the county... so those have been almost no brainers and that’s why there’s been so much wind development in those areas.
In contrast, when you’re up in forests and on ridges in the Appalachians in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Maine you have more challenges in terms of construction, erosion and potential destruction of habitat -- but you also have a much faster rebirth in these areas.
And here's another consideration: Many of those "difficult" areas are closer to populations and power demand areas, so you are delivering power to those cities and communities that otherwise would be drawing power from a coal-fired power plant.
In some ways you can say it's almost better to accept the trade-off of, say, an impact to a forest in exchange for not having to remove the whole top half of a mountain for a coal mine. Every place has a trade off… And every energy source has its negatives and its positives and it is a matter of balancing them. And it doesn’t matter what part of the country it’s in. Look at the desert Southwest. It has sparse populations, but it is also a fairly fragile environment. And these are very difficult habitats to stitch back together if you’ve done damage to them. But in contrast we also may need power.
You’ve been at this for 15 years, how’s the health of the wind sector today in the US?
Well, right now, there are sort of a couple of different populations in the sector. There’s a population that is wringing its hands and they are looking at jumping off a cliff and the expiration of the production tax credit is a massive problem – and it is something we need to address, no question.
But there is a second population that I have been very encouraged in talking with over the past several months -- companies who have a much longer term view. Some of them are owner/operators who are planning to build portfolios of projects that they will run for 25 to 30 years and many of them are companies that have been in the energy market for a long time and have seen cycles come and go.
Most of them are looking at the long term and saying, "We are going to continue to move forward." They say, "This is a no brainer if you take the long term view and look at the levelized cost of electricity 10 to 15 years from now. Very few people think that shale gas is going to stay below $2 for that length of time, and so if you look at the cost of electricity long term, and you’re not paying for any fuel for wind, it’s going to become more and more economically attractive over time.
All of these companies want a portion of wind in their portfolios. They don’t necessarily want to commit 100 percent of their portfolios of wind, but they want to commit a portion of it to wind and have a diversified portfolio. It’s just like the stock market. You want to diversify your portfolio in your energy generation. And they are looking at solar and they are looking at wind. So I’m feeling quite encouraged, and once we’re past the election and whether the PTC goes forward or not, we’re still going to have folks looking at good sites and they are going to be moving forward.
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