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Wind Power Pioneer Interview: Tom Gray, American Wind Energy Association

Tom Gray

Tom Gray, deputy executive director, American Wind Energy Association, Washington, D.C. (PIX11931)

Wind Power Pioneer Interview: Tom Gray, American Wind Energy Association

Date: 6/1/2003

Location: DC

"Tom Gray has devoted virtually his entire professional career to wind energy. While working as a Capitol Hill staffer, he played an important role in the development of the Wind Energy Systems Act of 1980. From 1981 to 1989, he served as the executive director for the American Wind Energy Association. After several years of consulting, Tom began directing AWEA's communications department in 1994. In 1986, Tom was recognized as AWEA's Wind Industry Man of the Year, and in 1989 he received a special award for selfless devotion to the promise of wind energy." — Randy Swisher, American Wind Energy Association

Please tell us a little about your background and how you became interested in wind.

A. My background is in politics. When I went to work for a Congressman in 1975, I had hoped to work on defense, which was the biggest issue of the time. But he wasn't on the right committees, and the closest I could get was energy. The Congressman was on a subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee that dealt with advanced energy research and development (R&D) programs, and once I learned how large the wind and solar resources are, I was hooked.

I worked with some other Congressional staff in drafting the Wind Energy Systems Act of 1980, which outlined an ambitious federal wind R&D program, but it was never funded. Shortly after that, I joined the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

Q. You were AWEA's executive director in the '80s. What was your vision of wind energy in 2000-2005? What significant things happened to make 2003 different from your original vision?

A. Since the late 1970s, I hoped that the United States would make renewable energy and energy efficiency the cornerstones of a new national energy policy and strongly promote wind energy through incentives or something akin to a federal Renewables Portfolio Standard (a requirement that electricity suppliers obtain a steadily increasing share of their power from renewable sources).

Many things have conspired to keep that from happening, but I think the most important was the oil glut of the 1980s. A response to the huge oil price increases of the 1970s, it kept energy off the front pages as a national issue from 1981 until the California electricity crisis of 2001 — a period of 20 years during which we made virtually no progress toward a more intelligent, long-term energy policy.

Q. How has that vision changed over the years?

A. The vision hasn't really changed, but I've come to accept that without strong federal policy leadership, it is a long and difficult process for any new energy source to muscle its way into the market. There are many, many institutional barriers, and it takes time to wear them down.

Q. AWEA's goal is 100,000 MW of wind power by 2020. What has to happen before we can reach that goal?

A.

  • Extension of the wind energy production tax credit (PTC) for five years
  • A federal Renewables Portfolio Standard
  • A major project to develop transmission capacity to the Missouri River Basin
  • Continued expansion of state Renewables Portfolio Standards

All of these elements may not be needed to reach the goal, but it is hard for me to believe that it can be reached through market processes alone.

Q. You've been heavily engaged in siting issues around the country. What progress has been made in resolving some of these sticky issues? What are the remaining and emerging siting issues?

A. Progress has been made on a number of fronts:

  • Turbines are larger for economic reasons, but this increased size also aids the aesthetics issue because they must be spaced farther apart, and they rotate more slowly.
  • Noise has been dramatically reduced from some of the early units. A wind turbine at 200 meters is no noisier than your refrigerator heard from your living room.
  • Bird kills have been a problem at Altamont Pass, one of the first wind farm sites in the United States. Today, this is not an issue at other wind farm sites, largely because wind developers routinely perform wildlife evaluations at prospective locations.

I'd say the biggest remaining problem is aesthetics. Opinion surveys indicate that a small but sizable minority of the public does not like the look of wind turbines. Wind is inherently a very visible technology, so there is only so much we can do about that.

Q. What's the biggest misconception about wind that has to be overcome with education?

A. The biggest misconception is that because it is "intermittent," or variable, wind energy requires lots of storage or backup power before it can be added to the utility system. There are two parts to this:

  1. The impression that because wind turbines have a "capacity factor" of only 35% to 40% (only produce 35% to 40% of what they could generate if they ran 100% of the time at full capacity), they only run 35% to 40% of the time. In fact, they are generating SOME electricity 70% to 90% of the time, but they rarely run at full capacity. This is a design choice — it's possible to build a wind machine with a small generator and large rotor that would have a high capacity factor, but the electricity from such a turbine would be very expensive, and the central goal of designers is to keep the cost of electricity low.
  2. The idea that wind is variable and customer demand for electricity throughout the day is fixed, so utilities cannot depend on wind. In fact, electricity demand is a constantly moving target. A more accurate picture involves a number of generating plants moving online and off-line throughout the day to meet that constantly shifting target. At any time, only some 15% of the total generating capacity online is consciously "dispatched" to keep load and generation in balance. Obviously, a variable generating source fits into the picture much more readily.

Q. What advice can you give to state stakeholders to help them address some of the misconceptions about wind?

A. Stay tuned. One of AWEA's primary jobs as an organization is to develop and distribute information that helps to dispel misunderstandings about wind energy, and we are working on it every day. The FAQ section on our Web site is a great place to start.

Q. It seems that members of the environmental community do not agree on the benefits vs. impacts of wind. What can be done to develop a more harmonious voice on the subject of wind energy among members of this important, vocal community?

A. We have to keep working to place wind energy in context. It's not a zero-impact energy source—there is no such thing. But its impact on the environment is less harmful than almost any other energy source you can name. Energy production is about choices, and every kilowatt-hour generated with wind is one more kilowatt-hour generated without strip mining, air pollution, acid rain, climate-changing greenhouse gases, or radioactive waste. We are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Q. You've recently developed a communications strategy for AWEA. Can you tell us about it?

A. It's pretty simple. There is a lot of demand for information about wind, and it's easy to get caught up in responding to that demand on a piecemeal basis—a letter to the editor here, a one-page fact sheet there, a point-by-point response to a 20-page attack on wind somewhere else. AWEA is a small organization, and our time and resources can easily be swallowed up without a trace. Instead, we need to focus on making each piece of information we create serve as broad a purpose as possible (the FAQ section is a good example), and then we need to be systematic about getting it into the hands of our member companies and every wind energy advocate we can reach. This will ensure that our work has the widest possible impact.

Q. If you were king for a day, what one thing would you change or institute to pave the way toward meeting your vision?

A. Under my government, there would be a carbon tax on the use of fossil fuels. The proceeds would be used to promote the development of clean, renewable energy sources. Low-income families would receive an income-based exemption to prevent the tax from being regressive, and it would be phased in slowly but steadily over a period of 20 or 30 years to reduce the economic pain.

I think this would do a lot to align our energy policy with the public and national interest.

This information was last updated on August 02, 2011