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Workshop Touts Wind Power in V.I.

Jan. 31, 2008 — As the cost of fuel continues to climb, it is imperative for the Virgin Islands to diversify its energy portfolio and work on a more natural solution to the problem of high utility bills, speakers said Thursday at a wind energy workshop co-sponsored by the V.I. Energy Office and U.S. Department of Energy.
Held at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort on St. Thomas, the day-long event mixed more than 200 community members together with a variety of experts in the wind-energy field — an industry, they said, which has grown from its inception in the 1980s into a major competitive force throughout the U.S. and Europe. About 1.2 percent of all energy generated on the national level comes from wind utilities, speakers said, and there is currently a push from the executive branch to bump that figure up to 20 percent.
In addition to lowering residents' electricity costs, the benefits of using wind energy can trickle down into other sectors of the community, spurring economic development through the creation of jobs and upstream companies. In an environment where fuel has to be brought in, tapping into an abundant natural resource like wind — which can be used to power anything from small businesses to large cities — could also lower government bills, conserving on money as well as oil, speakers said.
"This kind of fuel is free," said Jose Zayas, program manager of the Wind Energy Technology Department at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Down here, you guys have lots of wind but no oil, and that's something you have to think about."
Addressing misconceptions that were brought up a few years ago when the V.I. Water and Power Authority sought a power purchase agreement with Innoventor Technologies, Zayas said wind technology "has become smarter" over the last few years, and could be a good fit for the territory with its steady trade winds. During the negotiations with Innoventor, WAPA officials said that a major sticking point for the authority was not being able to find the right size turbine to withstand hurricane force winds.
Zayas said there are "not a lot of things out there that could withstand" a category 5 hurricane, but he did add that new machines currently on the market automatically shut themselves off in wind speeds of more than 60 miles per hour and are programmed to turn their blades in the direction of the gusts to shield against heavy impact. Larger offshore turbines, which are anchored in the water, can also be positioned closer to the utility's power plants, he added, and will better be able to capture and convert the energy.
Bottom line, Zayas said, the price of wind energy — which hit 40-cents per kilowatt in the 1980s — now realistically totals between five-and-eight cents per kilowatt, or 12-cents for the larger offshore turbines.
"That price is going to continue to reduce as we become more able to meet some of the challenges we're facing and as the technology continues to evolve," he said.
In an area like the south side of St. Croix, where there are wide-open spaces with few trees, the wind potential is especially high and could be used to meet at least 20 percent of the island's peak-load capacity, other speakers added. While the St. Thomas-St. John district has more green space, turbines installed at increasing altitudes can also be used to generate about 80 megawatts of power, said Dennis Elliott, a lead researcher as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's National Wind Technology Center.
"The territory has about 100 square kilometers of windy area — about one-third of the islands' overall landmass," he added. "That's a lot of space to consider."
While some senators have said that the installation of large wind turbines could ruin the "aesthetic" of the territory's lush landscape, others speakers on Thursday said wind utilities set up in states such as Hawaii have had no negative impact on tourism numbers.
"We know that this is a beautiful area," said Dwight Bailey, representing the National Technology Laboratory. "But wind turbines have been installed in areas as far away as Scotland, and there has been no impact on tourism there. We want you guys to be able to make informed decisions based on the information we present here today, but I think the theme, the real idea that everyone should walk away with is that the time is now. The time is now for us to do what we can to lower the high costs of electricity that we're facing."
Bailey's statements were echoed later by Gov. John deJongh Jr., who spent most of the morning at Thursday's conference.
"This is an important dialogue we’re starting here today," deJongh said. "This issue of energy cuts across all economic groups — it's the one issue that binds all the islands together and connects us with every other location.
"Whether it’s wind, sun or water — we can't deny that we're in the Caribbean and those are the things we have to look at today in terms of energy resources."
While deJongh said that the government has made moves to cut down on its energy bills, he added that it is now time for the territory to think outside the box.
"There's no reason we have to be restricted in looking at our possibilities," he said. "The time has come for us to change our mindset. There's clearly in an interest in this kind of technology, and it’s something we have to be responsible for, looking forward. That's what's happening in the world today."
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