Interview with wind power guru Paul Gipe

We at Vision of Earth are pleased to present to you an interview conducted with Paul Gipe, a prolific author, renewable energy advocate, and energy industry analyst. He is the creator of Wind-Works, an impressive website full of high-quality renewable energy industry material.

Wind-Works has been an excellent resource for us over the years. We know that anyone interested in making a green and renewable future happen will be able to empower themselves with knowledge contained in the Wind-Works articles section. Additionally, we have found that Paul Gipe’s feed-in tariff mailing list is the best source for energy policy news on the Internet.

Onwards to the main event!

Renewable energy industry and policies

We contacted you for this interview because we know that you are an expert in the world of renewable energy and energy policy. Can you tell us a bit about your background and experience in this area, including what got you started on this path?

While I’ve studied engineering, my degree is in Natural Resources, or what’s called today Environmental Science. As a student I was active in the campaign to regulate the strip mining of coal. In those days in the US you dig up the earth, take the coal, and just leave it. There were no standards for mine reclamation. It was this campaign that led me renewable energy as an alternative to strip mining.

I’ve been working with renewable energy for more than three decades. My specialty is wind energy but I now work mostly on renewable energy policy. I emphasize the term “renewable energy” because in North America we have an unfortunate tendency to approach policy in a piecemeal fashion. We have one policy for wind, another for solar and so on. We need all renewables and we need them now. That’s why it’s important to work on a policy that is adaptable to all renewable technologies. That policy is feed-in tariffs or what I call Advanced Renewable Tariffs.

We note that you have a significant body of work relating to wind turbine noise levels. How do you think we might deal with the regulatory question of how to place wind turbines in a scientific and fair manner?

We already do that in most places. There are exceptions of course and those are the ones you read about in the newspaper.

I’ve studied noise since I first began my career in the 1970s. So it was natural for me to write about and evaluate the noise from wind turbines for the same reasons. We want wind turbines to be compatible with the people who live on the landscape and noise is the number one issue people are concerned about.

My work has centered on making sure that wind turbines and other renewable technologies are good neighbors. We can do that by using wind turbines with low noise emissions and placing the wind turbines a sufficient distance away from people that they are compatible in all technical senses. This doesn’t mean the wind turbines will be “silent”. They are not nor can they be “silent”. They are machines operating in the wind, but they should be no more objectionable than the refrigerator in the kitchen and typically that’s the case.

I went through the trouble of measuring the noise emissions from small wind turbines because no one was doing the work or they were not publishing their results. As an author and advocate of renewable energy I’d heard complaints about specific small wind turbines so I investigated them and, unlike others, I published my results for the world to see.

The good news is that one of the specific models I tested has been redesigned and now is much quieter than the versions I wrote about. One can argue whether my measurements had anything to do with it or not. Regardless, my tests were controversial when I did them, and now that particular wind turbine is so much quieter that I am actually using it myself.

Our society is ideally going to transition towards an entirely renewable power grid. In this context we will need to be able to guarantee grid stability using a combination of mechanisms such as geographical diversity of intermittent power, energy trading, energy storage, dispatchable power, and load management. In your opinion, what is the best balance for achieving grid stability given these tools or other tools that you are aware of?

The number one priority for achieving 100% renewable generation is to remember it is “renewable energy” and not “solar” or “wind” energy alone. This is absolutely fundamental. Many of the renewable technologies in wide scale use are not intermittent or variable. They provide firm power, some even provide dispatchable power.

We should never forget that many places were 100% renewable until the 1950s of the 1960s because they had developed their hydro resources. Even run-of-the-river hydro provides firm power and of course conventional hydro uses impoundments that provide storage. Geothermal is another firm source that has a huge potential in North America. California has been generating more than 5% of its supply with geothermal for decades. Biogas generation is another source of firm power and there’s even storage potential in those big bladders used to collect biodigester gas.

So we already have what we need in terms of technology and resources. It has been and remains a question of policy and political will.

In the end, does it matter whether we get to 80% renewable generation, 90% or 100%? We’re so far from reaching that level in North America that’s practically a non-issue.

California gets about 20% of its generation from new and old renewables. Many Canadian provinces already get a much higher percentage from renewables than California. I once figured that Canada could achieve 100% renewable generation today if it simply cut consumption 50%–which it could easily do. Much of Canadian electricity consumption is just waste.

Cut consumption through efficiency and conservation, develop renewables that provide firm power, maintain hydro with existing impoundments, and with that you can integrate large amounts of wind and solar.

Portugal this year is expected to reach 50% generation from renewables, including new hydro. They did it in one decade.

What specific dispatchable renewable energy resources do you believe show sufficient promise for providing the necessary dispatchable power for a stable renewable power grid?

Dispatchable is different from firm power. Geothermal can be dispatchable as can biogas with on-site storage.

General societal development

In general, what do you think is the greatest challenge, or set of challenges, facing our society today? Why do you think these issues are so important?

Democratizing electricity generation. The renewable energy revolution has the potential to democratize generation by opening up the market to everyone. Thus, it’s not a question of technology, or even cost. It is a question of equity. Everyone has a responsibility for building the future that we want for our kids and grandkids, and everyone should have an opportunity to profit from that future.

Renewables, especially those that come in small increments, like wind turbines and solar panels, enable far more players to enter the generation market than traditional sources like large coal and nuclear plants. Of course, they can also be developed by the same people who build conventional plants. Policy, then, can determine who gets to play—and profit—from the massive development of renewable energy that we will see in the next few decades.

If we get the policy right, everyone–from homeowners to farmers, from apartment dwellers to small businesses, and yes, even from multinational utility companies—can install or invest in their own renewable generation. This is what you see in Germany.

If you ask a farmer in north Germany why he and his family have invested in not just wind energy, but solar energy and biogas, he will just look at you and say, “Why not?” It’s his resource, he would say, why wouldn’t he invest in it? To him, it’s no different than the crops he raises on his farm.

Of course, the German farmer, the German homeowner, the German apartment dweller can invest in renewable energy because they have a right to connect their generators to the grid and they are paid a fair price for their electricity. That’s policy again. The German’s have a policy that enables small producers to generate electricity for a profit.

It’s never been about the technology. We have had the technology for decades. It’s always been about getting the policy right.

How much awareness do you think the general public has of these issues?

In North America, much more than their elected representatives realize. In the past few years the crowds for my lectures are even larger and more enthusiastic than they were back in the early 1980s. The people get it. They want to move on and begin reindustrializing North America by rapidly developing massive amounts of renewable energy. Eventually, their political “leaders” will realize what’s happening and will have to run to catch up with the parade.

What work are you involved with that is trying to help better our society, and how successful have you been?

Of all the things I’ve done in my life, I am proudest of my role in Ontario. Nancy, my wife, and I moved to Toronto in February 2004 to lead a provincial campaign for Advanced Renewable Tariffs. We moved from sunny southern California to wintry, snowy Toronto to do the impossible: bring feed-in tariffs back to North America. It was a demanding and it was a certainly daunting task. But ultimately the experience was rewarding.

I didn’t do it alone of course. There was a committed cadre of people at OSEA, TREC, and WindShare that made it happen. We were at the right place at the right time. And to our credit, we seized the opportunity.

Ontario now leads North America in the development of renewable energy. Yes, there are individual states with more wind or more solar than Ontario. Nevertheless, this year or next Ontario will rival California in solar development and within a few years it will have more community-owned wind energy than Minnesota.

The province of Ontario has become a beacon to renewable energy advocates across North America, from British Columbia to Florida, from Nova Scotia to California.

What do you think is the best way for an interested member of the general public to help bring about positive change in our society?

My subject is renewable energy and specifically community development of renewable energy. We need it. We need it now. And if done right it can both reindustrialize North America and reinvigorate our flagging democracies. So I suggest people become involved in their community by proposing locally-owned wind and solar projects. That’s what the people did in Ontario. Then the farm community got involved. Then labor. Finally the politicians started paying attention. You just can’t set back and let others determine the future for you. It’s imperative that you get out there and create the kind of future you want.

Thanks to Paul Gipe for his insightful responses!

Vision of Earth: Some of his responses strike deep chords with us. We have authored a few pieces on subjects that he raises such as reliable or ‘firm’ powerrenewable energy policies, and democratizing the renewable energy industry. We presented a specific policy instrument for this democratization with our proposal for publicly administered green energy futures.

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

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