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Electricity getting windier in Pennsylvania, beyond

Saturday, June 07, 2003

By Marc Levy, The Associated Press

HARRISBURG -- The menus at the upscale Char's Bella Mundo advertise filet mignon, a seafood creole, and the fact that the restaurant, in Harrisburg's century-old Shipoke village, is "pollution-free, 100-percent wind powered."

"Some people have asked me, 'Hey, where's the windmill?' and look for it on top of the restaurant," said Char Magaro, who owns the corner French bistro. "So I have to explain how it works, but the thing I share is how simple it is."

To get it, she picked up the telephone, and asked a wind-power company to supply her electricity through giant power company PPL Corp. It's a request being made increasingly by businesses and institutions willing to pay more for cleaner electricity.

The demand has driven prospectors into the hills of the Northeast, and even off its coasts, in search of suitable sites for wind farms, while energy giants such as Exelon and Florida Power & Light are buying more and more wind power, if not wind farms.

Some are buying wind for the first time, like PPL did this month.

Development is picking up: Wind power advocate John Hanger expects the amount of wind power produced in Pennsylvania to quintuple over the next 12 months, from 37 megawatts to 197 megawatts, or enough to power about 60,000 households.

Plans to build three wind farms, all with major power companies involved, have been finalized -- one in Bear Creek near Wilkes-Barre, another in Meyersdale in the Laurel Mountains, and a third in Waymart in the Pocono Mountains -- and a fourth is expected to be finalized "any day now," said Hanger, who runs an environmental advocacy organization in Harrisburg.

Elsewhere, plans to build wind farms are in various stages of development, from the hills in western Maryland to a 300-megawatt site near West Virginia's Mount Storm and a site offshore of Cape Cod. The Mount Storm site would be the largest east of the Mississippi River.

Still, of the 4,700 megawatts of wind-generated electricity that the American Wind Energy Association says are online nationwide, only a small fraction is produced east of the Mississippi River. New York, West Virginia and Pennsylvania contribute the biggest amounts, about a combined 150 megawatts.

East Coast developers, like Atlantic Renewable Energy Corp., look for sites in the highlands -- where wind is most plentiful -- that are close to highways and transmission lines, and can meet environmental, engineering and zoning codes.

They need investors to help finance their projects, which typically cost about $1 million for each megawatt of capacity, and large electricity companies to commit to buy the power, said Theo DeWolff, a co-owner of Atlantic Renewable Energy, of Richmond, Va.

While wind is less plentiful and land more expensive in the Northeast than in prairie states like Texas and Iowa, DeWolff said demand and opportunities continue to drive his business in the region.

"I think wind is getting more and more onto the radar screen of utilities," DeWolff said. "Environmental issues are getting more and more attention and I think the industry in general is on the rise."

For now, wind supplies far less than 1 percent of the overall capacity in the regional power grid, serving 25 million people in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

At least one power broker, Michael Freeman of Exelon, expects demand for wind power to plateau soon.

However, should a national energy bill set a quota for renewable energies in the portfolios of electricity distributors, the supply of wind-generated electricity would skyrocket, Freeman said.

"I can't emphasize how much that will revolutionize the business," said Freeman, whose company was the first energy giant to buy wind power in Pennsylvania.

But regardless of the demand, wind power can only grow so much, Freeman said.

Wind is less reliable than nuclear or coal energy, and although it is cheaper to buy wholesale than electricity from natural gas-fired plants, Freeman said, it remains more expensive for consumers.

Magaro, who pays an extra $106.60 a month for her wind-generated electricity, or 16 percent more, shaved $97 off of her telephone bill to compensate, and hasn't looked back.

"If anybody took a moment and tried to imagine this country as a nonpolluting economy, it would be a whole different country," Magaro said. "It would be a whole different world."

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