BP will build a fourth wind farm in Texas, the oil giant announced on May 4, just days after the anniversary of the Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

This latest renewable energy project from a troubled oil company has illuminated controversial disagreements over the real costs and benefits of wind power.

Located in Archer and Young counties, 90 miles northwest of Fort Worth, the 33,000 acre Trinity Hills Wind Farm has a capacity of 225 megawatts (MW), sufficient power for approximately 65,000 homes and over a quarter of the amount of power produced by large-scale nuclear plants, such as the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station.

“This particular area of Texas offers very good wind resources,” BP Press Officer Tom Mueller told Breaking Energy, “so it’s a great place for building a new wind farm to create additional renewable electricity for Texas.”

This is the second Texas wind farm announced by BP Wind Energy this month. It’s decision to install 90 Clipper Windpower C-96 wind turbines-with the help of Blattner Energy-will, according to BP, create almost 300 new jobs in the area.

By the end of 2010, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) recorded the U.S. wind-power capacity at a total of 40,181 MW, with 10,000 MW in Texas alone. In fact, AWEA estimates that eight percent of Texas power is currently derived from wind generation.

A Lone Star in Wind Development

Texas government policies have made it particularly amenable to wind developers. In 2005, the legislature identified and established five resource-rich land zones as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones.

As part of the legislation, the Texas Public Utilities Commission also began development of 2,400 miles of transmission lines from western Texas, where land is comparatively cheap and wind is strong, to northern and eastern Texas where most of the major cities-including Houston and Dallas-are located.

ITC Holdings VP of Grid Development Terry Harvill lauds Texas for the CREZ zones, which he told Breaking Energy is a model for other states.

“In renewables we’ve always had the chicken and the egg issue,” Harvill said. “You can’t put in the power till there is transmission and you can’t build transmission till you have the power.”

By identifying the CREZ zones, Texas could build in access to the power capacity and the transmission simultaneously.

Texas was able to work independently because its power system is not connected to other interstate grid systems.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

By jumping ahead in wind development, Texas has also faced the brunt of the sector’s challenges.

When Texas relied last year on wind to serve peak capacities, the state experienced rolling brownouts when the wind stopped blowing, Harvill said.

With enough base-load capacity from traditional sources and batteries that could potentially store wind energy, such brownouts can be prevented. But even when all the transmission lines are built, it will take time for the wind power to be integrated properly into the grid.

Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) closely monitors weather patterns to shift energy from conventional energy sources on windy days or during the morning and evening hours when wind power in greater.

“Having accurate wind forecasts is one of the key tools necessary to address the variability and uncertainty of wind generation,” ERCOT spokeswoman Dottie Roark told Breaking Energy. “We have incorporated wind forecasts in our daily planning to assure we have adequate reserves on hand to deal with wind variability.”

Because weather patterns essentially determine wind power output, wind farms rarely reach their peak capacity. ERCOT recorded that in its region of Texas-which includes Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, Corpus Christi, Abilene and the Rio Grande Valley-wind energy reached a record high of 7,227 MW, or 25.8 percent of its total capacity, on December 11, 2010.

In other words, BP’s newest plant-which may cost as much as $472.5 million to build, according to an estimate of AWEA Chief Economist Liz Salerno-will likely produce less than a quarter of its nameplate capacity on a regular basis, or approximately 56 MW, enough to power approximately 16,250 homes. This number would be even smaller in the middle of hot summer days, when Texas has historically experienced extreme peaks of electricity demand but only light gusts of wind.

The Hidden Costs of Wind

“Wind is being built purely for economic reasons,” Liz Salerno told Breaking Energy. She noted that, although it costs about $1.7–2.1 million/MW to build and install wind turbines, the farms incur no additional fuel costs.

Salerno claims that this additional wind power, when integrated into the ERCOT grid, will lower consumers’ electricity costs across the board, but University of Texas Professor Ross Baldick has published Wind and Energy Markets: A Case Study of Texas, a paper that shows exactly why wind power will increase power costs, even more so than other kinds of renewables.

“Wind tends to blow more at night when demand is low, but solar tends to produce more during the day, when demand is higher,” Baldick told Breaking Energy.

He added that building transmission lines for wind is particularly costly in terms of dollars per megawatt of delivered energy, because “wind blows a lower fraction of the time than the average capacity factor of thermal generation.” In addition, longer lines are generally required for wind power because the turbines, he said, are located farther from cities than are conventional power plants.

With the hefty price tag of new transmission lines and the cost of building new wind farms, many of which are subsidized with production tax credits and state renewable energy credits, the total price of wind energy may be far more expensive than continued use of conventional plants, Baldick explains in his paper.

“The current price you pay for electricity assumes the capital cost of generation will be paid back over decades,” Baldick said. That means that taxpayers have already invested in plants and arguably would essentially be throwing their money away if conventional plants are excessively scaled back.

Advocates for wind energy insist that farms such as BP’s newest one, are intelligent future investments.

“If you think of wind as a product, there is no volatility and no risk,” Solerno said. “It acts as a hedge as maybe other generational aspects you have on your system carry other risks.”

Solerno speculates that Texas will become a major producer of wind energy, in part because hundreds of manufacturing plants have cropped up across the country to feed the growing demand for wind power.

Green Potential

Integrating wind into the grid may also fail to reduce total carbon emissions.

“Cycling down the coal plants can worsen their heat rate,” Baldick said, garnering less energy from the same amount of fuel. As such, the amount of total carbon reductions may be far lower than is conventionally estimated.

Regardless, wind power requires other types of generation in order to be part of any grid that hopes to provide customers with a steady flow of energy.

“It creates system stability issues,” Harvill said. In this case, ERCOT will have to carefully “ramp the other resources up” when the wind isn’t blowing.

“As you get more and more wind, across a larger geographic area, that becomes less of an issue,” Harvill said.

Although the western region of Texas is particularly windy, the turbines-which are concentrated in this one part of the state-will be rendered virtually useless on still days. At that time, local conventional thermal plants will burn as usual.

Betting The Farm

The Minnesota based electrical generation contractor, Blattner Energy, will work with BP to construct its newest wind farm.

“[Blattner Energy] continues to demonstrate alignment with our commitment to build wind farms safely,” said CEO of BP Wind Energy, John Graham

The remaining BP Texas wind farms include two 150 MW Sherbino Wind Farms-the first which opened in October 2008 and the second which is set to open in the next few years-and a 60MW Silver Star 1 Wind Farm, which began operating in September 2008. BP is also currently constructing a new wind farm in Colorado.