Paper products giant Kimberly-Clark this month announced that it would purchase about one-third of its North American electricity needs from two wind farm projects being developed in Texas and Oklahoma. The agreements call for Kimberly-Clark to take 120MW, or 78% of the electricity generated by the Rock Falls development in Northern Oklahoma and 125MW, or 42%, of that generated by the Santa Rita wind farm in West Texas.
This is just the latest in a series of agreements between large corporations and wind farms. The day before Kimberly-Clark announced its deal, Anheuser-Busch said it would acquire 152.5MW from the Oklahoma Thunder Ranch wind farm project, now under construction. That represents a bit more than half the project’s output. Earlier this year, Proctor & Gamble struck an agreement with the owner of a 123MW wind farm near Dallas to purchase 80% of output.
Last year, Johnson & Johnson, General Motors and 3M joined earlier adapters Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook in signing up for major wind-supplied electricity contracts.
This corporate absorption of wind power is critical to the industry. Corporations are creating a new customer base for wind energy providers. According to the American Wind Energy Association, last year almost 40% of the wind project purchase power agreements were signed with corporations and non-utilities. In addition, IKEA in 2014 bought a 165MW wind farm in Illinois.
“We see that corporate buyers find wind to be a stable, reliable energy source,” said Hannah Hunt, AWEA’s senior analyst for industry data and analysis.
The first corporate buyers of wind energy tended to be tech companies looking to power data centers. However, as evidenced by Kimberly-Clark and Anheuser-Busch, “over the past year or so, the mix of companies investing in wind has increasingly diversified,” Hunt added.
Corporations are embracing wind energy as part of their commitment on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Kimberley-Clark said the wind-generated electricity will allow the company to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25% next year. It marks the company’s first utility-scale renewable energy initiative.
The reduction in wind generation costs, like those in solar, make these initiatives much more economically feasible as well. According to AWEA, wind generation costs have dropped by two-thirds in seven years.
Engaging in long-term purchase agreements serves as well as a hedge against any future energy price fluctuation.
Hedging Their Bets
“Corporations most commonly use contract-for-differences [power purchase agreements] in order to hedge against future electricity price escalations, and these can be a huge benefit for energy-intensive companies that want price security in the face of volatile fossil fuel markets,” wrote FTI Consulting in a note on the subject last year.
FTI added that these power purchase agreements become more economical because they can “eliminate the middle man” and acquire their energy directly from the supplier.
There’s another factor at work and that’s geographic diversification. “It’s been the stated priority for corporate buyers to procure wind energy in the same geographic location as energy demands,” said Hunt.
Take the example of North Carolina, which earlier this year commissioned its first commercial-scale wind farm, according to the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Amazon Web Services will purchase the output, which will feed into the electric grid that powers the company’s data centers in Virginia, according to the government office.
This geographic spread is in part due to technological advances in wind turbines, which allow much more efficiency in generation.
While gaining in popularity, corporate remains a small percentage of overall power purchases, about 6GW out of a total of 84GW. But these corporations play an indirect role as well in promoting wind energy, Hunt said. “They send a strong signal to the market that renewable energy is a valuable product,” she said.
According to AWEA, wind generated some electricity in 40 states at the end of last year. Texas remains dominant with 20.3GW, representing almost one-quarter of total generation, followed by California with 5.7GW. But Oklahoma and Iowa are coming on strong, as is Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and the Dakotas in the Midwest and Washington and Oregon on the West Coast. It’s a truism that these wind farms are located where wind blows strongest, but they are also placed largely in rural areas, where land is plentiful and leasing costs low.
Power companies are spreading their wings as well. Take, for example, PacifiCorp, based in Portland, Oregon. It has invested heavily in wind projects. It owns wind farms in Oregon, Washington and Wyoming and purchases wind-generated electricity from third party providers in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah. It is now proposing to invest more than $2 billion on new wind projects in Wyoming in what’s known as “wind alley,” near the town of Medicine Bow.
Of course, too much wind blowing can be a bad thing. According to the US Energy Information Administration, wind turbines are shut off when wind speed eclipses 55 miles per hour, to prevent damage. When Hurricane Harvey swept through Texas, power companies were forced to shut down several turbines along the coast.