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Issue 12: When Words Matter / A Mighty Wind

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Welcome to FLYP, a new online magazine that looks at the people and issues shaping America. Flip through this article for a truly interactive experience.

A Mighty Wind

It’s clean, domestic and abundant. Can wind save the country, or is it all just a bunch of hot air?

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Picture an America with carbon emissions reduced by 25 percent, 500,000 new jobs and 4 trillions gallons less water consumed in the production
of electricity.
That’s what the U.S. Department of Energy says will happen if we hit a target of 20 percent electricity through wind power by 2030. Former oil titan T. Boone Pickens made waves last month with a plan aiming to hit that milestone sooner rather than later, and Al Gore made everyone else look conservative with his
assertion that wind could play a major role in weaning the country off of its dependence on hydrocarbons in ten years.
On a warming planet with oil prices well above $100 per barrel and wars being fought in various oil- and gas-producing countries, it all sounds great. But is it possible? Or even a good idea? Well, maybe.
“It’s good to have a goal, right?” says Mark Storing, vice president for portfolio strategy and business development at Xcel Energy, the country’s largest supplier of wind farms.
That goal would require a massive effort. Today wind accounts for about 1 percent of the country’s electrical power. In order to reach 20 percent, wind generating capacity would have to increase by a factor of 15 from today’s 20,000 megawatts. The price tag, in Pickens’s estimate, would be $1 trillion plus an additional $200 billion to build additional electricity transmission lines to carry wind power from where it is generated to where it
is needed.
The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) says the target is feasible because of ready-to-go technology, the dramatic decline of prices per kilowatt hour (from as much as 30 cents a decade ago to less than 10 cents now) and the example set in Europe (where Denmark already approaches the 20 percent threshold). AWEA spokesperson Christine Real de Azua believes that the 20 percent mark is “not a ceiling—we could go beyond that.”

In our interactive graph, find out how a possible carbon tax would shift the energy balance, and make wind power seem much more affordable.

Does it Make Sense?

Pickens, Gore and other advocates—as well as both presidential candidates—argue that wind is an essential element of any strategic plan to reduce the country’s carbon footprint. Wind power produces no carbon emissions, while natural gas and coal—even so called “clean coal” projects—are massive polluters.
However, everyone admits that there are downsides to increased reliance on wind power beyond the massive amount of money needed to build out the infrastructure. “Often times, people that point out the full and complete costs of wind are accused of being anti-green power,” Larry Makovich, an energy expert at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, told FLYP. “We’re all convinced we need to do something about climate change, but if we’re not realistic about the costs, then we’re not going to get the right mix of solutions.”
According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), wind power is cheaper than other renewable energy sources like solar and biomass. However, today, wind is roughly one third more expensive than electricity generated with natural gas or coal.
The problem is that, unlike in Europe, the U.S. does not assess a price on the carbon emissions associated with gas or coal. Most energy experts expect this to change in the coming years, and then the cost of carbon-based electricity will soar. EPRI says that, if the carbon emission price were $50 per ton, then wind power would be cheaper than coal, and close to competitive with gas. Several European countries already employ carbon taxes, most in the range of 10 to 20 Euros (about $15–30) per ton.
Other issues beyond cost inhibit moving rapidly to more wind power. Since wind turbines can only generate power when the wind is blowing, back-up generators that employ conventional fuels must also be available.
The U.S. does have the potential to be the Saudi Arabia of wind due to strong prevailing winds, but unfortunately most wind-filled areas are far from population centers. That raises the challenge of transporting wind power in a country without a national electricity grid.
Getting past that obstacle is critical to achieving energy independence. As former President Bill Clinton said at August’s National Clean Energy Summit, “I’m positive it needs to be done because I’m tired of standing in windy places where they have no options.”
Finally, there is a problem common to all new energy projects: No one wants one in their backyard. There is massive potential in offshore wind farms, but they are big and noisy, and many coastal residents don’t want massive turbines spoiling their views.
The poster child in the effort to build the first U.S. offshore wind farm is the Cape Wind project off the coast of Cape Cod. The project has been held up for years and is facing an uncertain future.

 

Blowing in the Wind: Our interactive feature lets you discover the various wind projects happening around the country, as well as where the wind blows strongest in the 50 states.

Not So Fair Winds in D.C.

Wind has never had many friends in Washington, where oil, gas and coal interests play significant roles in defining the nation’s energy strategy. Existing tax credits for renewable energy are set to expire at the end of this year, resulting in slowed investment to projects slated for 2009 and beyond.
State governments have been more friendly toward wind. Twenty-four states have guidelines in place mandating renewable sources as part of the energy mix. Both California and Texas are aggressively encouraging wind farm development.
Applying those kinds of standards at the federal level would be an example of the kind of policy support necessary to make reaching the 20 percent mark by 2030 possible. Unfortunately, in the view of Joshua McGee, research director at the Emerging Energy Research Center, progress toward that goal has been “discouraging and very slow.”
Following Europe’s lead in taking advantage of wind power will require a policy commitment “much stronger than we currently have in place,” says Real de Azua. “It’s not going to happen with business as usual.”