Wind power set to grow as costs fall

Posted: 13 June 2001

Author: Lester R. Brown

Wind power is likely to add more to US generating capacity over the next 20 years than coal. World coal use peaked in 1996 and has declined some 11 per cent since then as countries have turned away from this climate-disrupting fuel. Even China, which rivals the United States as a coal burning country, has reduced its coal use by 24 per cent since 1996.

World wind power use has multiplied nearly fourfold over the last five years, a growth rate matched only by the computer industry. In the United States, the American Wind Energy Association projects a staggering 60 per cent growth in wind-generating capacity this year.

Wind power was once confined to California, but during the last three years, wind farms coming online in Minnesota, Iowa, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have boosted US capacity by half from 1,680 megawatts to 2,550 megawatts. The 1,500 or more megawatts to be added this year will be located in a dozen states. A 300-megawatt wind farm under construction on the Oregon/Washington border is currently the world's largest.Texas wind farmWest Texas wind farm© Lower Colorado River AuthorityBut this is only the beginning. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) indicated in February that it wanted to buy 1,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity and requested proposals. Much to its surprise, it received enough to build 2,600 megawatts of capacity in five states, with the potential of expanding these sites to over 4,000 megawatts.

A 3,000-megawatt wind farm in the early planning stages in South Dakota, near the Iowa border, is 10 times the size of the Oregon/Washington wind farm. Named Rolling Thunder, this project is not only large by wind power standards, it is one of the largest energy projects of any kind in the world today.

Falling cost

Advances in wind turbine technology, drawing heavily from the aerospace industry, have lowered the cost of wind power from 38 cents per kilowatt hour in the early 1980s to 3 to 6 cents today depending on the wind site. Wind, now competitive with fossil fuels, is already cheaper in some locations than oil or gas-fired power. With major corporations, such as ABB, Shell International, and Enron ploughing resources into this field, further cost cuts are in prospect.

Wind is a vast, worldwide source of energy. The US Great Plains are the Saudi Arabia of wind power. Three wind-rich US states - North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas - have enough harnessable wind to meet national electricity needs. China can double its existing generating capacity from wind alone. Densely populated Western Europe can supply all of its electricity needs from offshore wind power.

Today Denmark, the world leader in wind turbine technology and manufacture, is getting 15 per cent of its electricity from wind power. For Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state of Germany, it is 19 per cent and, for some parts of the state, 75 per cent. Spain's industrial state of Navarra, starting from scratch six years ago, now gets 24 per cent of its electricity from wind.

As wind generating costs fall and as concern about climate change escalates, more and more countries are climbing onto the wind energy bandwagon. In December 2000, France announced it will develop 5,000 megawatts of wind power by 2010. Also in December, Argentina announced a plan to develop 3,000 megawatts of wind power in Patagonia by 2010. In April, the United Kingdom accepted offshore bids for 1,500 megawatts of wind power. In May, a report from Beijing indicated that China plans to develop some 2,500 megawatts of wind power by 2005.

The growth in wind power is consistently outrunning earlier estimates. The European Wind Energy Association, which in 1996 had set a target of 40,000 megawatts for Europe in 2010, recently upped it to 60,000 megawatts. President Bush's plan to add 393,000 megawatts of electricity nationwide by 2020 could be satisfied from wind alone.

Local benefits

Money spent on wind-generated electricity tends to remain in the community, providing income, jobs, and tax revenue, bolstering local economies. One large advanced design wind turbine, occupying a quarter acre of land, can easily yield a farmer or rancher $2,000 in royalties per year while providing the community with $100,000 of electricity.

Once we get cheap electricity from wind, we can use it to electrolyse water, producing hydrogen. Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the new, highly efficient, fuel cell engine that every major automobile manufacturer is now working on. Daimler Chrysler plans to be on the market with fuel cell-powered cars in 2003. Ford, Toyota, and Honda will probably not be far behind. William Ford, Chairman of Ford Motor Company, says he expects to preside over the demise of the internal combustion engine.

Surplus wind power can be stored as hydrogen and used in fuel cells or gas turbines to generate electricity, levelling supply when winds are variable. Wind, once seen as a cornerstone of the new energy economy, may turn out to be its foundation. The wind meteorologist who analyses wind regimes and identifies the best sites for wind farms will play a role in the new energy economy comparable to that of the petroleum geologist in the old energy economy.

With the advancing technologies for harnessing wind and powering motor vehicles with hydrogen, we can now see a future where farmers and ranchers can supply not only much of the country's electricity, but much of the hydrogen to fuel its fleet of automobiles as well. For the first time, the United States has the technology and resources to divorce itself from Middle Eastern oil.

Lester Brown is President of the Earth Policy Institute, where additional data and information sources are available.Related link:Wind Energy Turns Kintyre Economy Around