Catching the Wind

The World’s Fastest-Growing Renewable Energy Source is Coming of Age. © Courtesy of Vestas Wind Systems A/S

At the base of the Sagamore Bridge, the gateway to Cape Cod, is a nostalgia-inducing fake windmill that looks like it belongs with tulips and wooden shoes in an image of Holland’s colorful past. In fact, it’s advertising for a Christmas tree store, but its mere presence is an irony as the Cape is convulsed in an epic battle over some very real wind turbines. Cape Wind plans to build the first offshore wind park in the U.S. in Nantucket Sound, just five miles off the coast of some of the most exclusive real estate in America. If the project is built, it will at least temporarily set a record as the largest wind farm in the world, its 130 turbines producing 420 megawatts of electricity. If it is defeated by a well-funded opposition group with some highly placed political allies, it will be a resounding defeat for wind power in the U.S., but possibly just a minor setback for a worldwide renewable energy movement that is filling its sails with the inexhaustible power of the wind.

The Growing Power of Wind

Even as the world experiences ever-more-severe storms and sets new temperature records that are being linked to global warming, we’re also setting new records for installed wind energy. The two phenomena might appear to be unrelated, but actually they’re closely tied together. Wind energy is zero-emissions energy, a renewable resource that is one of our last, best hopes for staving off devastating climate change. Wind energy has grown 28 percent annually over the last five years, and the so-called “installed capacity” (the generating power of working wind turbines) doubles every three years: It is the fastest-growing energy source in the world. Some 6,000 megawatts of wind capacity—enough to power 1.5 million homes—are added annually.

Workers erect a wind turbine. The world had 39,000 megawatts of installed wind power in 2003, and new construction was proceeding so quickly that wind is now the fastest-growing form of energy. ©  Digital Vision

The old-fashioned windmills that once pumped water for local farmers have been replaced with high-technology, high-efficiency industrial-grade turbines. The General Electric turbines scheduled to be installed by Cape Wind (resulting from GE’s purchase of Enron’s wind assets at fire-sale prices) offer a whopping 3.6 megawatts each, are 40 stories tall on thin towers, and boast three prop-like blades the length of two jumbo jets.

As Business 2.0 reports, “Since 1985, the electric generating capacity of a typical windmill has gone from about 100 kilowatts of constant power to 1.5 megawatts, with a corresponding reduction in cost from 12 cents per kilowatt-hour to less than five cents.” Because of federal tax credits (recently renewed until the end of 2005), the real cost of wind power is getting close to such perennials as nuclear, coal and natural gas, which explains the interest of big profit-oriented companies like GE. In 2001, 6,500 megawatts of new wind-generating capacity were installed worldwide, and by 2003 the world had 39,000 megawatts of installed wind power.

Fascinating History

Wind technology has increased steadily since the first windmills for pumping water and grinding grain were developed in ancient Persia around 500 to 900 A.D. (see companion story). More than six million small windmills were installed in the U.S. between 1850 and 1970. They were small units producing the equivalent of one horsepower or less and their primary duties were supplying water for animals and human needs. Rural electrification in the 1930s made most of them obsolete, but many remained in place to serve as evocative backgrounds in Hollywood westerns.

Poul La Cour, a Danish inventor, built a practical four-blade windmill in 1891, and by 1917 windmills producing 25 kilowatts were in common use in Denmark (still a wind energy pioneer today). The first utility-scale wind generator was the 100-kilowatt Balaclava windmill, built on the shores of the Caspian Sea in 1931. Experimentation on large wind machines continued in the U.S., France, Germany, Great Britain and Denmark.

The U.S. government developed a newfound interest in wind power after the oil embargoes of the 1970s left the country feeling vulnerable about energy supplies. The U.S. Federal Wind Energy Program was created at that time, and California became a showplace for large-scale wind farms. Some 17,000 machines of 20 to 350 kilowatts (producing 1,700 megawatts in total) were installed between 1981 and 1990. A 15 percent federal energy credit helped, as did a 50 percent California energy credit (both were gone by the mid-1980s).

Unfortunately, many of the California windmills suffered from insufficient development time and operating difficulties, including the well-known Transpower wind farm in the Tehachapi Mountains. Compounding the difficulties, the tax credits were issued on the basis of “installed generator capacity” rather than the actual output of the wind turbines.

After many rushed American designs failed to deliver on their promises, the much healthier Danish wind business had captured 50 percent of the U.S. market by 1986. U.S. companies, including U.S. Windpower, Zond Systems (since acquired by Enron, then by General Electric, a powerhouse today), Southwest Wind Power and Bergey Windpower, gradually began a comeback in the 1990s.

A Bright Future With Clouds

Large wind farms can be major players in electricity generation, producing 300 or 400 megawatts of power. © Renewable Choice Energy

The U.S. (6,374 megawatts at the end of 2003) and Europe dominate the development and installation of wind power. Large-scale wind farms, both on- and off-shore, can now be found from Denmark to New Zealand. Europe has more than 28,000 installed megawatts of wind power (70 percent of world capacity). World wind leaders include Germany, the U.S., Spain, Denmark and India, each with more than 2,000 megawatts. Germany is in the lead, with 14,609 megawatts installed by the end of 2003. The wind energy industry in Germany employs 35,000 people and supplies 3.5 percent of the nation’s electricity. Denmark has the world’s highest proportion of electricity generated by wind, more than 20 percent. The Danish Wind Energy Association would like to see that ratcheted up to 35 percent wind power by 2015.

In the U.S. (which gets less than one percent of its energy from wind) the industry rebounded somewhat in the late 1990s. There are now clusters of wind turbines in Texas and Colorado, as well as newly updated sites in California. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), there are now wind energy products in almost every state west of the Mississippi, and in many Northeastern states. California leads with more than 2,042 megawatts of installed wind energy, followed by Texas, which experienced 500 percent wind growth in 2001 and now has 1,293 megawatts. AWEA explains that one megawatt of wind capacity is enough to supply 240 to 300 average American homes, and California’s wind power alone can save the energy equivalent of 4.8 million barrels of oil per year.

AWEA says the U.S. wind industry will install up to 3,000 megawatts of new capacity by 2009. If that proves true, the U.S. will have nearly 10,000 megawatts of wind power, enough to power three million homes. The economics of wind are looking increasingly good. The cost of generating a kilowatt-hour of electricity from wind power has dropped from $1 in 1978 to five cents in 1998, and is expected to drop even further, to 2.5 cents. Wind turbines themselves have dropped in installed cost to $800 per kilowatt. Although, according to the Financial Times, wind power is still twice as expensive as generation from a modern oil-fired plant, federal subsidies and tax benefits available in many countries level the playing field.

One of the biggest hindrances to even greater wind installation in the U.S. is the on-again, off-again nature of the federal wind energy production tax credit (PTC). Introduced as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, PTC granted 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (since adjusted for inflation) for the first 10 years of operation to wind plants brought on line before the end of June 1999. A succession of short-term renewals and expirations of PTC led to three boom-and-bust cycles (the most recent a boom in 2003 and a bust in 2004) in wind power installation. Its current extension to the end of 2005 may see some wind projects struggling to meet the PTC requirements before the credit expires once again.

The U.S. could go further, and states with big wind resources would reap major rewards. If Congress were to establish a 20 percent national renewable energy standard by 2020 (requiring utilities to sell a fifth of their energy from sustainable sources), the Union of Concerned Scientists reports, wind-rich North Dakota could gain $1.4 billion in new investment from wind and other renewables. North Dakota consumers would save $363 million in lower electricity bills annually if the standard were combined with improvements in energy efficiency. The environment would also benefit with a 28 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from the plains states. A watered-down version of this “renewables portfolio standard” (RPS) was included in the 2002 and 2003 versions of the failed federal energy bill, but failed to make the final cut.

Just such an RPS, on the state level, was enacted when George W. Bush was governor of Texas, and led that state to its pre-eminent status as the number two wind generator in the U.S. Governor George Pataki recently issued an executive order establishing such an RPS for New York State: 20 percent renewables by 2010. New York currently gets 17 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, principally hydro power. The 2004 elections may have been terrible news for the environment, but one bright spot was the passage of a Colorado RPS that will require the state to buy 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015. Seventeen states have now enacted RPS rules.

AWEA thinks that, with a favorable political climate, the U.S. could have 100,000 megawatts of installed wind power by 2013, with a full potential of 600,000 megawatts. The group points out that wind power could offset a projected three to four billion cubic feet per day natural gas supply shortage in the U.S.

Even in the absence of a lucrative production tax credit, wind projects are moving forward. Current projects include construction of the world’s third-largest wind farm, with 136 turbines and 204 megawatts capacity, in New Mexico as part of the utility-run New Mexico Wind Energy Center. FPL Energy is also installing 162 megawatts of 1.8-megawatt Danish-made Vestas turbines in Solano County, California for the High Winds project. New England can boast of Green Mountain Power’s project in Searsburg, Vermont, which was completed in 1997 and features 11 turbines generating six megawatts.

Other projects are underway in Oklahoma and South Dakota, on the Rosebud Sioux reservation. Tex Hall of the National Congress of American Indians observes that “tribes here [in the Great Plains] have many thousands of megawatts of potential wind power blowing across our reservation lands
.Tribes need access to the federal grid to bring our value-added electricity to market throughout our region and beyond.”

Offshore Wind and Local Opposition

Many of the largest wind farms today are being built offshore, with varying amounts of controversy. Despite its proximity to Jones Beach, one of the largest summer recreational destinations in the New York area (with six million annual visitors), the proposed Long Island Offshore Wind Initiative (with between 25 and 50 turbines, producing up to four megawatts each) has not generated significant opposition, although it could develop as plans move forward. The Long Island wind farm “will be pollution-free, boundless and blow a gust of clean air into the future of energy production,” says Ashok Gupta of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Offshore wind farms are the wave of the future. One study estimates that a string of such farms off Long Island could produce 77 percent of the region”s power needs. © Courtesy of Vestas Wind Systems A/S

With peak energy demand on Long Island soaring (up 10 percent just between 2001 and 2002), there is clearly a need for new and cleaner sources of electricity. On the western end of the South Shore, the utility-owned wind farm would be two to five miles offshore and provide electricity for 30,000 homes when completed in 2007. Long Island’s suffering air would benefit from the annual reduction of 834 tons of sulfur dioxide, 332 tons of nitrogen oxide and 227,000 tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide.Taken as a whole, Long Island has incredible potential wind resources along its south shore extending past Montauk Point. According to one study, a string of wind farms in that region could produce 5,200 megawatts of power, or enough to meet 77 percent of Long Island’s ever-expanding needs.

Germany is a world leader in offshore wind, and recently finalized an agreement to build a 350-megawatt project (with 70 five-megawatt turbines) off the island of Rügen. Britain’s Crown Estate, which owns the UK’s territorial seabed, has granted approval for 13 offshore wind farms, and British utility Powergen has plans to develop a giant 500-megawatt offshore farm in the Thames estuary near London. The Irish government has approved a 520-megawatt wind farm offshore southeast of Dublin. China is building a 400-megawatt facility 60 miles from Beijing, and says confidently it will be generating 12 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020.

None of these projects have met with the kind of opposition that stalks the Cape Wind project, a planned $700 million development that would cover 26 square miles off Cape Cod. That wind farm, with General Electric turbines up to 40 stories tall, would surpass Denmark’s Horns Reef as the world’s largest.

The proposal has split the environmental community, drawing opposition from such powerful environmental allies as Robert Kennedy, Jr. “I”m a strong advocate of wind farms on the oceans and high seas,” says Kennedy. “But there are appropriate places for everything. We wouldn’t put one of these in Yosemite, and I think environmentalists are falling into a trap if they think the only wilderness areas worth preserving are in the Rocky Mountains or American West. The most important are the ones close to our cities, where the public has access to them. And Nantucket Sound is a wilderness, which people need to experience. I always get nervous when people talk about privatizing the commons. In this case, the benefits of the power extracted from Nantucket Sound are far outweighed by the other values that our communities derive from it.”

Writer Bill McKibben, however, argues in Orion that the criticisms amount to “small truths.” The bigger point is that Nantucket’s air contains 370 parts of carbon dioxide, up from 275 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution. “And if we keep burning coal and gas and oil, the scientific consensus is that by the latter part of the century the planet’s temperature will have risen five degrees Fahrenheit to a level higher than we’ve seen for 50 million years.” The choice, he writes, “is not between windmills and untouched nature, it’s between windmills and the destruction of the planet’s biology on a scale we can barely begin to imagine.”

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