Week of 4/27/2008

Dear EarthTalk: How is wind power faring in the U.S. now? Is more of it coming on line and becoming a larger percent of the grid? And what about some of the highly publicized efforts to build wind farms, such as in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Has that been approved?

—Paul Howe, San Francisco, CA

Clean and green wind energy is the new darling of alternative energy developers, and the U.S. industry has been surging the past three years, especially as developers take advantage of government incentives—in the form of the so-called Production Tax Credit (PTC)—for erecting turbines and connecting them to the grid.

The non-profit American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports that, in 2007 alone, total U.S. wind power capacity grew by a new record of 45 percent, injecting some $9 billion into the economy. These new installations provide enough electricity to power 1.5 million typical American homes while strengthening the nation’s energy supply with clean, homegrown electricity.

According to AWEA, utility-grade wind power installations are now in operation across 34 U.S. states, generating more than 16,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity cumulatively—enough to power upwards of 4.5 million homes and to generate 45,000 new domestic jobs. But even with this growth, wind energy still accounts for just one percent of U.S. electricity supply. Continued growth apace with that of recent years, though, should make it a major player in the American energy scene within a decade. President Bush himself recently suggested that wind has the potential to supply up to 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

If coal or natural gas were to be substituted to generate the electricity we now get from wind, it would put 28 million additional tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.© Getty Images

Of course, the volatility of oil prices has helped wind energy gain its foothold. Once a wind farm is built, the fuel cost is essentially zero (as long as the wind blows), whereas fluctuating fossil fuel prices have made traditional power sources more costly and risky. Upping our reliance on wind power has also allowed us to lower our overall carbon footprint. If coal or natural gas were to be substituted to generate the electricity we now get from wind, it would put 28 million additional tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Wind power also saves water by not requiring the billions of gallons of water used to cool coal-fired power plants, an increasingly contentious issue in arid areas with limited access to fresh water.

As for the contentious Cape Wind project proposed for Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts, the federal agency in charge, the U.S. Minerals Management Service, is sifting through tens of thousands of public comments and expects to make a final decision on the project by next winter. But even if they give it the green light, extensive permitting demands and legal challenges will likely hold up construction for years.

AWEA thinks that 2008 can be as much of a growth year as 2007 if Congress extends the PTC program. The Senate has already approved extending the PTC for at least one more year, but the House has yet to bring it up for a vote. Meanwhile, wind energy proponents are pacing the halls of Congress trying to persuade their Representatives that what’s good for the wind industry is good for America.

CONTACTS: American Wind Energy Association; Cape Wind; U.S. Minerals Management Service

Dear EarthTalk: I am getting married this summer and was wondering if you have any tips on how to make the festivities greener?

—Tara McCarthy, Los Angeles, CA

Just about every aspect of a wedding is an opportunity to minimize waste and environmental impact.© Getty Images

You know environmental consciousness has really taken hold when couples start to worry about whether their weddings will be green enough. But more and more people who care deeply about the planet view getting married as a chance to show off their values; so green nuptials make all the sense in the world.

To help remove the guesswork, many couples turn to wedding planners well versed in environmental issues. According to Idaho-based Angel Wedding Planners, every element of the wedding planning process can provide an opportunity to make choices that minimize waste and environmental impact. One of the easiest places to do right by the environment is in choosing invitations. Angel suggests going with tree-free or recycled paper, and also points out that a one piece folded design can save paper and envelopes.

In regard to feeding your hungry and thirsty guests, Angel recommends sourcing food and drink from local organic producers, if possible. Some caterers specialize in preparing and serving such items. Organic flowers (from local vendors or online via Organic Bouquet) are another way to make a green statement.

Another way to help ensure that your wedding is as green as can be is by avoiding disposable products wherever possible. Caterers should use real dishes, linens, cutlery and glassware, or rent them if necessary. Other areas where "green" decisions can make a difference include: wedding attire (consider a dress rental or buying a used one and then re-selling it); transportation (carpooling works for weddings, too, at least from the wedding to the reception); photography (those disposable cameras at every table are fun but they can be very wasteful); and wedding registries (there are numerous to be found through a Google search, or support a local green store).

Speaking of the Internet, many websites have sprung up in recent years to make the process of planning a green wedding easier. Valerie Edmunds, founder of Green Elegance Weddings, hopes her company can make an important environmental contribution by directing some of the $25,000 people typically spend on a wedding toward greener products and services. Her advertising-supported website provides page after page of free useful information about eco-friendly wedding apparel, invitations, gifts, flowers, food and beverages, even the honeymoon. The site’s Resource Directory contains links to a wealth of online information and to businesses and organizations that provide related earth-friendly products and services.

Those looking for even more virtual handholding might want to visit the website, OurWeddingDay.com, which provides dozens of free online tools (including an "RSVP Manager," Save-the-Date E-cards, a Gift Registry and an Event Manager) to help couples create the "ultimate green wedding from start to finish." The site also posts hundreds of articles from leading bridal magazines so brides can save paper by not having to go out and purchase any of the 135 or so foot-thick bridal magazines clogging the newsstands.

CONTACTS: Angel Wedding Planners; Organic Bouquet; Green Elegance Weddings; OurWeddingDay.com