One Word 'Wind'
AUSTIN, Texas -- Remember the guy in "The Graduate" who tells Dustin Hoffman, with heavy emphasis, "Plastics"? This column is sort of in the same vein. Psst, kids, there's money in wind. If I were a fresh graduate looking for something useful and profitable to do with my life, I'd sure take a close look at windpower.
The American Wind Energy Association recently met in Austin, and danged if there aren't over 500 businesses involved, and vendors with high-tech booths and all that good trade show stuff. As they say on Wall Street, there's been "solid growth" in the wind biz. Naturally, the United States is lagging behind Denmark, et al, but even so, this thing is ginnin'. This will be huge.
According to the Wind Energy Association, they expect the industry to grow by 25 percent in 2003, moving from the current production of 4,700 megawatts to 6,000 megawatts (enough to serve 1,500,000 homes).
The industry is still small enough and new enough so you can sit around and drink coffee with already-legendary founders and pioneers such as Dan Juhl, who has a windfarm in Minnesota. As with the computer industry at its inception, you can almost see this one moving gradually from dreamers and tinkerers in garages to big business. Still not many suits around, and there's lots of shared excitement and enthusiasm and the sense of being "present at the creation."
There are lots of amazing potential side effects -- saving the family farm, for one. Representatives from Willie Nelson's FarmAid were at the convention, along with a guy from the American Corn Growers Foundation and others who see the opportunities in "wind farming." The best venues for mass-scale wind power are the Dakotas, the Upper Midwest, generally, Kansas and Texas. Texas, of course, will be the Saudi Arabia of wind, so don't get your hopes up that this will finally put the Great State out of the energy business.
Wind power makes so much sense that no one really needs to make the case for it. It's at competitive prices now, and it beats the tar out of nuclear power plants and scraping the top off every mountain in West Virginia. Just put a windmill on top of the mountain instead. The only known drawback to this is that one of the early wind farms in California, near Palm Springs, was built in a bird flyway. Killed a lot of birds. Since bird flyways can be mapped, no one needs to make that mistake again. Otherwise, we're looking at completely clean energy, infinitely renewable, and it can only get cheaper.
Wind power can be done at almost any level: The big windmills like the ones in the huge wind farm being built offshore from Denmark, require an investment of $1 million each. But there are also people in the business selling small mills, enough to power one house or farm, for about $40,000.
Windpower needs what every other energy source in this country has received -- a boost from the government. When did nuclear, oil, gas and coal not get tax credits, depreciation allowances, subsidies, special breaks and the full range of corporate welfare? There's a House bill pending that would give a 15 percent tax credit up to $2,000 on a small mill.
A more ambitious effort called Project Apollo, a 10-year, $300-billion research plan to promote energy efficiency and reduce dependence on foreign oil has just been endorsed by 10 major labor unions, including steel and auto workers. And why are the big unions suddenly green? Because cheaper energy will preserve American manufacturing jobs, which are now hemorrhaging to the Third World.
"We believe this plan can create good manufacturing jobs, good construction jobs, can improve public infrastucture, can be good for the environment and can reduce our dependence on foreign oil," said Leo Gerard, president of United Steelworkers, at a news conference last week.
Politically, of course, the problem is we have an administration largely populated by oil and gas people with a vested interest in keeping out renewables, and a Congress that responds only to big money donations. And there ain't no bigger money than oil and gas money. The countervailing forces are the common sense of the American people and the competitive advantage that will go to nations with cheap, renewable energy. If Denmark suddenly becomes an economic powerhouse, you'll know why.
As long as we're on the environment, the Pew Oceans Commission Report released last week is grim indeed: The oceans are being fished out at an appalling rate. Many countries subsidize their fishing fleets, and the result is a disastrous level of overfishing. I know the Bush Administration doesn't like multilateral treaties, but this is a perfect example of why it's wise to keep your relations with other countries in good working order -- rather than punishing old allies for failing to encourage you in a war to stop weapons of mass destruction that can't even be found.