Wind: Embracing America's Fastest-Growing Form of Renewable Energy
Using the wind to produce electricity has, for many decades, been little more than a footnote to energy production in the U.S. Wind turbines were something one dreamed about building while flipping through the back pages of Popular Mechanics. Even a few years back, wind was considered a minor power source, despite success stories in several European countries. But that's all changed.
In 2007, 35 percent of all the new electricity generation installed in the U.S. -- over 5,200 megawatts (MW) -- was wind. Its growth is second only to natural gas. Then in September 2008, the U.S. surpassed Germany to lead the world in wind energy production. With rising oil costs, improvements in turbine technology and a more stable public energy policy, U.S. wind energy production has doubled in just two years. It now provides more than 20,000 MW of generating capacity, enough to serve 5.3 million homes or to power one million plug-in hybrid vehicles. As 2008 comes to a close, industry will likely have added 7,000 to 7, 500 more megawatts. And now that industry incentives have been extended with the recent passage of a new energy bill, wind power is on track to reach the 30,000-MW milestone sometime in 2009.
Power production aside, wind is one of the most environmentally friendly energy sources. Estimates by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) show that wind currently generates as much electricity as nearly 30 million tons of coal or 90 million barrels of oil. In 2008, wind displaced about 34 million tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking 5.8 million vehicles off the road. In 20 years, if we reach the industry goal of supplying 20 percent of our national energy from wind, it will be the equivalent of taking 140 million vehicles off the road. Unlike oil, wind will not pollute our waterways or contaminate our national wildlife refuges. Unlike coal, it doesn't release mercury into the air or leave permanent, ugly scars across the landscape. And unlike nuclear, there is no spent fuel to bury or protect from terrorist threats.
In addition to the obvious environmental benefits, there are other compelling arguments for promoting wind power. First, the resource is huge. "There's something like 600 gigawatts of wind that can be developed in the U.S.," says Jim Walker of Enxco, a company that develops wind farms in North America. That's about 60 percent of our current electricity consumption, according to the Energy Information Administration.
And the cost is already competitive with gas. Says Walker, "Wind energy can be developed for under 10 cents per kilowatt hour, about the same as gas." This assumes the continuation of production tax credits that contribute about two cents for each kilowatt-hour produced. Perhaps most impressive is that wind is one of the few energy sources that can be brought online quickly. Says Walker, "You can build a 400-million-dollar, 200-MW wind plant in nine months. And you know exactly what it's going to cost." You can't say that for a nuclear plant or even one of the newer coal plants that are designed to capture pollutants.
The build-out of wind has some important economic fringe benefits, too, including a lot of new jobs. The U.S. Department of Energy says that achieving the goal of drawing 20 percent of our national energy needs from wind by 2030 will create about 500,000 jobs in the U.S. and contribute more than $1.5 billion to local communities annually.
"If you take your old manufacturing plant that used to sell gears to automakers and convert it to sell gears to wind turbine makers, you're going to have major job growth," says Greg Wetstone, senior director of governmental and public affairs for AWEA.
Those stories are happening right now. Since the beginning of 2007, 42 new or expanded wind energy manufacturing factories were announced in the U.S. "I don't think you can point to this kind of growth anywhere else in the American economy," says Wetstone. "Wind turbines are inherently very large devices with 300-foot towers and 125-foot blades. It's incredibly difficult and expensive to transport them, so there's a natural advantage to manufacturing them domestically. And when you have a turbine manufacturer, you also need about 400 component suppliers."
Large-scale, land-based wind farms are not the only pieces of the wind energy puzzle. Although they currently make up the greater part of our generating capacity from wind, several other under-tapped resources will contribute to the mix. The potential for offshore wind, for example, is tremendous. Although offshore turbines are more costly to install, the best wind is found above the water. In fact, most of the country's category six and seven wind (seven is the top rating, equivalent to "superb") is located off the East Coast, West Coast and on the Great Lakes. Conveniently, this is where most of the country's population is, too. Other advantages to offshore wind are that the turbines are easier to transport by water than by land; there's no need for overland high-voltage lines; there are more suitable sites and fewer zoning and visual issues; and offshore wind is steadier than land wind, including during the day, when demand is greatest. Although the U.S. has no offshore wind installations yet, they are in the works. Bluewater Wind, for example, is working with four states in the Northeast to build offshore wind parks. Its Delaware project is expected to provide electricity for 100,000 homes. The turbines will be 11 miles offshore and difficult to see from the coastline, even on a clear day. Wind energy experts expect offshore wind to contribute about 50 of the 300 GWs of capacity the industry aims to install by 2030.
Community -- or midsized -- wind is also likely to be a significant contributor. This is wind power for smaller investors, such as farmers, ranchers, consumer-owned utilities, school districts and colleges (see sidebar, "Building Wind Communities"). The beauty of community wind, in addition to being able to take advantage of smaller sites, is that it contributes to a less centralized -- and a more secure -- model for our energy needs.
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And small wind will play an important role in a new energy picture. Defined as wind produced by turbines that are rated at 100 kW or less, most are owned by individuals -- homeowners, farmers and business owners. Small wind currently contributes 55 to 60 MW of capacity in the U.S. Although that's a small fraction of what's coming online from utility-scale projects, small wind is an attractive option for anyone who wants to fix their energy costs.
"Think of it as prepaying for your electrical costs for 25 or 30 years," says Ron Stimmel, AWEA's small-wind advocate.
A brand-new credit for small wind, similar to the one that's been in place for solar energy, was enacted with the recent energy bill. It gives homeowners back 30 percent of the total system cost, up to $4,000. The small-wind turbine market grew by 14 percent in 2007. Projections for the next couple of decades vary widely. Stimmel says it's likely to be north of one GW…and even as high as 10.
Getting More Out of Wind
"When we first started to think about [the 20 percent by 2030] target in 2006," says Walker, "people thought it was a pretty ambitious goal. It's now seen almost as a base case or even a floor because it excluded the whole transportation sector as a market. When we add electric vehicles to the mix, then it may still be 20 percent of our electricity capacity, but the market is going to be a lot bigger."
That's because wind, in addition to displacing fossil fuels used in the electric power sector, can also be used to charge electric hybrid vehicles and displace the use of gasoline in the transportation sector. By charging cars at night, when much of the wind energy is produced, we'll be turning our car batteries into a national electricity storage bank. And that will free up natural gas, which, as oilman-turned-wind-advocate T. Boone Pickens says, would be better used to power larger vehicles, like trucks.
It's also feasible that wind power can displace the use of oil in heating and cooling systems. Heat pumps, including the ones used in geothermal systems, require lots of electricity. Continued progress toward the wind industry's goal, of course, depends on consistent policy making in Washington. Walker says that production tax credits (PTCs) are essential. "It's a boom or bust industry," he says. "When the PTCs are in place, you've got a two-billion-dollar industry. When they expire, you've got a half-billion-dollar industry. Turn it on again and you're back to two billion. Leave it on for three years and it's a 20-billion-dollar industry." (See sidebar, "The Big Push.")
We also need a stronger transmission system. Electricity, whatever its source, is delivered over high-voltage transmission lines. "There's no question that the main constraint that might prevent wind from getting to 20 percent would be if we don't have the vision to expand our interstate power grid -- which at the moment has been more or less neglected, like our bridges and other aspects of our infrastructure," says Walker.
Wind power, despite its enormous potential, does face some obstacles. One is a product of its own success. The rising demand for wind turbines has driven their cost to twice what it was a couple of years ago. Increases in materials as well as the decline in the value of the dollar are contributing factors. With much of the equipment imported from Europe, the unfavorable dollar-to-euro exchange rate has hurt would-be purchasers.
Harley Lee, president of Endless Energy and wind power developer, says, "What's interesting is that the cost for wind turbines was dropping 3-5 percent like clockwork for many years. Since around 2001, however, it has turned around and we've lost those years of cost declines. Now it has gone up quite a bit so our project costs have also gone up. It's gone from one million dollars per MW to two million per MW."
Fortunately, more and more equipment is being manufactured in the U.S. Where 70 percent of wind power equipment used to come from Europe just a few years ago, it's down to about 50 percent today, says Walker. And several new domestic turbine factories are in the works. Local opposition is one of wind's biggest hurdles. Mostly, this involves visual and noise concerns. Lee, who has been trying to get approvals for a wind project in Redington, Maine, for many years, recently saw his 90 MW project denied. Several hiking associations and the National Park Service felt that hikers would not enjoy looking at the 30 turbines planned for the site, even though they would be built miles away from the trails.
"Now we're trying to figure out a way to turn the situation around," he says. "We had nine-to-one public support, we had two Department of Environmental Protection permits, we had local user approvals. But since that project was denied there is a new law for making permitting more predictable, so we'll give that a test," says Lee.
Noise (or "sound" as the industry prefers to call it) is less of an issue, unless one lives very close to a turbine. But some say the audible hum may be the least problem. Wind Turbine Syndrome has people complaining of headaches and nosebleeds from the low-frequency sound that you can't hear. In some cases, it has forced people to move from their homes. Thus far the evidence is inconclusive, but setbacks -- the distance between residences and turbines -- have been extended in some countries. In a pre-release draft of her book Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment (K-Selected Books), Dr. Nina Pierpont documents dozens of cases that involve people living in close proximity to large (1.5 to 3 MW) industrial wind turbines. Their symptoms include migraines, motion sickness, vertigo, anxiety, sensitivity to noise and visual and gastrointestinal sensitivity.
Christine Real de Azua, assistant director of communications for AWEA, says that the industry is awaiting the publication of the book, peer reviews and further research. For now, however, she says, "There is no reliable scientific evidence that infra- and low-frequency sounds have adverse effects on people and the body." Walker concurs and says it has not been an issue with any of Enxco's projects.
Wind is not without its environmental issues, either. Bird deaths were a big concern early on with fast-turning turbines and the lattice-style towers that were attractive nesting places. New tubular tower designs and slower-turning blades are mitigating the problem. The newest turbines, including those with vertical-blade designs, run at only 12 revolutions per minute, which make them easier for birds to see and avoid. Turbines kill bats in large numbers, too, though not for the same reason. Bats, already in decline in many regions, play crucial roles with insect control, pollination and seed dispersement. Studies show that most of the bat deaths occur because bats' lungs expand dramatically when they fly into low-pressure areas caused by turbine blades. Then the capillaries around the lungs burst, filling the lung sac with blood. Collisions with the blades are less of a concern with bats, thanks to their advanced natural sonar.
The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, an alliance of government, industry and conservation groups, is studying the problem and will be testing methods to alleviate it. One possibility is "curtailment." Because most bat fatalities occur on low-wind nights, the idea would be to shut down turbines during these periods. Loss of electricity production would be minimal. Eventually researchers hope to come up with ways to keep bats from flying too close to the blades.
Where the Wind Blows
With wind power looking as promising as it does, why doesn't the U.S. ramp up its support of the industry and use its financial resources to back a proven winner? After all, most forms of energy are familiar technologies at this point, be they nuclear, coal, gas or solar. Put some good heads together, choose the energy sources with the best potential, and invest accordingly. Walker cautions, however, that it's a question of balance -- something between the silver bullet and silver buckshot approach. "It's always a question as to how big a role you want government to play in the selection of technologies," he says, "versus letting the market do it."
He continues, "Wind power reduces greenhouse gases because there are no emissions; you're not using water; and you're conserving resources that can be used elsewhere. This is not necessarily captured in a competition for a power contract with somebody who is proposing a gas plant or a coal plant."
Ultimately, he says, the market brings surprises, most of them positive. And wind power production is poised for expansion. "One of the important parts of public policy is to make the fine distinctions between being too specific and too broad by supporting everything," says Walker. "At the very least, support the proven winners and give them broad policy support."