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Published on Wednesday, June 25, 2003 by the Earth Policy Institute

Wind Power Set to Become World's Leading Energy Source

by Lester R. Brown

In 1991, a national wind resource inventory taken by the U.S. Department of Energy startled the world when it reported that the three most wind-rich states - North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas - had enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs. Now a new study by a team of engineers at Stanford reports that the wind energy potential is actually substantially greater than that estimated in 1991.

Advances in wind turbine design since 1991 allow turbines to operate at lower wind speeds, to harness more of the wind's energy, and to harvest it at greater heights -- dramatically expanding the harnessable wind resource. Add to this the recent bullish assessments of offshore wind potential, and the enormity of the wind resource becomes apparent. Wind power can meet not only all U.S. electricity needs, but all U.S. energy needs.

In a joint assessment of global wind resources called Wind Force 12, the European Wind Energy Association and Greenpeace concluded that the world's wind-generating potential -- assuming that only 10 percent of the earth's land area would be available for development -- is double the projected world electricity demand in 2020. A far larger share of the land area could be used for wind generation in sparsely populated, wind-rich regions, such as the Great Plains of North America, northwest China, eastern Siberia, and the Patagonian region of Argentina. If the huge offshore potential is added to this, it seems likely that wind power could satisfy not only world electricity needs but perhaps even total energy needs.

Over the last decade wind has been the world's fastest-growing energy source. Rising from 4,800 megawatts of generating capacity in 1995 to 31,100 megawatts in 2002, it increased a staggering sixfold. Worldwide, wind turbines now supply enough electricity to satisfy the residential needs of 40 million Europeans.

Wind is popular because it is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely distributed, climate-benign, and clean -- attributes that no other energy source can match. The cost of wind-generated electricity has dropped from 38¢ a kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to roughly 4¢ a kilowatt-hour today on prime wind sites. Some recently signed U.S. and U.K. long-term supply contracts are providing electricity at 3¢ a kilowatt-hour. Wind Force 12 projected that the average cost per kilowatt hour of wind-generated electricity will drop to 2.6¢ by 2010 and to 2.1¢ by 2020. U.S. energy consultant Harry Braun says that if wind turbines are mass-produced on assembly lines like automobiles, the cost of wind-generated electricity could drop to 1-2¢ per kilowatt hour.

Although wind-generated electricity is already cheap, its cost continues to fall. In contrast with oil, there is no OPEC to set prices for wind. And in contrast to natural gas prices, which are highly volatile and can double in a matter of months, wind prices are declining.

Another great appeal of wind is its wide distribution. In the United States, for example, some 28 states now have utility-scale wind farms feeding electricity into the local grid. While a small handful of countries controls the world's oil, nearly all countries can tap wind energy.

Denmark leads the world in the share of its electricity from wind -- 20 percent. In terms of sheer generating capacity, Germany leads with 12,000 megawatts. By the end of 2003, it will have already surpassed its 2010 goal of 12,500 megawatts of generating capacity. For Germany, this rapid growth in wind power is central to reaching its goal of reducing carbon emissions 40 percent by 2020.

Rapid worldwide growth is projected to continue as more countries turn to wind. In addition to the early leaders -- Denmark, Germany, Spain, and the United States -- many other countries have ambitious plans, including the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, and China.

In densely populated Europe, the off-shore potential for developing wind is also being exploited. Denmark is now building its second off-shore wind farm, this one with 160 megawatts of generating capacity. Germany has some 12,000 megawatts of off-shore generating capacity under consideration.

Wind power is now a viable, robust, fast-growing industry. Cheap electricity from wind makes it economical to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen. Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the highly efficient fuel cells that will be used widely in the future to power motor vehicles and to supply electricity, heating, and cooling for buildings. Hydrogen also offers a way of storing wind energy and of transporting it efficiently by pipeline or in liquefied form by ship.

With the wind industry's engineering know-how and manufacturing experience, it would be relatively easy to scale up the size of the industry, even doubling it annually for several years, if the need arose. If, for example, crop-shrinking heat waves raise food prices and generate public pressure to quickly reduce carbon emissions by replacing coal and oil with wind and hydrogen, it will be possible to do so. If the need arises to shift quickly to hydrogen-fueled automobiles, this can be done by converting gasoline-burning internal combustion engines to hydrogen with inexpensive conversion kits.

For energy investors, growth in the future lies with wind and the hydrogen produced with cheap wind-generated electricity. Solar cell sales are growing at over 30 percent a year and are likely to supply much of the electricity for the 1.7 billion people who are still without electricity, most of them living in developing country villages. But solar cells are still too costly to supply the vast amounts of energy required to power a modern economy.

World coal burning peaked in 1996 and has fallen 2 percent since then. It is a fading industry, not an exciting investment prospect. Nor is oil particularly promising, since world production is not likely to expand far beyond current levels. Production of natural gas, the cleanest and least climate-disruptive of the fossil fuels, is likely to continue expanding for a few more decades, fortuitously developing an infrastructure that can be adapted for hydrogen. Nuclear power generation is expected to peak soon, when the large number of aging plants that will be closing down will exceed the small number of plants that are under construction.

The energy future belongs to wind. The world energy economy became progressively more global during the twentieth century as the world turned to oil. It promises to reverse direction and become more local during the twenty-first century as the world turns to wind, wind-generated hydrogen, and solar cells. Wind and wind-generated hydrogen will shape not only the energy sector of the global economy but the global economy itself.

Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute

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Okay, I didn't read it all but wind energy is a great idea and I'm glad to see that it can create enough power. I've heard it being nay-sayed so many times.
 

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Neat
! I passed by a couple of (modern) windmills last weekend and thought 'this is the future, those people who say that windmills 'disrupt the landscape' are just being silly'.
 

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You know , there's a number of lazy readers here

sorry if someone mentioned that already but I just skimmed over things ;-)
 

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I watched a report on the world's biggest wind mill a few weeks ago, and that thing is huuuuuge. A country probably only needs a couple of these giants to cover all energy needs, let them be ugly, so what? Do power plants blend easier into the environment?!?
 

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As far as wind power goes, I'm really into it as an opposition to oil. But I've heard about how it kills birds a lot, and can butcher whole migrating flocks. Now, I'm not sure how serious the effects are, but it's just something to consider. I bet wind power is still a lot cleaner than oil, though. Still, I think people are going about it the wrong way. I myself am a huge energy conservation and reduction fanatic, but it's just idealism, and will probably never really happen.
 

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There's a company looking to line up a site of Windmills in Vermont along the Green Mountains and there is some opposition from the right side of things mostly saying that they'd ugly things up. Personally, it's a beautiful thing when you think of the alternatives!

Wind!
 

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Wind is part of the solution, one that I would like to see pushed more, but it's not the cure all the article would suggest.

Someone mentioned the biggest turbine: currently the giants are in the 2 MW range; there might be a few experimental units out there that double that, but 2 MW is generally what I see for commercial use. These are giants. 60 meters to the rotor, blades 60 m in diameter, for a total of 90 meters (295 ft) high. Imagine a 25 story building with moving parts and you get the idea. You won't generally see this around since they're mainly located in offshore farms where the wind is consistent and strong. This is for a 2MW unit. By comparison the smallish nuke station I'm sitting at right now is 500 MW. You're going to need 250 of the offshore giants to equal the production of this nuke plant. The coal plant I was working on the last year was 1500 MW. I'm not saying it's not worth it, but they're going to have to construct a hell of a lot of turbines to start making a dent in the American energy market.

Another issue is that they're not a consistent source. Sometimes the wind just don't blow. Worse than that is that their production goes down in the summer due to a reduction in air density. Summer is the peak time for consumption in America due to air conditioning. The 2 MW rating I was mentioning was max, not average. (That's why the big units are on the ocean.)

Another issue is that you have to hook them all up the grid. If you're going to utilize 10% of the nation's land, you're going to end up stringing up a whole lot of high voltage power lines. After a while our country is looking like an Orwell novel.

Another issue is it's hard to locate them near population centers. Okay, they look kind of cool when you drive past them, but do you really want one in your neighborhood? Why not, everyone like constant white noise and it's so cool at sunset when the whole house goes into strobe setting because you're catching the blade's shadows. There have been lawsuits in Germany over this. Keep in mind, the giants are 300+ feet tall; they cast big shadows.

Anyway, that's all I can think of now. Like I said, I like wind and it should be pushed more, but it's not the total solution. Idealistic or not, conservation is crucial.

If anyone is interested, here is what I consider to the definitive website on wind power. Keep in mind, they are trying to sell turbines so they have no agenda in attacking wind power, but they are realistic.

http://www.windpower.org/en/core.htm
 

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Hello,

I've heard that windenergy is not so animal friendly. Don't know how to say in english, but the 'wings' of the mills can kill birds who are passing by.

I think solarenergy is much better. If they optimize the technic to get more power from it, then they can place it on every building and house.

Also I think we need to watch to our consuming. In the US and european countries the energy consumption is the highest.
 

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The issue of birds and windturbines is not so dramatic as it seems.

The cato-institute (this is a right wing thinktank sponsored by the oil industry) calculated that IF the entire elektricity production of the US was done with windturbines this would annually kill 2 million birds. Considering the source, you can easily assume this is an upper limit. Sounds very dramatic until you hear that annually 80 million birds are killed by flying against high rise buildings. Not to speek of hunting, cars, cats etc.

The issue of birds and windturbines has been investigated in numerous studies and they all agree that the number of birds killed by windturbines are dwarved by the number of bird killed by other human activities. The behaviour of birds have been investigated and they are not that stupid. With nice weather they fly in between the windturbines and in bad weather they avoid the windparks all together.

Furthermore, let's not forget the bird kill by conventional power stations. Mercury and fine dust outputs of coal powerplants also kill many birds and other animals. Not so visibly, not so directly, but nevertheless, I would like to see that investigated!

About the variability of wind:

1) Nobody wants to switch to 100% windenergy from one day to the other.

2) What people forget is that conventional powerplants are also not completly reliable. Coal plants, for example, have a productionfactor of about 70%. Windturbines between 20 and 35% (depending on siting and choice of design).This means that the productionsystem is built to deal with unexpected outages of powerplants (ok maybe not in california ;-) ). Experts agree that 20% of the Electricty production can be done with windenergy, with the same reliability as now and only small extra investments in back-up capacity.

On the middle long term much can be achieved by long distance connections connecting hydroplants and windpark, and using the spatially spread windsupply.

On the long term the bet is on the hydrogen economy, in which Bush is investing heavily at the moment (for all the wrong reasons, but who f***ing cares, as long as the technology is developed).

By the way, coal and nuclear powerplants have a similar problem, they have only two modes: on or off. So variations in demand have to be met with gas powerplants and hydroplants, the only ones that can react quikly on power demands

About windturibine size

At the moment the nominal power of the most commonly used on land windturbines is 1.5 MW. But there is a clear trend towards 2 MW. Windturbines with nominal powers up to 4 MW are already in series production. Recently two 5 MW prototypes have been build in Germany. 6 MW turbines are under devlopment. Developments go very quickly. Less than ten years ago the maximum nominal power of windturbines was 500 kW (=0.5 MW).
 

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Nice article! I think the bird kill problem can be addressed by clever placement of the windmills (i.e., just on the leeside of hills seems to help a lot) and by making them very high. There was an interesting article on SFGate about this recently.

I personally think that solar energy is even more elegant, because it involves no moving parts and converts sunlight directly into electricity. But clearly the best solution is a combination of the two, especially in areas where the winter is windy. Another solution that works in many places is micro-hydro systems, which don't involve large destructive dams and can really help when sunshine is limited in wet winters.

If only the political powers would support these nonpolluting energy sources more actively!
 

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@ hans bos

You hill side suggestion does not seem very useful, why would birds prefer one side of a hill to the other. And a lot of countries don't have hills to start with. However, in general you are right, carefull sigthing can reduce bird and bat kill. The effect of windturbines on birds is dependent on bird species, migration routes etc. For larger windparks in the Netherlands it is almost standard practice to make an assessment on the effect of birds before builcing. Sometimes effects can be minimised by moving a windpark a few miles.

However much I care for animals, I think the problems that are (partially) solved by windenergy are much more important than a relatively few birds.

Some more comment about solar. At the moment solar energy is still very expensive, wind energy on the other hand is at the brink of being compettitve with dirty energy. I don't think we can afford to wait.
 

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There's a big wind farm off the coast of where I live that's producing loads of energy. It's out in the shallow coastal 'flats' away from bird life. It's been such a success that they're expanding it. My house is now powered by wind power as are most of the houses along the coast
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
I think we should also tie everyone's stairmasters and other exercise equipment at home to the grid, so they can generate their own household electricity.
 

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This is cool. In Texas, since they deregulated the power industry and you can choose who provides your electricity, there is a company called Green Mountain Energy that offers 100% wind and water generated electricity. Recently it lowered its rates to match that of the traditional coal and oil power company in Dallas-Fort Worth. If only more people knew about it/cared!
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by CarbLover View Post

This is cool. In Texas, since they deregulated the power industry and you can choose who provides your electricity, there is a company called Green Mountain Energy that offers 100% wind and water generated electricity. Recently it lowered its rates to match that of the traditional coal and oil power company in Dallas-Fort Worth. If only more people knew about it/cared!
sounds nice

Wind Power is subsidized, it's difficult to say something can be a widespread success if it exists because of subsidies now. The lead article on the this thread is biased, a lot of renewables have problems

is your power vegan?

Wind Power = kills bats and birds, white noise

Tidal Power = coastal birds depend on tides for food, kills birds

Hydroelectric = kills riverlife, alters river temperature

so far I see more potential in:

Geothermal (limited availability)

Solar (limited availability, best used in rural areas)

Nuclear (best way to make hydrogen too)

Gassified coal

Biofuels
 
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