Can Wind Power Get Up to Speed?

Can Wind Power Get Up to Speed?

Pop quiz: what source of power doesn’t come out of the ground,
doesn’t burn and isn’t radioactive? Hint: it contributed the most new
electricity generation to the U.S. grid in 2008.

The answer is wind power, the technology that has become synonymous
with going green. Companies that started out small, like Denmark’s
Vestas and India’s Suzlon Energy, have become multinational giants
selling steel and fiberglass wind turbines; even blue-chippers like
General Electric have identified wind power as a major revenue source
for the future, while the construction and installation of wind
turbines will employ workers here in the U.S. Investing in wind power,
said President Barack Obama at a turbine factory in Iowa on Earth Day,
“is a win-win. It’s good for the environment; it’s great for the

But for all the green talk and growth in wind power — it
accounted for 42% of all new electricity generation added to the U.S.
grid last year — wind still makes up less than 3% of America’s total
electricity generation. Even at current rates of growth, that figure
is unlikely to change soon. The question is, will wind ever produce
enough power to satisfy America’s energy needs

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Science says yes. A team led by Michael McElroy at
Harvard University assessed the global capacity for wind power —the total amount of sheer energy that’s being carried on the breeze
— and found that current technology could harness enough power to
supply more than 40 times the planet’s present-day levels of
electricity consumption. For the U.S., there’s enough wind
concentrated in the Midwest prairie states to supply as much as 16
times the current American demand for electricity. The energy is
there, on the breeze — it just needs to be tapped.

Wind power estimates have been made before, but the PNAS
team drilled down to greater detail. Using a simulation of global wind
fields from NASA’s Goddard Earth Observing System Data Assimilation
System — a network of complex computer systems used to simulate and
predict meteorology — McElroy and his colleagues could map the
distribution of wind resources around the globe, then calculate how
much electricity could be produced by tapping those breezes with
current turbines, which can generate around 2.5 megawatts on land, and
larger turbines that can generate 3.6 megawatts offshore.

The results show that there’s more than enough wind to go around,
and not just in breezy, big countries like the U.S. Even land-limited
Japan can produce more than three times its current electricity
consumption with wind power, provided it taps offshore wind. The
problem isn’t supply, but distribution: in the U.S. and elsewhere,
some of the richest wind resources tend to be far from the densely
populated coastal areas that need the most electricity. Another
problem is intermittency — even in Chicago, there are days when the
wind doesn’t below. But both those hurdles can be sidestepped by
building a more modern and super-charged electrical grid, one capable
of funneling wind-generated electricity from the middle of the country
to the coasts. A dense and more connected network can also compensate
for intermittency, with wind turbines in one part of the country
backing up those in another.

So build the turbines, and the electricity will come Not exactly.
For one thing, offshore turbines would likely be necessary in a
wind-centric energy future, but local communities in coastal areas
have fought against offshore, claiming the turbines spoil seaside
views. But the
greatest obstacle is economic. Though the price of power from wind has
dropped in recent years, it’s still more expensive than most
electricity from coal or natural gas. And while Obama the candidate
wanted renewables to reach 25% of the U.S. energy mix by 2025, we’re a
long way from that goal , and there’s growing doubt that even Obama’s
greener policies can bring us there. The cap and trade bill currently
circulating in Congress contains a weak renewable energy standard —just 20% of U.S. electricity will need to come from renewables by
2020, but that allows for nuclear power, and many utilities will be
allowed to escape the requirement altogether. “We’re off to a slow
start,” says Peter Duprey, the CEO of Acciona Energy North America,
which operates wind, solar and biofuel plants. “I’m disappointed with
how things have gone [under Obama].”

Duprey and many others in the renewable energy industry would
prefer a feed-in tariff, which requires utilities to buy alternative
electricity at above-market rates. Feed-in tariffs have already been
used with considerable success in European countries like Spain and
Germany, where renewable power has achieved greater penetration than
in the U.S. But there seems to be little chance of that happening in
Washington, in part because the nascent renewable energy industry
lacks lobbying might. “It’s hard out there for us,” says Duprey.
“We’re not as well organized as the coal or nuclear industry.”
Renewables like wind may have science on their side — but that may
not matter until they can make their voice heard in Washington.

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