Wed, 13 Aug 2003

Wind energy could fuel future power needs

Lester R. Brown, President, Earth Policy Institute, The Daily Yomiuri, Asia News Network, Tokyo

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 of the United 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 University reports that the wind energy potential is actually substantially greater than that estimated in 1991.

Advances in wind turbine design since 1991 enable 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, wind power could satisfy not only the world's electricity needs, but perhaps even total energy needs.

Over the past 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 cents a kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to about 4 cents a kilowatt-hour today on prime wind sites. Some recently signed British and U.S. long-term supply contracts are providing electricity at 3 cents a kilowatt-hour.

Wind Force 12 projected that the average cost per kilowatt- hour of wind-generated electricity would drop to 2.6 cents by 2010 and to 2.1 cents 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 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Although wind-generated electricity already is cheap, its cost continues to fall. In contrast with oil, there is no Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries 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 U.S., for example, about 28 states now have utility-scale wind farms feeding electricity into the local grid. While a small handful of countries control 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. Germany leads with 12,000 megawatts. By the end of 2003, it already will have 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 by 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 U.S. -- many other countries have ambitious plans, including Britain, Brazil, China and France.

In dense Europe, the offshore potential for developing wind also is being exploited. Denmark is now building its second offshore wind farm, this one with 160 megawatts of generating capacity. Germany has about 12,000 megawatts of offshore generating capacity under consideration.

Wind power is now a viable, robust and 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 would 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, future growth lies with wind and the hydrogen produced with cheap wind-generated electricity. Solar cell sales are growing at more than 30 percent a year and likely will 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. 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, likely will 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 20th century as the world turned to oil. It promises to reverse direction and become more local during the 21st 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.