In 1991, a national wind resource inventory taken by the U.S. Department ofEnergy startled the world when it reported that the three most wind-richstates--North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas--had enough harnessable wind energyto satisfy national electricity needs. Now a new study by a team ofengineers at Stanford reports that the wind energy potential is actuallysubstantially greater than that estimated in 1991.
Advances in wind turbine design since 1991 allow turbines to operate atlower wind speeds, to harness more of the wind's energy, and to harvest itat greater heights--dramatically expanding the harnessable wind resource.Add to this the recent bullish assessments of offshore wind potential, andthe enormity of the wind resource becomes apparent. Wind power can meet notonly all U.S. electricity needs, but all U.S. energy needs.
In a joint assessment of global wind resources called Wind Force 12, theEuropean Wind Energy Association and Greenpeace concluded that the world'swind-generating potential--assuming that only 10 percent of the earth's landarea would be available for development--is double the projected worldelectricity demand in 2020. A far larger share of the land area could beused for wind generation in sparsely populated, wind-rich regions, such asthe Great Plains of North America, northwest China, eastern Siberia, and thePatagonian region of Argentina. If the huge offshore potential is added tothis, it seems likely that wind power could satisfy not only worldelectricity needs but perhaps even total energy needs.
Over the last decade wind has been the world's fastest-growing energysource. Rising from 4,800 megawatts of generating capacity in 1995 to 31,100megawatts in 2002, it increased a staggering sixfold. Worldwide, windturbines now supply enough electricity to satisfy the residential needs of40 million Europeans.
Wind is popular because it is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widelydistributed, climate-benign, and clean--attributes that no other energysource can match. The cost of wind-generated electricity has dropped from38¢ a kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to roughly 4¢ a kilowatt-hour todayon prime wind sites. Some recently signed U.S. and U.K. long-term supplycontracts are providing electricity at 3¢ a kilowatt-hour. Wind Force 12projected that the average cost per kilowatt hour of wind-generatedelectricity will drop to 2.6¢ by 2010 and to 2.1¢ by 2020. U.S. energyconsultant Harry Braun says that if wind turbines are mass-produced onassembly lines like automobiles, the cost of wind-generated electricitycould drop to 1-2¢ per kilowatt hour.
Although wind-generated electricity is already cheap, its cost continues tofall. In contrast with oil, there is no OPEC to set prices for wind. And incontrast to natural gas prices, which are highly volatile and can double ina 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 feedingelectricity into the local grid. While a small handful of countries controlsthe world's oil, nearly all countries can tap wind energy.
Denmark leads the world in the share of its electricity from wind--20percent. In terms of sheer generating capacity, Germany leads with 12,000megawatts. By the end of 2003, it will have already surpassed its 2010 goalof 12,500 megawatts of generating capacity. For Germany, this rapid growthin wind power is central to reaching its goal of reducing carbon emissions40 percent by 2020.
Rapid worldwide growth is projected to continue as more countries turn towind. In addition to the early leaders--Denmark, Germany, Spain, and theUnited States--many other countries have ambitious plans, including theUnited Kingdom, France, Brazil, and China.
In densely populated Europe, the off-shore potential for developing wind isalso being exploited. Denmark is now building its second off-shore windfarm, this one with 160 megawatts of generating capacity. Germany has some12,000 megawatts of off-shore generating capacity under consideration.
Wind power is now a viable, robust, fast-growing industry. Cheap electricityfrom wind makes it economical to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen.Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the highly efficient fuel cells that willbe used widely in the future to power motor vehicles and to supplyelectricity, heating, and cooling for buildings. Hydrogen also offers a wayof storing wind energy and of transporting it efficiently by pipeline or inliquefied 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, evendoubling it annually for several years, if the need arose. If, for example,crop-shrinking heat waves raise food prices and generate public pressure toquickly reduce carbon emissions by replacing coal and oil with wind andhydrogen, it will be possible to do so. If the need arises to shift quicklyto hydrogen-fueled automobiles, this can be done by convertinggasoline-burning internal combustion engines to hydrogen with inexpensiveconversion kits.
For energy investors, growth in the future lies with wind and the hydrogenproduced with cheap wind-generated electricity. Solar cell sales are growingat over 30 percent a year and are likely to supply much of the electricityfor the 1.7 billion people who are still without electricity, most of themliving in developing country villages. But solar cells are still too costlyto 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 isa fading industry, not an exciting investment prospect. Nor is oilparticularly promising, since world production is not likely to expand farbeyond current levels. Production of natural gas, the cleanest and leastclimate-disruptive of the fossil fuels, is likely to continue expanding fora few more decades, fortuitously developing an infrastructure that can beadapted for hydrogen. Nuclear power generation is expected to peak soon,when the large number of aging plants that will be closing down will exceedthe small number of plants that are under construction.
The energy future belongs to wind. The world energy economy becameprogressively more global during the twentieth century as the world turnedto oil. It promises to reverse direction and become more local during thetwenty-first century as the world turns to wind, wind-generated hydrogen,and solar cells. Wind and wind-generated hydrogen will shape not only theenergy sector of the global economy but the global economy itself.
Written by: Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute
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