EUROPE LEADING WORLD
INTO AGE OF WIND ENERGY
Europe is leading the world into the age of wind energy. In its late 2003 projections, the European Wind Energy Association(EWEA) shows Europe's wind-generating capacity expanding from 28,400 megawatts in 2003 to 75,000 megawatts in 2010 and180,000 megawatts in 2020. By 2020, just 16 years from now, wind-generated electricity is projected to satisfy the residentialneeds of 195 million Europeans, half of the region's population.
Wind-generating capacity worldwide, growing at over 30 percent per year, has jumped from less than 5,000 megawatts in 1995 to39,000 megawatts in 2003, an increase of nearly eight fold. Among fossil fuels, natural gas leads with an annual growth rate of justover 2 percent during the same period, followed by oil at less than 2 percent, and coal at less than 1 percent. Nuclear generatingcapacity expanded by 2 percent.
The modern wind-generating industry was born in California during the early 1980s, but the United States, which now has 6,300megawatts of generating capacity, has fallen behind Europe in adopting this promising new technology. Germany overtook the UnitedStates in 1997; within Europe, it leads the way with 14,600 megawatts of generating capacity. Spain, a rising wind power in southernEurope, may overtake the United States in 2004. Tiny Denmark, which led Europe into the wind era with the development of itsown wind resources, now gets an impressive 20 percent of its electricity from wind. It is also the world's leading manufacturer andexporter of wind turbines.
After developing most of its existing 28,400 megawatts of capacity on land, Europe is now tapping offshore wind resources as well.A 2004 assessment of Europe's offshore potential by the Garrad Hassan wind energy consulting group concluded that if Europemoves more aggressively to develop its vast offshore resources, wind could be supplying all of the region's residential electricity by2020.
The United Kingdom is moving fast to develop its offshore wind capacity. In April 2001, it accepted bids for sites designed toproduce 1,500 megawatts of wind-generating capacity. In December 2003, the government took bids for 15 additional offshoresites with a generating capacity that could exceed 7,000 megawatts. Requiring an investment of over $12 billion, these wind farms offthe east and northwest coasts of England, the north coast of Wales, and in the shallow waters of the Thames estuary could satisfy theresidential electricity needs of 10 million of the country's 60 million people.
The push to develop wind in Europe is spurred in part by concerns about global warming. The record heat wave in Europe in August2003 that scorched crops and claimed 35,000 lives has accelerated the replacement of climate-disrupting coal with clean energysources.
Wind is appealing for several reasons. It is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely distributed, clean, and climate-benign, a set ofattributes that no other energy source can match. When the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released its first wind resourceinventory in 1991, it pointed out that three wind-rich states--North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas--had enough harnessable windenergy to satisfy national electricity needs. Those who had thought of wind as a marginal source of energy obviously were surprisedby this finding.
In retrospect, we now know that this was a gross underestimate of the potential of this renewable energy source, because it wasbased on the technologies of 1991. Advances in wind turbine design since then enable turbines to operate at lower wind speeds, toconvert wind into electricity more efficiently, and to harness a much larger wind regime. In 1991, wind turbines may have averagedscarcely 40 meters in height. In 2004, new turbines are 100 meters tall with much longer blades that are designed to more efficientlycapture the energy in wind, perhaps tripling the amount of harvestable wind. While the DOE could say in 1991 that North Dakota,Kansas, and Texas had enough harnessable wind energy to supply national electricity needs, we may now be able to say that theyhave enough harnessable wind energy to supply national energy needs.
When the wind industry first began to develop in California in the early 1980s, wind-generated electricity cost 38¢ per kilowatt-hour.Since then it has dropped to 4¢ or below in prime wind sites. And some long-term supply contracts have been signed for 3¢ perkilowatt-hour. EWEA projects that by 2020 many wind farms will be generating electricity at 2¢ per kilowatt-hour, making itcheaper than all other sources of electricity.
Once we get cheap electricity from wind, we have the option of electrolyzing water to produce hydrogen, which provides a way ofboth storing and efficiently transporting wind energy. At night when the demand for electricity drops, the hydrogen generators can beturned on to build up reserves. Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the fuel cell engines that automakers worldwide are working onand, if push comes to shove on the climate front, cars with gasoline-burning internal combustion engines can be converted tohydrogen.
Once in storage, hydrogen can be used to fuel power plants, much as natural gas is used. This hydrogen can be either a backup forwind power or an alternative to natural gas, especially if rising prices make gas prohibitively costly for electricity generation.
The principal cost for wind-generated electricity is the capital outlay for initial construction. Since wind is a free fuel, the only ongoingcost is for maintenance. Given the recent volatility of natural gas prices, the stability of wind power prices is particularly appealing.With the possibility of even higher costs of natural gas in the future, natural gas-fired plants may be used increasingly as a backup forwind-generated electricity.
The United States is lagging in developing wind energy not because it cannot compete technologically with Europe in manufacturingwind turbines but because of a lack of leadership in Washington. The wind production tax credit of 1.5¢ per kilowatt-hour, whichwas adopted in 1992 to establish parity with subsidies to fossil fuel, has been permitted to lapse three times in the last five years,most recently at the end of 2003 when Congress failed to pass a new energy bill. The uncertainty about when it will be renewed hasdisrupted planning throughout the wind power industry.
Europe's leadership has given it a major economic bonus: nine of the world's 10 leading wind turbine manufacturers are in threecountries--Denmark, Germany, and Spain. These happen to be the three countries that have had the strongest and most stablemarket incentives.
The United States--with its advanced technology and wealth of wind resources--should be a leader in this field, but unfortunately itcontinues to rely heavily on coal, a nineteenth century energy source, for much of its electricity at a time when European countries arereplacing coal with wind. Europe is not only leading the world into the wind age, it is also leading the world into the post-fossil fuelage-the age of renewable energy and climate stabilization. By demonstrating the potential for harnessing the energy in wind, Europe isunveiling the new energy economy for the rest of the world.
Written by: Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy
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