"Plan B is shaped by what is needed to save civilization, not by what may currently be considered politically feasible." –Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization
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 and 180,000 megawatts in 2020. By 2020, just 16 years from now, wind-generated electricity is projected to satisfy the residential needs 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 to 39,000 megawatts in 2003, an increase of nearly eight fold. Among fossil fuels, natural gas leads with an annual growth rate of just over 2 percent during the same period, followed by oil at less than 2 percent, and coal at less than 1 percent. Nuclear generating capacity expanded by 2 percent.
The modern wind-generating industry was born in California during the early 1980s, but the United States, which now has 6,300 megawatts of generating capacity, has fallen behind Europe in adopting this promising new technology. Germany overtook the United States in 1997; within Europe, it leads the way with 14,600 megawatts of generating capacity. Spain, a rising wind power in southern Europe, may overtake the United States in 2004. Tiny Denmark, which led Europe into the wind era with the development of its own wind resources, now gets an impressive 20 percent of its electricity from wind. It is also the world's leading manufacturer and exporter of wind turbines. (See data).
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 Europe moves more aggressively to develop its vast offshore resources, wind could be supplying all of the region's residential electricity by 2020.
The United Kingdom is moving fast to develop its offshore wind capacity. In April 2001, it accepted bids for sites designed to produce 1,500 megawatts of wind-generating capacity. In December 2003, the government took bids for 15 additional offshore sites with a generating capacity that could exceed 7,000 megawatts. Requiring an investment of over $12 billion, these wind farms off the east and northwest coasts of England, the north coast of Wales, and in the shallow waters of the Thames estuary could satisfy the residential 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 August 2003 that scorched crops and claimed 35,000 lives has accelerated the replacement of climate-disrupting coal with clean energy sources.
Wind is appealing for several reasons. It is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely distributed, clean, and climate-benign, a set of attributes that no other energy source can match. When the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released its first wind resource inventory in 1991, it pointed out that three wind-rich states—North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas—had enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs. Those who had thought of wind as a marginal source of energy obviously were surprised by this finding.
In retrospect, we now know that this was a gross underestimate of the potential of this renewable energy source, because it was based on the technologies of 1991. Advances in wind turbine design since then enable turbines to operate at lower wind speeds, to convert wind into electricity more efficiently, and to harness a much larger wind regime. In 1991, wind turbines may have averaged scarcely 40 meters in height. In 2004, new turbines are 100 meters tall with much longer blades that are designed to more efficiently capture 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 they have 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¢ per kilowatt-hour. EWEA projects that by 2020 many wind farms will be generating electricity at 2¢ per kilowatt-hour, making it cheaper 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 of both storing and efficiently transporting wind energy. At night when the demand for electricity drops, the hydrogen generators can be turned on to build up reserves. Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the fuel cell engines that automakers worldwide are working on and, if push comes to shove on the climate front, cars with gasoline-burning internal combustion engines can be converted to hydrogen.
Once in storage, hydrogen can be used to fuel power plants, much as natural gas is used. This hydrogen can be either a backup for wind 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 ongoing cost 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 for wind-generated electricity.
The United States is lagging in developing wind energy not because it cannot compete technologically with Europe in manufacturing wind turbines but because of a lack of leadership in Washington. The wind production tax credit of 1.5¢ per kilowatt-hour, which was 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 has disrupted 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 three countries—Denmark, Germany, and Spain. These happen to be the three countries that have had the strongest and most stable market incentives.
The United States—with its advanced technology and wealth of wind resources—should be a leader in this field, but unfortunately it continues to rely heavily on coal, a nineteenth century energy source, for much of its electricity at a time when European countries are replacing coal with wind. Europe is not only leading the world into the wind age, it is also leading the world into the post-fossil fuel age—the age of renewable energy and climate stabilization. By demonstrating the potential for harnessing the energy in wind, Europe is unveiling the new energy economy for the rest of the world.
Copyright © 2004 Earth Policy Institute