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|June 5-11, 2008
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Strange wind rising
by Paul Danish
Alternative energy advocates have been saying for the past couple of years that wind energy — long a niche player in the nation’s energy mix — is going mainstream. Now they have a federal study that proves it.
According to a new report put out by the Department of Energy (Annual Report on U.S. Wind Power Installation, Cost, and Performance Trends: 2007), wind energy contributed 35 percent of all new electrical generating capacity installed in the United States last year, or 5,329 megawatts. That’s roughly the equivalent of four or five new coal-fired power plants.
Moreover, the report also found that U.S. utilities have 225,000 megawatts of new wind-power generating capacity in various phases of planning or development, which is more than their planned expansion of coal, natural gas and nuclear energy combined.
To put these numbers in some context, total U.S. electrical generating capacity is currently about 1 million megawatts. The country adds about 15,000 megawatts of electrical generating capacity a year from all sources to keep up with growing demand and to replace old power plants at the end of their service lives. Many energy analysts think wind could eventually supply up to 20 percent of U.S. electricity.
Why the surge? Several reasons.
— The cost of generating electricity with wind is reasonably competitive with the cost of generating it from fossil fuel and nuclear sources.
— A wind-energy installation can be up and running in two or three years; building coal or nuclear power plants can take a decade or more.
— It spares utilities the brain-damage and delays that come with increasingly complex and hostile approval processes for conventional power plants — although that might be about to change.
— Wind gives utilities a quick way of meeting state-mandated requirements to generate a portion of their power from renewable resources. It also allows them to get out in front of climate-change legislation, which is apt to limit carbon emissions and penalize utilities that exceed the limits.
In short, just as the troop surge changed the realities of the Iraq war, the wind-energy surge is poised the change the realities of energy production in the United States.
Up to a point, that is.
Impressive as wind’s surge may be, there is still less to it than meets the eye.
The 225,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity is not the same thing as 225,000 megawatts of coal, nuclear or natural gas fired capacity. That’s because there aren’t very many places where the wind blows 24/7. In 2007, the nation’s wind turbines produced electricity at only 35 percent of their rated capacity. Over the course of a year, conventional power plants routinely produce electricity at 80 to 90 percent of their rated capacity.
Put another way, the 225,000 megawatts of wind-powered generating capacity will crank out only about a third as much electricity over the course of a year as 225,000 megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity.
Still, it would seem that wind energy is a real step forward to reducing the nation’s carbon footprint.
Except for all those grumpy environmentalists.
Producing 225,000 megawatts of wind-generated electric capacity will require installing 150,000 wind turbines, each of which is perched on top of 350-400 foot polls. Think of it as the equivalent of building 150,000 skyscrapers across the Great Plains and the desert southwest.
Environmentalists may have spent a generation arguing for the use of wind and solar energy, but if you think they’re OK with this, you’re dreaming.
Enviros in California are opposing plans for wind-turbine installations in Riverside County east of Los Angeles. The project would put 50 turbines on polls as high as 438 feet 4,000 feet up in the San Jacinto Mountains. In San Bernardino County they are opposing the power-lines that would bring the output of wind and solar installations in the desert to LA.
Solar power plants are stirring up even more opposition than wind installations as environmentalists begin to realize how much land they will require; a single 400-megawatt solar installation near the Mojave National Preserve would require about five square miles. And that’s just the beginning. The Bureau of Land Management has received applications for 66 solar projects on 810 square miles of land in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Last year, a lot of environmentalists who for a generation had been advocating the use of bio-fuels instead of gasoline and diesel, turned against ethanol production. Now they are also beginning to turn on wind and solar — just as they are poised to make a real contribution to the country’s energy needs.
I can’t think of a more certain way to destroy the credibility, legitimacy and influence of the American environmental movement than to continue on this course.
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