Global environmental challenges
Could wind push energy bill to fruition?
–Andris (Andy) E. Cukurs is chief executive officer of North American operations of India-based Suzlon Energy Ltd., the world’s third-largest wind turbine manufacturer. Any views expressed here are his own.–
The climate bill may have stalled and, with it, a renewable electricity standard that would promote wind and other renewable-energy sources. But at the same time, wind energy continues to make strong strides.
Just look at the commitment of large corporations, like Google, purchasing 20 years of wind-generated electricity in Iowa, ostensibly to operate its huge data centers. Or SC Johnson & Son, installing turbines at its Wisconsin headquarters and putting up a windmill at its largest European manufacturing plant – in addition to nearly half its Ziploc plant in Michigan powered with wind.
Is this how the use of wind and other renewables will play out in the States, with corporations leading the way?
Major electric utilities ramp up wind energy gradually alongside long-term incentives, but corporations like Google and SC Johnson are using wind turbines right where they’re needed. The company I work for, Suzlon, started this way in India – by bringing clean, reliable power to businesses that needed it.
What is preventing even broader growth of wind power in the U.S.?
Billions of dollars were spent building our wind capacity over the past decade, yet wind energy still generated just 1.25 percent of our electricity in 2008 (although that’s up from 0.4 percent just four years earlier).
The 1.25 percentage is a far cry from the 20 percent goal the U.S. Energy Department set for wind’s share of the U.S. electric supply by 2030. It also falls far below the Energy Information Agency’s projection in May 2009 that by 2012 – less than 18 months away – wind energy will generate 5 percent of electricity.
Much more recently, the U.S. added only 1239 megawatts of wind power installations in the first half of 2010, dropping such installations to the lowest level since 2007. Manufacturing investment in wind also continues to lag below levels in the 2008-2009 period.
As for the benefits of wind, they’re indisputable.
Wind promotes national security because it diversifies our energy portfolio. It also has the tremendous potential to create jobs — jobs that deliver clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy to promote economic vitality and environmental quality besides our national security.
Wind-power projects created 35,000 new jobs in 2008, estimates the American Wind Energy Association. And in one state, Illinois, each new wind-turbine project generates 1,473 new jobs during construction, a new Illinois State University study found.
As for clean energy, wind produces no emissions and no dangerous radioactive waste.
Wind-energy generation also doesn’t consume any non-renewable resources, such as oil, natural gas or coal.
Wind is free and with today’s technology advances, it can be captured efficiently, at about one-quarter the cost of solar power. Further, wind turbines come in a wide array of sizes. This means that a range of people and businesses can use them on a self-reliant basis – from single households and businesses to small towns and villages.
Besides, strong consumer support exists for wind.
A survey released in June 2010 by Applied Materials, a capital-equipment maker serving the solar industry among others found that three-quarters of Americans feel that increasing renewable energy and decreasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil are the nation’s top energy priorities.
As for wind alone, an April 2010 survey by AWEA found that 89 percent of respondents – 84 percent of Republicans, 93 percent of Democrats and 88 percent of Independents – believe increasing the amount of energy the nation gets from wind is a good idea.
Wind energy faces challenges, of course; all energy sources do. It’s true that wind can’t provide all of our nation’s energy supply, but that’s why the U.S. requires a portfolio of energy sources, especially of renewable forms. And it’s possible to generate a significant portion of energy from renewable sources.
Already, wind power supplies more than 20 percent of the energy consumed in Denmark and more than 11 percent in Spain and Portugal.
Many of the perceived disadvantages are just myths. Wind energy isn’t universally more expensive; it’s very competitive with fossil sources of generation.
While the upfront capital cost of wind energy is more expensive than some traditional power sources, such as natural gas, there are no fuel costs with wind. Further, in good locations, the cost of capital and other “levelized” costs are now very competitive with other energy sources, research studies show.
It’s a myth, too, that insurmountable transmission issues emerge trying to get wind energy from remote areas to customers elsewhere.
A recent Stanford University study found that about one-third of the electricity that wind farms generate will become a reliable source of around-the-clock power to customers in various U.S. regions through electricity grid interconnections.
Another myth concerns the dependability of wind – that it may not blow during periods of peak demand and it’s difficult to store. It’s true that wind turbines generate electricity 65 percent to 80 percent of the time, so the output amount is variable. But no power plant generates at its maximum 100 percent potential. Because of the electricity grid’s intelligent design, no need exists to back up every megawatt of wind energy with a megawatt of fossil fuel or dispatchable power. The reality is that while wind energy is naturally variable, it’s not unreliable. In addition, wind won’t supply all of our electricity anyway; that’s the reason wind should serve as one portion of a diversified energy portfolio.
Let’s discard several other untruths. Wind turbines are noisy. A Lawrence Technological University study found that it’s difficult to distinguish the sound of a turbine from the rustling of corn stalks.
Wind turbines kill birds. Yes, an estimated 28,500 a year – while buildings kills 550 million; power lines, 130 million; cats, 100 million; autos, 80 million; and pesticides, 67 million, estimates the U.S. Forest Service.
Wind projects require more concrete and steel than other power sources. Wind towers do need concrete and steel for their foundations, but simply consider the gargantuan amount of concrete and steel required for a nuclear plant or a hydroelectric power plant.
Add up the scorecard and it’s hard to question that the advantages of wind far outweigh the negatives. That’s why it’s disheartening to see such a dark political climate for renewable energy in general and wind specifically.
The U.S. needs a national renewable-electricity standard that would set a percentage, say 15 percent by 2020, of electricity generated for utilities that would have to come from wind and other renewable energy sources.
A growing number of major countries in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, as well as several states in the U.S. such as California and Texas, already have set ambitious standards. For the U.S., a national RES is essential to foster stable, long-term investment in wind energy.
Tom Friedman of the New York Times contends that if Congress doesn’t pass a serious energy bill, “we may not have another shot until … we get a “perfect storm” – a climate or energy crisis that is awful enough to finally end our debate on these issues but not so awful as to end the world.”
Will it take another crisis before we wake up to the clear value of wind energy? Let’s not find out. It’s time to re-energize the broader growth of wind energy in America.
Photo shows a state-of-the-art wind turbine at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) spins on a sunny day near Boulder, Colorado July 21, 2010. REUTERS/Rick Wilking