Using the wind to produce electricity has, for many decades, been little more than a footnote to energy production in the U.S. But, says the January/February 2009 issue of E – The Environmental Magazine (now posted at: www.emagazine.com), that’s all begin

In 2007, 35 percent of all the new electricity generation installed in the U.S. – over 5,200 megawatts (MW) – was wind. Its growth is second only to natural gas. Then in September 2008, the U.S. surpassed Germany to lead the world in wind energy production. With rising oil costs, improvements in turbine technology and a more stable public energy policy, U.S. wind energy production has doubled in just two years.

Today’s turbines provide more than 20,000 MW of generating capacity, enough to serve 5.3 million homes or to power one million plug-in hybrid vehicles. By the time 2008 tallies are completed, the industry will likely have added 7,000 to 7,500 more MW. And now that industry incentives have been extended with the recent passage of a new energy bill, wind power is on track to reach the 30,000-MW milestone sometime in 2009.

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Big Possibilities

There are many reasons why wind power should be promoted as a major energy supplier. It has a huge environmental advantage over dirty fossil fuels. Estimates by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) show that wind currently generates as much electricity as nearly 30 million tons of coal or 90 million barrels of oil. In 2008, wind displaced about 34 million tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking 5.8 million vehicles off the road. In 20 years, if we reach the industry goal of supplying 20 percent of our national energy from wind, it will be the equivalent of taking 140 million vehicles off the road.

And wind resources in the United States are huge. “There’s something like 600 gigawatts of wind that can be developed in the U.S.,” says Jim Walker of Enxco, a company that develops wind farms in North America. That’s about 60 percent of our current electricity consumption, according to The Energy Information Administration. The cost, too, is already competitive with gas. Says Walker, “Wind energy can be developed for under 10 cents per kilowatt hour, about the same as gas.” This assumes the continuation of production tax credits that contribute about two cents for each kilowatt-hour produced.

Then there are the job possibilities. The U.S. Department of Energy says that achieving the goal of drawing 20 percent of our national energy needs from wind by 2030 will create about 500,000 jobs in the U.S. and contribute more than $1.5 billion to local communities annually.

Finding New Wind

Beyond the large-scale wind farms, there’s a lot of quality wind to be tapped over the water. Although the U.S. has no offshore wind installations yet, they are in the works. BluewaterWind, for example, is working with four states in the Northeast to build offshore wind parks. Its Delaware project is expected to provide electricity for 100,000 homes. The turbines will be 11 miles offshore and difficult to see from shore even on a clear day. Wind energy experts expect offshore wind to contribute about 50 of the 300 GWs of capacity the industry aims to install by 2030.

Community, or mid-sized wind, also has a role to play. This is wind power for smaller investors, such as farmers, ranchers, consumerowned utilities, school districts and colleges. The beauty of community wind, in addition to being able to take advantage of smaller sites, is that it contributes to a less centralized and a more secure model for our energy needs.

And small wind, too, will be an important part of a new energy picture. Defined as wind produced by turbines that are rated at 100 kilowatts or less, most are owned by individual homeowners, farmers and business owners. Small wind currently contributes 55 to 60 MW of capacity in the U.S. Although that’s a small fraction of what’s coming online from utility-scale projects, small wind is an attractive option for anyone who wants to fix their energy costs. “Think of it as prepaying for your electrical costs for 25 or 30 years,” says Ron Stimmel, AWEA’s small-wind advocate.

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