In 1991, a national wind resource
inventory taken by the U.S. Department of Energy startled the world
when it reported that the three most wind-rich states - North
Dakota, Kansas, and Texas - had
enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs.
Now a new study by a team of engineers at Stanford reports that
the wind energy potential is actually substantially greater than
that estimated in 1991.
Advances in wind turbine design since 1991 allow turbines to operate
at lower wind speeds, to harness more of the wind's energy, and
to harvest it at greater heights -- dramatically
expanding the harnessable wind resource. Add to this the recent
bullish assessments of offshore wind potential, and the enormity
of the wind resource becomes apparent. Wind power can meet not only
all U.S. electricity needs, but all U.S. energy needs.
In a joint assessment of global wind resources called Wind Force
12, the European Wind Energy Association and Greenpeace concluded
that the world's wind-generating potential -- assuming
that only 10 percent of the earth's land area would be available
for development -- is
double the projected world electricity demand in 2020. A far larger
share of the land area could be used for wind generation in sparsely
populated, wind-rich regions, such as the Great Plains of North
America, northwest China, eastern Siberia, and the Patagonian region
of Argentina. If the huge offshore potential is added to this, it
seems likely that wind power could satisfy not only world electricity
needs but perhaps even total energy needs.
Over the last decade wind has been the world's fastest-growing energy
source. Rising from 4,800 megawatts of generating capacity in 1995
to 31,100 megawatts in 2002, it increased a staggering sixfold.
Worldwide, wind turbines now supply enough electricity to satisfy
the residential needs of 40 million Europeans.
Wind is popular because it is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely
distributed, climate-benign, and clean -- attributes
that no other energy source can match. The cost of wind-generated
electricity has dropped from 38¢ a kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s
to roughly 4¢ a kilowatt-hour today on prime wind sites. Some recently
signed U.S. and U.K. long-term supply contracts are providing electricity
at 3¢ a kilowatt-hour. Wind Force 12 projected that the average
cost per kilowatt hour of wind-generated electricity will drop to
2.6¢ by 2010 and to 2.1¢ by 2020. U.S. energy consultant Harry Braun
says that if wind turbines are mass-produced on assembly lines like
automobiles, the cost of wind-generated electricity could drop to
1-2¢ per kilowatt hour.
Although wind-generated electricity is already cheap, its cost continues
to fall. In contrast with oil, there is no OPEC to set prices for
wind. And in contrast to natural gas prices, which are highly volatile
and can double in a matter of months, wind prices are declining.
Another great appeal of wind is its wide distribution. In the United
States, for example, some 28 states now have utility-scale wind
farms feeding electricity into the local grid. While a small handful
of countries controls the world's oil, nearly all countries can
tap wind energy.
Denmark leads the world in the share of its electricity from wind -- 20
percent. In terms of sheer generating capacity, Germany leads with
12,000 megawatts. By the end of 2003, it will have already surpassed
its 2010 goal of 12,500 megawatts of generating capacity. For Germany,
this rapid growth in wind power is central to reaching its goal
of reducing carbon emissions 40 percent by 2020.
Rapid worldwide growth is projected to continue as more countries
turn to wind. In addition to the early leaders -- Denmark,
Germany, Spain, and the United States -- many
other countries have ambitious plans, including the United Kingdom,
France, Brazil, and China.
In densely populated Europe, the off-shore potential for developing
wind is also being exploited. Denmark is now building its second
off-shore wind farm, this one with 160 megawatts of generating capacity.
Germany has some 12,000 megawatts of off-shore generating capacity
Wind power is now a viable, robust, fast-growing industry. Cheap
electricity from wind makes it economical to electrolyze water and
produce hydrogen. Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the highly
efficient fuel cells that will be used widely in the future to power
motor vehicles and to supply electricity, heating, and cooling for
buildings. Hydrogen also offers a way of storing wind energy and
of transporting it efficiently by pipeline or in liquefied form
With the wind industry's engineering know-how and manufacturing
experience, it would be relatively easy to scale up the size of
the industry, even doubling it annually for several years, if the
need arose. If, for example, crop-shrinking heat waves raise food
prices and generate public pressure to quickly reduce carbon emissions
by replacing coal and oil with wind and hydrogen, it will be possible
to do so. If the need arises to shift quickly to hydrogen-fueled
automobiles, this can be done by converting gasoline-burning internal
combustion engines to hydrogen with inexpensive conversion kits.
For energy investors, growth in the future lies with wind and the
hydrogen produced with cheap wind-generated electricity. Solar cell
sales are growing at over 30 percent a year and are likely to supply
much of the electricity for the 1.7 billion people who are still
without electricity, most of them living in developing country villages.
But solar cells are still too costly to supply the vast amounts
of energy required to power a modern economy.
World coal burning peaked in 1996 and has fallen 2 percent since
then. It is a fading industry, not an exciting investment prospect.
Nor is oil particularly promising, since world production is not
likely to expand far beyond current levels. Production of natural
gas, the cleanest and least climate-disruptive of the fossil fuels,
is likely to continue expanding for a few more decades, fortuitously
developing an infrastructure that can be adapted for hydrogen. Nuclear
power generation is expected to peak soon, when the large number
of aging plants that will be closing down will exceed the small
number of plants that are under construction.
The energy future belongs to wind. The world energy economy became
progressively more global during the twentieth century as the world
turned to oil. It promises to reverse direction and become more
local during the twenty-first century as the world turns to wind,
wind-generated hydrogen, and solar cells. Wind and wind-generated
hydrogen will shape not only the energy sector of the global economy
but the global economy itself.
Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute