SAN FRANCISCO - Wind power is "poised to become to become the foundation of the new energy economy," claims a new survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Earth Policy Institute.
According to the environmental group, global wind electricity-generating capacity increased by 24 percent in 2005 to 59,100 megawatts--a twelvefold increase from a decade ago, when world wind-generating capacity stood at less than 5,000 megawatts.
The report says wind power is the world's fastest-growing energy source with an average annual growth rate of 29 percent over the last ten years. In contrast, over the same time period, coal use has grown by 2.5 percent per year, nuclear power by 1.8 percent, natural gas by 2.5 percent, and oil by 1.7 percent.
"Wind power has been established as a safe, clean, cheap energy option," the Earth Policy Institute's Joseph Florence told OneWorld.
The U.S. has installed 9,100 megawatts of wind power capacity, the group says, including a record-breaking 2,400 megawatts in 2005. Chief among the reasons for the growth were advances in technology and a 1.9-cent per kilowatt-hour tax credit for electricity produced from a wind farm during the first 10 years of its operation.
"Political support is the key driver in the wind industry," Florence said. "If Congress votes to continue the production tax credit, then the future is bright. But without government support it just can't compete against traditional non-renewable technologies."
Not everyone is so bullish on wind power's ability to provide for America's energy needs, however.
Advocates of nuclear power contend that wind require too much land to power the U.S. grid. Almost half of U.S. energy currently comes from coal, while 20 percent comes from nuclear power. Nuclear industry representatives say if America is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming, nuclear power must be front and center.
"Nuclear energy has the smallest environmental footprint of any other emission-free source," the Nuclear Energy Institute's Mitch Singer told OneWorld.
Singer said to equal the current output of U.S. nuclear reactors would require putting windmills on land the size of Minnesota and covering an area equal to West Virginia with solar panels. "Then you have to depend on which way the wind is blowing or how long the sun is shining," he said.
President Bush apparently agrees. While providing modest support for wind power, the U.S. president has focused significantly more energy on promoting new nuclear power plants.
"Nuclear power helps us protect the environment," Bush said in a speech last month in front of the Limerick Generating Station outside of Philadelphia. "Nuclear power is safe. For the sake of economic security and national security, the United States must aggressively move forward with construction of nuclear power plants."
The global environmental network Greenpeace vigorously disagrees. The group believes the United States needs an energy system based on renewable energy and energy efficiency, but thinks the costs and risks inherent in the generation of nuclear power make it an unacceptable piece of the energy puzzle.
"Building enough nuclear power stations to make a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would cost trillions of dollars, create tens of thousands of tons of lethal high-level radioactive waste, contribute to further proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, and result in a Chernobyl-scale accident once every decade," the group's Web site claims.
According to the consumer rights group Public Citizen, last year's energy bill provided $13 billion in subsidies and tax breaks to the nuclear industry. The figure includes operating subsidies and money for research and development and construction of new plants.
The Nuclear Energy Institute says 14 new nuclear power plants are currently in the pipeline, mostly in the Southeast.
But the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank also based in Washington D.C., thinks the nuclear industry may be headed for a meltdown.
"Renewable sources of power provide about 20 percent of the world's electricity today, more than nuclear power does," Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin wrote in the latest issue of the organization's magazine. "More importantly, they are active, growing industries, attracting over $25 billion in new investment last year.
"The generating capacity of new wind plants alone that were ordered in 2005 was triple the figure for nuclear power. And because renewable technologies are smaller scale and modular, their cost is falling rapidly as the scale of production rises. In recent months, renewable power has become one of the hottest sectors for venture capitalists looking for 'the next big thing.'"
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