Study Supports U.S. Wind Expansion

Wind turbinesWind energy can supply 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs by 2030 at a "modest" cost difference, a new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report says.

The analysis predicts that the 20 percent wind scenario would cost about 2 percent more than sticking with the current energy mix, which relies more heavily on traditional fossil fuels.  

"The 20 percent wind scenario entails higher initial capital costs (to install wind capacity and associated transmission infrastructure) in many areas, yet offers lower ongoing energy costs than conventional power plants for operations, maintenance, and fuel," said the report, which was written in conjunction with industry and environmental analysts. Under the scenario, 500,000 new jobs would be created.

To reach their goal by 2030, the department said wind energy installation would need to triple from the current rate of 5.2 gigawatts (GW) added in 2007 to more than 16 GW per year by 2018, with that pace continuing through 2030. The total wind energy growth, 290 GW, would displace the projected use of coal for power generation by 18 percent and the use of natural gas by about 50 percent.

Such a dramatic increase in wind capacity would require large-scale expansion of the U.S. electrical transmission grid to access the best wind resources and relieve grid congestion. Power companies would also have to add gas turbine generators to provide back-up electricity when the wind isn't blowing, which ranges from 60 to 75 percent of the day in some areas, according to Thomas Key, renewable energy technology leader for the Electric Power Research Institute.

One of the most consistent criticisms of wind is that, due to its intermittent nature, improved electricity storage is necessary. "We don't have many options for electrical energy storage right now," Key said. "We really need some technological advances to find economic advances on this scale."

The study, however, finds that electricity storage is not needed to reach the 20 percent goal. Andy Karsner, the DOE's assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy, said claims of wind power unreliability are false. "Wind is in fact one of our least volatile resources," he said at a press briefing.

Wind energy provides just 1 percent of U.S. electricity today, compared with about 7 percent in Germany where the government has provided steady support for the industry since the early 1990s. State laws that require utilities to purchase wind power have recently revived the U.S. industry, and the country has led the world in wind power installations over the past two years.

The U.S. industry remains dependent on a short-term federal tax credit that will expire at the end of this year unless Congress extends it. "We need to fix the production tax credit uncertainty... as part of a plan to get [20 percent by 2030]," said Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley.

The new study estimates that the increase in wind generation would avoid 7.6 billion cumulative tons of the principal greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from being emitted - the equivalent of protecting about 48 million acres (19.4 million hectares) of forest from deforestation. This would nearly eliminate the projected increase in emissions from U.S. power plants between now and 2030.

"To dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance our energy security, clean power generation at the gigawatt-scale will be necessary, and will require us to take a comprehensive approach," Karsner said in a prepared statement.

The added wind power would also avoid 4 trillion gallons of water from being consumed for electricity generation, the report estimates. Less coal-fired power results in fewer emissions of mercury and the pollutants that cause acid rain, as well.

As the price of fossil fuels continue to climb, Kammen said wind energy may end up costing less than the additional 2 percent that the report predicts. "It doesn't include the ramp up of fossil fuel prices [which rose significantly since the study's completion]...and we haven't even started talking about what the price of carbon will be," he said. "This looks like the bargain of the century."

"Although the 20 percent wind scenario sounds ambitious, the industry has actually grown faster over the past year than assumed in the study's scenario, says Worldwatch Institute president Christopher Flavin. "Wind power is going to be a huge part of the country's energy future." Worldwatch senior researcher Janet Sawin was a member of the study's steering committee and helped author a policy chapter that was later removed from the report.

Staff writer Ben Blocks reports everything environmental for the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.