Wind Power Fastest Growing Energy Source Ready to Displace Coal, Slow Climate Change

12:00 noon EST
Wednesday, August 14, 1996


Wind power is now the world's fastest growing energy source. Global wind power generating capacity rose to 4,900 megawatts at the end of 1995, up from 3,700 megawatts a year earlier, an increase of 32 percent.

Since 1990, wind power has risen 150 percent, representing an annual growth rate of 20 percent, says the Worldwatch Institute, in an article that will appear in the September/October 1996 issue of World Watch magazine. By contrast, nuclear power is growing at a rate of less than 1 percent per year, while coal combustion has not grown at all since 1990.

Unlike coal, the leading source of electricity today, wind power produces no health- damaging air pollution or acid rain. Nor does it produce carbon dioxide--the main greenhouse gas now undermining the stability of the world's atmosphere. As governments strengthen their efforts to slow the pace of climate change, they may follow the lead of Denmark and Germany in turning to wind power.

Although it now generates less than 1 percent of the world's electricity, the steady technological advance of wind power suggests that it could become an important energy source for many nations within the next decade, noted the article's author, Christopher Flavin, Vice President of the Washington-based research institute.

The computer industry has shown the powerful effect of double digit growth rates. The fact that personal computers provided less than 1 percent of world computing power in 1980 did not prevent them from dominating the industry a decade later. Already, wind power went from providing less than 1 percent of the electricity in the north German state of Schleswig-Holstein in 1990 to 8 percent in 1995.

In many regions, wind power is now competitive with new fossil fuel-fired power plants. In windy areas, it now costs 5-7 cents per kilowatt-hour, similar to or slightly lower than the range for new coal plants. As wind turbines are further improved, wind power is likely to become even more economical.

The European wind industry is now growing at an explosive pace, according to the Worldwatch article. Altogether, Europe had 2,500 megawatts of wind power capacity at the end of 1995, up nearly threefold from 860 megawatts in 1992. The United States still led the world with 1,650 megawatts of wind power capacity at the end of 1995, but Germany was closing in fast with 1,130 megawatts. Denmark ranked third with 610 megawatts, and India fourth at 580 megawatts.

Europe's leadership stems from the financial incentives and high purchase prices established for renewable energy in response to concern about atmospheric pollution. One of the most effective policies is Germany's 1991 'electricity in-feed law,' which provides a generous price of about 11 cents per kilowatt-hour to electricity generators that use solar, wind, and biomass energy.

Just as wind energy development takes off in Europe, it has stalled in the United States, where the industry is buffeted by uncertainty about the future structure of the electricity industry. In fact, the country's total wind capacity has hardly increased since 1991. Kenetech, the leading U.S. wind power company, filed for bankruptcy in May 1996, after the combined effects of a slow market and mechanical problems with its new turbine led to large financial losses.

In developing nations, meanwhile, wind power development is picking up pace. The leader so far is India, which has roughly 1,500 wind turbines, virtually all of which have been installed since the government opened the electricity grid to independent power producers and enacted tax incentives for renewable energy investments in the early 1990s. According to the government, 730 megawatts had been installed by April 1, 1996, which would make India the world's most active wind market in early 1996.

The global wind energy potential is roughly five times current global electricity use. In the United States, where detailed surveys have been conducted, it appears that wind turbines installed on 0.6 percent of the land area of the 48 contiguous states, mainly in the Great Plains, could meet one-fifth of current U.S. power needs-- double the current contribution of hydropower. By comparison, the land used to grow corn in the United States--nearly 3 percent of the country's area--is five times as high. And unlike corn, wind power does not preclude the land from being used simultaneously for other purposes, including agriculture and grazing.

For farmers in windy regions, wind power could be a financial windfall, Flavin said. For example, a hectare of Kansas prairie that now yields $400 worth of wheat annually could also produce $10,000-$25,000 of wind-generated electricity.

China's wind energy potential is estimated by the government at 253,000 megawatts, which exceeds the country's current generating capacity from all sources by 40 percent. Much of that potential is located in Inner Mongolia, near some of the country's leading industrial centers. India's potential is estimated at 80,000 megawatts, which equals the country's total current generating capacity.

Wind power alone is unlikely to replace all fossil fuels, but it has the potential to exceed the 20 percent of world electricity provided by hydropower, the article concluded. In fact, wind power is one of the world's most widely distributed energy resources. More countries have sizable wind power potential than have large resources of hydropower or coal.

Together with a range of other decentralized generating technologies, such as solar cells and fuel cells, wind power could help transform the world electricity system. These new power generators could eventually replace coal and nuclear power-- which together supply two-thirds of the world's electricity--and allow a sharp reduction in world carbon emissions.

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