WIND POWER has become the world's fastest-growing source of clean new electricity production. It is now a $15 billion-dollar per year business, with growth rates in the range of 25-35% globally.
Wind farms can be immensely profitable, and are drawing enthusiastic investors throughout the world. There is enough wind capacity using currently available technology in North Dakota, Kansas and Texas alone to generate 100% of the electricity used by the United States today. The states between the Mississippi and the Rockies have enough gross capacity to triple that.
Wind machines are taking on many new forms. The first may date to Persia in the 1400s. They were then used in Europe, largely to crush grain and pump water. There was a windmill in Manhattan (then New Amsterdam) in the 1600s.
In the 1920s and 1930s, many thousands of multi-bladed windmills worked throughout rural America to pump water and generate electricity. Led by the legendary long-lasting Jacobs machines, they became icons of Great Plains agriculture.
Thousands of small-scale wind machines are still at work in rural areas throughout the world. But today's most powerful turbines are used to generate large quantities of electricity for utility power grids. The first big boom came in the early 1980s, when California governor Jerry Brown instituted a tax credit program that attracted some 17,000 turbines to the Golden State. Most were installed in the hills east of San Francisco, and at Palm Springs in the deserts east of Los Angeles.
Many of those machines were duds that never worked properly. Others were installed at Altamont Pass, a narrow migratory canyon where they have killed large numbers of birds of prey. Concerned environmental groups have been hard at work trying to replace these old turbines with larger, slower machines that will generate more electricity while solving the bird kill problem. Tubular towers, as opposed to lattice-work towers, would also help by removing perches from which the birds can dive into the blades. But the owners have been resistant.
Renewable energy opponents have seized on the unique problems at Altamont to brand wind power as a serious bird killer. But the industry's worldwide avian death toll is estimated at less than 30,000 per year, compared to millions that are killed by house cats, automobiles, high-rise windows and guy wires on cell towers. In the open prairies and off-shore, where the winds are most powerful, bird kills are virtually unknown.
Overall, big wind technology was rapidly advanced in Denmark and elsewhere in the 1990s. The machines have leapt forward in size and efficiency. The first generation of California turbines were in the 50-100kw range. Today's on-shore models run from 1000kw to 2500 kw and more. Machines being designed for off-shore use are now running up to 3000kw and even larger.
Germany and Spain have now both surpassed the United States in the production of wind-generated electricity. And Texas has moved ahead of California. But wind projects are sprouting throughout the US and the world, with investors eagerly lining up to cash in on a technology that is proven, safe, reliable and very often extremely profitable.
Indeed, a major issue within the wind business now centers on who will actually own these wind farms. Nearly all of them are financed, operated and controlled by major corporations.
But an important movement for farmer and community ownership has been sparked by Dan Juhl of Woodstock, Minnesota. Juhl operates what is probably the biggest privately-owned wind farm in the world, and has helped develop more than $100 million in turbines arrays owned by individual farmers and communities. Calling the model Community-Based Energy Development, the plan is now on the law books in Minnesota and Kansas, and is being considered in Iowa, Ohio and elsewhere.
By keeping the enormous profits from windpower within the communities where the farms are sited, this form of renewable energy can benefit not only the local environment, but also the economies of their regions. The C-BED model has already helped dozens of agricultural families keep their farms, and could do it for thousands more in the years to come.
Community ownership may also prove a key means to circumventing public opposition for aesthetic reasons. Many individual landowners object to wind farms because they feel they don't want to look at spinning turbines. But such attitudes tend to change when the wind farms are owned by the public, and everyone shares in the profits. It's likely, for example, that the Cape Wind Project, proposed for the public waters between Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, would have gained popular acceptance long ago had it been owned by the regional community.
In any event, the global prospects for wind power are spectacular. Already the cheapest form of long-term electric generation, this safe, clean, reliable and job-producing technology could well exceed the trillion-dollar mark as it moves us from global warming and the horrors of fossil-nuclear pollution, to a green-powered Earth.
American Wind Energy Association
National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Community-Based Energy Development