EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 5. Stabilizing Climate: Shifting to Renewable Energy: Turning to the Wind

Wind is the centerpiece of the Plan B energy economy. It is abundant, low cost, and widely distributed; it scales up easily and can be developed quickly. Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but the earth’s wind resources cannot be depleted.

A worldwide survey of wind energy by the Stanford University team of Cristina Archer and Mark Jacobson concluded that harnessing one fifth of the earth’s available wind energy would provide seven times as much electricity as the world currently uses. For example, China—with vast wind-swept plains in the north and west, countless mountain ridges, and a long coastline, all rich with wind—has enough readily harnessable wind energy to easily double its current electrical generating capacity. 11

The United States is also richly endowed. In addition to having enough land-based wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs several times over, the National Renewable Energy Lab has identified 1,000 gigawatts (1 gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts) of wind energy waiting to be tapped off the East Coast and 900 gigawatts off the West Coast. This offshore capacity alone is sufficient to power the U.S. economy. 12

 Europe is already tapping its off-shore wind. An assessment by the Garrad Hassan wind energy consulting group concluded that if governments aggressively develop their vast off-shore resources, wind could supply all of Europe’s residential electricity by 2020. 13

For many years, a small handful of countries dominated growth in the industry, but this is changing as the industry goes global, with some 70 countries now harnessing wind resources. World wind electric generation is growing at a frenetic pace. From 2000 to 2008, generating capacity increased from 17,000 megawatts to an estimated 121,000 megawatts. The world leader in total capacity is now the United States, followed by Germany (until recently the leader), Spain, China, and India. But with China’s wind generation doubling each year, the U.S. lead may be short-lived. 14

Measured by share of national electricity supplied by wind, Denmark is the leader, at 21 percent. Four north German states now get one third or more of their electricity from wind. For Germany as a whole, the figure is 8 percent—and climbing. 15

Denmark is now looking to push the wind share of its electricity to 50 percent, with most of the additional power coming from off-shore. In contemplating this prospect, Danish planners have turned energy policy upside down. They are looking at using wind as the mainstay of their electrical generating system and fossil-fuel-generated power to fill in when the wind ebbs. 16

In Spain, which already has nearly 17,000 megawatts of capacity, the government is shooting for 20,000 megawatts by 2010. France, a relative newcomer to wind energy, is looking to develop 25,000 megawatts of wind by 2020; out of this, 6,000 megawatts would be off-shore. 17

As of early 2009 the United States had just over 28,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, with an additional 38 wind farms under construction. Beyond this, proposed wind farms that can generate some 300,000 megawatts are on hold, awaiting grid construction. 18

In addition to Texas and California, which is planning a 4,500-megawatt wind farm complex in the southern end of the state, several other states are emerging as wind superpowers. As noted earlier, Clipper Windpower and BP are teaming up to build the 5,050-megawatt Titan wind farm in eastern South Dakota. Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz is developing a 2,000-megawatt wind farm in south central Wyoming to generate electricity for transmission to California, Arizona, and Nevada. 19

In the east, Maine—a wind energy newcomer—is planning to develop 3,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, far more than the state’s 1.3 million residents need. New York State, which has 1,300 megawatts of wind generating capacity, plans to add another 8,000 megawatts, with most of the power being generated by winds coming off Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. And soon Oregon will nearly double its wind generating capacity with the 900-megawatt wind farm planned for the windy Columbia River Gorge. 20

While U.S. attention has focused on the wind-rich Great Plains, and rightly so, another area is now gathering attention. For years, the only off-shore wind project in the east that was moving through the permitting stage was a 400-megawatt project off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Now Massachusetts has been joined by Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Delaware is planning an off-shore wind farm of up to 600 megawatts, an installation that could satisfy half the state’s residential electricity needs. 21

East Coast off-shore wind is attractive for three reasons. One, it is strong and reliable. The off-shore region stretching from Massachusetts southward to North Carolina has a potential wind generating capacity that exceeds the requirement of the states in the region. Two, the East Coast has an extensive, rather shallow off-shore area, which makes off-shore wind construction less costly. And three, this electricity source is close to consumers. 22

To the north, Canada, with its vast area and only 33 million people, has one of the highest wind-to-population ratios of any country. Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta are far and away the leaders in installed capacity at this point. But in recent months three of Canada’s four Atlantic provinces—New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia—have begun discussions to jointly develop and export some of their wealth of wind energy to the densely populated U.S. Northeast. 23

Impressive though the U.S. growth is, the expansion now under way in China is even more so. China has some 12,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, mostly in the 50- to 100-megawatt wind farm category, with many more medium-size wind farms coming. Beyond this, its Wind Base program is creating six mega-complexes of wind farms of at least 10 gigawatts each. These are located in Gansu Province (15 gigawatts), Western Inner Mongolia (20 gigawatts), Eastern Inner Mongolia (30 gigawatts), Hebei Province (10 gigawatts), Xinjiang Hami (20 gigawatts), and along the coast north of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province (10 gigawatts). When completed, these complexes will have a generating capacity of 105 gigawatts—as much wind power as the entire world had in early 2008. 24

In considering the land requirements to produce energy, wind turbines are extraordinarily efficient. For example, an acre of corn land in northern Iowa used to site a wind turbine can produce $300,000 worth of electricity per year. This same acre of land planted in corn would yield 480 gallons of ethanol worth $960. This extraordinary energy yield of land used for wind turbines helps explain why investors find wind farms so attractive. 25

And since wind turbines occupy only 1 percent of the land covered by a wind farm, farmers and ranchers continue to grow grain and graze cattle. In effect, they can double crop their land, simultaneously harvesting a food crop—wheat, corn, or cattle—and energy. With no investment on their part, farmers and ranchers typically receive $3,000–10,000 a year in royalties for each wind turbine erected on their land. For thousands of ranchers in the U.S. Great Plains, the value of electricity produced on their land in the years ahead will dwarf their cattle sales. 26

One of the early concerns with wind energy was the risk it posed to birds, but this can be managed by careful siting to avoid risky migration and breeding areas. The most recent research indicates that bird fatalities from wind farms are minuscule compared with the number of birds that die flying into skyscrapers, colliding with cars, or being captured by cats. 27

Other critics are concerned about the visual effect. When some people see a wind farm they see a blight on the landscape. Others see a civilization-saving source of energy. Although there are NIMBY problems (“not in my backyard”), the PIMBY response (“put it in my backyard”) is much more pervasive. Within rural communities, competition for wind farms—whether in ranch country in Colorado or dairy country in upstate New York—is intense. This is not surprising, since the jobs, the royalties from wind turbines, and the additional tax revenue are welcomed by local communities.

At the heart of Plan B is a crash program to develop 3,000 gigawatts (3 million megawatts) of wind generating capacity by 2020, enough to satisfy 40 percent of world electricity needs. This will require a near doubling of capacity every two years, up from a doubling every three years over the last decade. 28

This climate-stabilizing initiative would require the installation of 1.5 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts each. Manufacturing such a huge number of wind turbines over the next 11 years sounds intimidating until it is compared with the 70 million automobiles the world produces each year. At $3 million per installed turbine, this would mean investing $4.5 trillion by 2020, or $409 billion per year. This compares with world oil and gas capital expenditures that are projected to reach $1 trillion per year by 2016. 29

Wind turbines can be mass-produced on assembly lines, much as B-24 bombers were in World War II at Ford’s massive Willow Run assembly plant in Michigan. Indeed, the idled capacity in the U.S. automobile industry is sufficient to produce all the wind turbines the world needs to reach the Plan B global goal. Not only do the idle plants exist, but there are skilled workers in these communities eager to return to work. The state of Michigan, for example, in the heart of the wind-rich Great Lakes region, has more than its share of idled auto assembly plants. 30

Wind has many attractions. For utilities, being able to sign long-term fixed-price contracts is a godsend for them and their customers. When they look at natural gas, they look at a fuel source with a volatile price. When they look at coal-fired power, they face the uncertainty of future carbon costs.

The appeal of wind energy can be seen in its growth relative to other energy sources. In 2008, for example, wind accounted for 36 percent of new generating capacity in the European Union compared with 29 percent for natural gas, 18 percent for photovoltaics, 10 percent for oil, and only 3 percent for coal. In the United States, new wind generating capacity has exceeded coal by a wide margin each year since 2005. Worldwide, no new nuclear-generating capacity came online in 2008, while new wind generating capacity totaled 27,000 megawatts. The structure of the world energy economy is not just changing, it is changing fast. 31

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11. Archer and Jacobson, “Evaluation of Global Windpower,” op. cit. note 7; Hu et al., op. cit. note 7.

12. Elliott, Wendell, and Gower, op. cit. note 7; Archer and Jacobson, “The Spatial and Temporal Distributions of U.S. Winds,” op. cit. note 7; offshore potential from NREL data cited in U.S. Minerals Management Service, Survey of Available Data on OCS Resources and Identification of Data Gaps, Report to the Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior (Washington, DC: April 2009), pp. I–11 to I–14.

13. European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), “Seas of Change: Offshore Wind Energy,” fact sheet (Brussels: February 2009); Garrad Hassan and Partners, Sea Wind Europe (London: Greenpeace, March 2004).

14. GWEC, op. cit. note 10, pp. 3, 10, 24.

15. Denmark from GWEC, “Interactive World Map,” at www.gwec.net/index.php?id=126, viewed 29 May 2009; Germany from GWEC, op. cit. note 10, pp. 34–35.

16. Flemming Hansen, “Denmark to Increase Wind Power to 50% by 2025, Mostly Offshore,” Renewable Energy Access, 5 December 2006.

17. GWEC, op. cit. note 10, pp. 33, 48–49.

18. AWEA, “U.S. Wind Energy Industry Installs Over 2,800 MW in First Quarter,” press release (28 April 2009); AWEA, U.S. Wind Energy Projects, op. cit. note 1; AWEA and Solar Energy Industries Association, Green Power Superhighways: Building a Path to America’s Clean Energy Future (Washington, DC: February 2009).

19. Southern California Edison, The Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project: Greening the Grid (Los Angeles: March 2008); Paul Klein, Media Relations Group, Southern California Edison, discussion with Jonathan G. Dorn, Earth Policy Institute, 22 October 2007; “Clipper and BP to JV,” op. cit. note 2; Carl Levesque, “Super-Size It: Mega-Wind Farm Proposals Proliferate,” Wind Energy Weekly, vol. 27, no. 1303 (22 August 2008).

20. “Maine Legislature Unanimously Approves Wind Recommendations,” Wind Energy Weekly, vol. 27, no. 1286 (1 August 2008); population from Census Bureau, op. cit. note 1; installed capacities from AWEA, U.S. Wind Energy Projects, op. cit. note 1; New York from Matthew L. Wald, “Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid’s Limits,” New York Times, 27 August 2008; “Oregon Siting Council Green-Lights 909-MW Wind Farm,” Wind Energy Weekly, vol. 27, no. 1300 (1 August 2008).

21. Cape Wind, “Project at a Glance,” at www.capewind.org/article24.htm, viewed 14 April 2009; Rhode Island from “Deepwater to Start Building R.I. Wind Farm in 2010,” Reuters, 8 January 2009; “LIPA & Con Edison Eye Offshore Wind Power,” Renewable Energy World, 25 March 2009; “Garden State Offshore Energy Wins Bid for Offshore Wind Farm,” Renewable Energy World, 6 October 2008; “Bluewater Wind Signs Contract for Sale of Offshore Wind Power,” Renewable Energy World, 24 June 2008; 1 MW of installed wind capacity produces enough electricity to supply 300 homes from sources cited in note 2.

22. Willett Kempton et al., “Large CO2 Reductions Via Offshore Wind Power Matched to Inherent Storage in Energy End-Uses,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 34 (24 January 2007); Steve Gelsi, “Green-Collar Pioneers Eye Offshore Wind Riches,” MarketWatch, 8 October 2008; Walt Musial, “Deepwater Offshore Wind Technology Research Requirements,” poster prepared for AWEA WindPower 2005 Conference, Denver, CO, 12–18 May 2005.

23. U.N. Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision Population Database, at esa.un.org/unpp, updated 11 March 2009; Archer and Jacobson, “Evaluation of Global Windpower,” op. cit. note 7; GWEC, op. cit. note 10, p. 22; “A Window of North Atlantic Opportunity,” op. cit. note 2.

24. GWEC, op. cit. note 10, pp. 3, 24–27; Liming Qiao, Policy Director, GWEC, e-mail to J. Matthew Roney, Earth Policy Institute, 29 April 2009. 

25. A 2-megawatt wind turbine operating 36 percent of the time generates 6.3 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year; capacity factor from DOE, NREL, op. cit. note 1; wholesale electricity price from DOE, Wholesale Market Data, electronic database at www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity, updated 22 April 2009; Renewable Fuels Association, Homegrown for the Homeland: Ethanol Industry Outlook 2005 (Washington, DC: 2005); corn per acre and ethanol per bushel approximated from Allen Baker et al., “Ethanol Reshapes the Corn Market,” Amber Waves, vol. 4, no. 2 (April 2006), pp. 32, 34; conservative ethanol price of $2 per gallon based on F.O. Licht, “Biofuels,” World Ethanol and Biofuels Report, vol. 7, no. 15 (14 April 2009), p. 318.

26. Wind royalties are author’s estimates based on Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), “Farming the Wind: Wind Power and Agriculture,” fact sheet (Cambridge, MA: 2003).

27. Laurie Jodziewicz, AWEA, e-mail to author, 16 October 2007; GWEC and Greenpeace, Global Wind Energy Outlook 2006 (Brussels: 2006).

28. GWEC, op. cit. note 10, pp. 9–10.

29. Ward’s Automotive Group, World Motor Vehicle Data 2008 (Southfield, MI: 2008), pp. 239–42; “Trillions in Spending Needed to Meet Global Oil and Gas Demand, Analysis Shows,” International Herald Tribune, 15 October 2007.

30. David L. Lewis, “They May Save Our Honor, Our Hopes—and Our Necks,” Michigan History, September/October 1993; Harry Braun, The Phoenix Project: Shifting from Oil to Hydrogen with Wartime Speed, prepared for the Renewable Hydrogen Roundtable, World Resources Institute, Washington, DC, 10–11 April 2003, pp. 3–4; Kathy Barks Hoffman, “GM Plant Shutdowns Further Hurt Michigan Budget,” Associated Press, 23 April 2009.

31. EWEA, “Wind Now Leads EU Power Sector,” press release (Brussels: 2 February 2009); Erik Shuster, Tracking New Coal-Fired Power Plants (Pittsburgh, PA: DOE, National Energy Technology Laboratory, January 2009); “Nuclear Dips in 2008,” World Nuclear News, 29 May 2009; GWEC, op. cit. note 10, pp. 10, 56–57.

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