Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Cutting Carbon Emissions in Half: Harnessing the Wind

Shifting to renewable sources of energy, such as wind power, opens up vast new opportunities for lowering fossil fuel dependence. Wind offers a powerful alternative to fossil fuelsa way of dramatically cutting carbon emissions. Wind energy is abundant, inexhaustible, cheap, widely distributed, climate-benign, and clean—which is why it has been the world's fastest-growing energy source over the last decade. 

The modern wind industry was born in California in the early 1980s as a result of a federal tax credit for renewable energy, combined with a generous state tax credit. For most of the industry's first 15 years, growth was relatively slow, but in recent years, generating capacity has exploded. In 1995, world wind-generating capacity was 4,800 megawatts. By the end of 2002, it had increased sixfold to 31,100 megawatts. (See Figure 9-1.) World wind generating capacity today is sufficient to meet the residential needs of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Belgium combined.13 

Germany, with over 12,000 megawatts of wind power at the end of 2002, leads the world in generating capacity. Spain and the United States, at 4,800 and 4,700 megawatts, are second and third. Tiny Denmark is fourth with 2,900 megawatts, and India is fifth with 1,700 megawatts. Today Denmark gets 18 percent of its electricity from wind. In Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state in Germany, the figure is 28 percent. And in Spain's northern industrial province of Navarra, it is 22 percent. Although a score of countries now generate electricity from wind, a second wave of major players is coming onto the field, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Brazil, and China.14 

Wind energy is both abundant and widely distributed. In densely populated Europe, there is enough easily accessible offshore wind energy to meet all of the region's electricity needs. China can easily double its current electricity generation from wind alone. In the United States, a national wind resource inventory published in 1991 indicated that there is enough harnessable wind energy in just three of the 50 states—North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas—to satisfy national electricity needs. But this now greatly understates U.S. potential. Recent advances in wind turbine design and size, enabling the turbines to operate at lower wind speeds and to harness the wind's energy more efficiently and at greater heights, have dramatically expanded the harnessable wind resource.15 

Wind is also clean. Wind energy does not produce sulfur dioxide emissions or nitrous oxides to cause acid rain. Nor are there any emissions of health-threatening mercury that come from coal-fired power plants. No mountains are leveled, no streams are polluted, and there are no deaths from black lung disease. Wind does not disrupt the earth's climate. 

One of the great attractions of wind is that it is inexhaustible. Once wind farms are developed, they can operate indefinitely simply by replacing equipment parts as they wear out. In contrast to oil, which is eventually depleted, wind is inexhaustible. Wind is also cheap. Advances in wind turbine design, drawing heavily on the technologies of the aerospace industry, have dropped the cost of wind power from 38¢ per kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to less than 4¢ at prime wind sites in 2001. Some recent long-term wind supply contracts were signed at 3¢ per kilowatt-hour. The cost of wind-generated electricity is well below that of nuclear power. On prime wind sites, it can now undercut coal and compete with gas, currently the cheapest source of electricity generation.16 

Even more exciting, with each doubling of world generating capacity, costs fall by 15 percent. With recent growth rates of 31 percent a year, costs are dropping by 15 percent every 30 months or so. While natural gas prices are highly volatile, the costs of wind are declining. And there is no OPEC for wind.17 

Cheap electricity from wind brings the option of electrolyzing water to produce hydrogen, which offers a way of both storing wind energy and transporting it via pipelines. It can be stored and used in lieu of natural gas in power plants to provide electricity when the wind ebbs. 

Hydrogen is also the fuel of choice for the new fuel cell engines that every major automobile manufacturer is now working on. Honda and Toyota both made it to the market with their first fuel cell-powered automobiles at the end of 2002. DaimlerChrysler plans to be in the market in 2003 and Ford in 2004. In a country like the United States, the advances in wind turbine design and the evolution of fuel cells hold out the hope that farmers and ranchers, who own most of the country's wind rights, could one day be supplying not only the country's electricity, but much of the fuel for its cars as well.18 

Countries that are rich in wind could end up exporting hydrogen in liquefied form in the same way that natural gas is liquefied and exported today. Among the countries that are both richly endowed in wind and rather sparsely populated are Canada, Argentina (with world-class winds in Patagonia), and Russia. Eastern Siberia could supply vast amounts of hydrogen to densely populated, heavily industrialized China, South Korea, and Japan. 

Given the enormous wind-generation potential and the associated benefits of climate stabilization, it is time to consider an all-out effort to develop wind resources. Instead of doubling every 30 months or so, perhaps we should be doubling wind electric generation each year for the next several years, much as the number of computers linked to the Internet doubled each year from 1985 to 1995. If this were to happen, then costs would drop precipitously, giving wind-generated electricity an even greater advantage over power from fossil fuels.19

Energy consultant Harry Braun made an interesting proposal at a Hydrogen Roundtable in April 2003 for quickly shifting to a wind/hydrogen economy. From a manufacturing point of view, he noted, wind turbines are similar to automobiles: each has a brake, a gearbox, an electrical generator, and an electronic control system. Braun noted that if wind turbines are mass-producedlike automobiles, the capital costs of wind-generated electricity would drop from $1,000 a kilowatt to roughly $300, reducing the cost of electricity to 1¢ or 2¢ per kilowatt-hour.20 

Rather than wait for fuel cell engines, Braun suggests using hydrogen in internal combustion engines of the sort developed by BMW. He notes that converting a gasoline engine to hydrogen is relatively simple and inexpensive. This would also facilitate the early development of hydrogen stations in wind-rich areas while waiting for the mass production of fuel cell cars. Braun calculates that the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen and its liquefication, along with the high efficiency of a hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine, would bring the cost of hydrogen down to $1.40 per equivalent gallon of gasoline. Assembly-line production of wind turbines at "wartime" speed would quickly end urban air pollution, oil spills, and the need for oil wars.21 

The incentives for such a growth could come in part from simply restructuring global energy subsidies-shifting the $210 billion in annual fossil fuel subsidies to the development of wind energy, hydrogen generators, and the provision of kits to convert engines from gasoline to hydrogen. The investment capital could come from private capital markets but also from companies already in the energy business. Shell, for example, has become a major player in the world wind energy economy. BP has also begun to invest in wind power. Other major corporations now in the wind power business include General Electric and ABB. BP's planned investment of $15 billion in developing oil resources in the Gulf of Mexico could also be used to develop 15,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity, enough to satisfy the residential needs of 15 million people in industrial countries.22 

These goals may seem farfetched, but here and there around the world ambitious efforts are beginning to take shape. As noted earlier, Germany announced at international climate discussions in India in October 2002 that it wants to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2020. It is proposing a 30-percent cut throughout Europe by that date. Developing the continent's offshore and onshore wind energy resources will be at the heart of this carbon reduction effort.23 

In the United States, a 3,000-megawatt wind farm is in the early planning stages. Located in South Dakota near the Iowa border, it is being initiated by Dehlsen Associates, led by James Dehlsen, a wind energy pioneer in California. Designed to feed power into the industrial Midwest around Chicago, this project is not only large by wind power standards, it is one of the largest energy projects of any kind in the world today.24 

Cape Wind is planning a 420-megawatt wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And a newly formed energy company, called Winergy, has plans for some 9,000 megawatts in a network of wind farms stretching along the Atlantic coast. These are but a few of the more ambitious wind energy projects that are now beginning to emerge in the United States, a country rich in wind energy.25 

The question is not whether wind is a potentially powerful technology that can be used to stabilize climate. It is. But will we develop it fast enough to head off economically disruptive climate change?




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