Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization

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Lester R. Brown

Chapter 12. Turning to Renewable Energy: Harnessing the Wind

A worldwide survey of wind energy by the Stanford 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. 5

 

In 1991 the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a national wind resource inventory, noting that three wind-rich states— North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas—had enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs. Advances in wind turbine design since then allow turbines to operate at lower wind speeds and to convert wind into electricity more efficiently. And because they are now 100 meters tall, instead of less than 40 meters, they harvest a far larger, stronger, and more reliable wind regime, generating 20 times as much electricity as the turbines installed in the early 1980s when modern wind power development began. With these new turbine technologies, the three states singled out by DOE could satisfy not only national electricity needs but national energy needs. 6

 

In addition, a 2005 DOE assessment of offshore wind energy concluded that U.S. offshore wind out to a distance of 50 miles alone is sufficient to meet 70 percent of national electricity needs. Europe is already tapping its offshore wind. A 2004 assessment by the Garrad Hassan wind energy consulting group concluded that if governments aggressively develop their vast offshore resources, wind could supply all of Europe’s residential electricity by 2020. 7

 

From 2000 to 2007, world wind generating capacity increased from 18,000 megawatts to an estimated 92,000 megawatts. In early 2008 it will pass the 100,000-megawatt milestone. Since 2000, capacity has been growing at 25 percent annually, doubling every three years. 8

 

The world leader in total capacity is Germany, followed by the United States, Spain, India, and Denmark. Measured by share of national electricity supplied by wind, Denmark is the leader, at 20 percent. Three north German states now get more than 30 percent of their electricity from wind. For Germany as a whole, it is 7 percent—and climbing. 9

 

Denmark is now looking to push the wind share of its electricity to 50 percent, with most of the additional power coming from offshore. In contemplating the prospect of wind becoming the leading source of electricity, 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. 10

 

For many years now, the top five countries—with roughly 70 percent of world wind generating capacity—have dominated growth in the industry, but this is now changing as the industry goes global, with 70 countries now harnessing their wind resources. Among the emerging wind powers are China, France, and Canada, each of which doubled its wind electric generation in 2006. 11

 

One of the early concerns with wind energy was the risk it posed to birds, but this can be overcome by conducting studies and careful siting to avoid risky areas for birds. The most recent research indicates that bird fatalities from wind farms are minuscule compared with deaths from flying into skyscrapers, colliding with cars, or being captured by cats. 12

 

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 U.S. communities, for instance, among ranchers in Colorado or dairy farmers in upstate New York, the competition for wind farms is intense. This is not surprising, since a large, advanced design wind turbine can generate $300,000 worth of electricity in a year. Farmers, with no investment on their part, typically receive $3,000–10,000 a year in royalties for each wind turbine erected on their land. 13

 

One of wind’s attractions is that it requires so little land compared with other sources of renewable energy. For example, a corn farmer in northern Iowa can put a wind turbine on a quarter-acre of land that can produce $300,000 worth of electricity per year. This same quarter-acre would produce 40 bushels of corn that in turn could produce 120 gallons of ethanol worth $300. Since the turbines occupy less than 1 percent of the land in a wind farm, this technology lets farmers harvest both energy and crops from the same land. Thousands of ranchers in the wind-rich Great Plains will soon be earning more from wind royalties than from cattle sales. 14

 

At the moment, growth in wind electricity generation is primarily constrained by wind turbine manufacturing capacity. But the important question is how much of the world’s energy needs can wind power meet. To gain perspective, we look at what governments are planning, the size of wind farms under construction and proposed, and the transmission lines that are being planned. 15

 

The official U.S. goal of one day getting 20 percent of its electricity from wind means developing at least 300,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity. Since 1 megawatt of wind generating capacity can supply electricity to 300 U.S. homes, wind development on this scale would satisfy the needs of 90 million households. In France, a newcomer to wind energy, the government target is 14,000 megawatts of wind by 2010. Spain, which already has nearly 12,000 megawatts of capacity, is shooting for 20,000 megawatts by 2010. 16

 

At the local level, Texas, the state that long led the country in oil production, has taken the lead in wind generation as well. Governor Rick Perry assembled a number of wind farm developers and transmission line builders to link wind-rich west Texas and the Texas panhandle to the state’s population centers. This package could lead to the development of 23,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, enough to satisfy the residential electricity needs of 7 million homes. 17

 

In California, the electric utility Southern California Edison is planning a 4,500-megawatt wind project in the southern end of the state. In east central South Dakota, Clipper Windpower has purchased wind rights on enough land to develop 3,000 megawatts of generating capacity. At the national level, wind farm proposals in late 2007 exceeded an estimated 100,000 megawatts, nearly 10 times existing capacity. 18

 

In Canada, Katabatic Power and Deutsche Bank are planning a 3,000-megawatt wind farm in British Columbia, which would produce enough electricity to supply some 900,000 homes. The United Kingdom has a 1,000-megawatt offshore wind farm, the London Array, under construction in the Severn Estuary and a 1,500-megawatt wind farm, the Atlantic Array, off the coast of Devon, in the planning stage. Germany is planning several offshore wind farms of a similar size. And China has several 1,000-megawatt wind farms on the drawing board. 19

 

Another clue to the scale of future wind farm development can be seen in transmission lines under construction and being planned. Legislatures in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, California, and Minnesota in the United States combined their support for huge wind farm complexes with the construction of transmission lines to ensure that the two move forward together, avoiding the chicken-and-egg problem. 20

 

A number of interstate transmission lines are also being built and discussed. In the north central United States, wind farms in eastern North Dakota and South Dakota are being linked to load centers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. A group of operators is proposing a transmission line that would link the vast wind resources of Kansas and Oklahoma with the southeastern United States, carrying electricity from proposed wind farms with 13,000 megawatts of generating capacity. Another group in the upper Midwest is looking at transmission lines that will link the wind resource riches of the Dakotas with the densely populated East Coast. In the West, the governors of California, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming have agreed to build a “Frontier Line” that would link the low-cost wind resources of Wyoming with Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and power-hungry California. 21

 

In Europe, Airtricity, an Irish development firm with wind farms in several countries, and ABB, a leader in building energy infrastructure, have proposed an offshore super-grid for Europe stretching from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea and southward to the coast of Spain. This grid would not only aid in realizing Europe’s huge offshore wind potential, it would link national grids with each other, thus facilitating more-efficient electricity use throughout the continent. To begin, the companies propose a 10,000-megawatt wind farm project in the North Sea between Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands that would supply 6 million homes with electricity. 22

 

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.

 

Plan B involves a crash program to develop 3 million megawatts of wind generating capacity by 2020. This will require a near doubling of capacity every two years, up from the doubling every three years for the last decade. It will mean 1 megawatt for every 2,500 of the world’s projected 2020 population of 7.5 billion people. Denmark—with 1 megawatt for every 1,700 people—is already well beyond this goal. Spain will likely exceed this per capita goal before 2010 and Germany shortly thereafter. 23

 

This climate-stabilizing initiative would require the installation of 1.5 million 2-megawatt wind turbines. Manufacturing such a huge number of wind turbines over the next 12 years sounds intimidating until the initiative is compared with the 65 million cars the world produces each year. At $3 million per installed turbine, this would involve investing $4.5 trillion over the next dozen years, or $375 billion per year. This compares with world oil and gas capital expenditures that are projected to reach $1 trillion per year by 2016. 24

 

Wind turbines can be mass-produced on assembly lines. Indeed, the idled capacity in the U.S. automobile industry is sufficient to produce the wind turbines to reach the Plan B global goal. 25

 

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. The Spanish firm Gamesa, a leading wind turbine manufacturer, recently set up operations in an abandoned U.S. Steel plant in Pennsylvania. 26

 

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