Copyright Earth Policy Institute 2003
WIND POWER SET TO BECOME
WORLD'S #1 ENERGY SOURCE
Lester R. Brown
In 1991, a national wind resource inventory taken by the U.S. Department of
Energy startled the world when it reported that the three most wind-rich
states--North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas--had enough harnessable wind energy
to satisfy national electricity needs. Now a new study by a team of
engineers at Stanford reports that the wind energy potential is actually
substantially greater than that estimated in 1991.
Advances in wind turbine design since 1991 allow turbines to operate at
lower wind speeds, to harness more of the wind's energy, and to harvest it
at greater heights--dramatically expanding the harnessable wind resource.
Add to this the recent bullish assessments of offshore wind potential, and
the enormity of the wind resource becomes apparent. Wind power can meet not
only all U.S. electricity needs, but all U.S. energy needs.
In a joint assessment of global wind resources called Wind Force 12, the
European Wind Energy Association and Greenpeace concluded that the world's
wind-generating potential--assuming that only 10 percent of the earth's land
area would be available for development--is double the projected world
electricity demand in 2020. A far larger share of the land area could be
used for wind generation in sparsely populated, wind-rich regions, such as
the Great Plains of North America, northwest China, eastern Siberia, and the
Patagonian region of Argentina. If the huge offshore potential is added to
this, it seems likely that wind power could satisfy not only world
electricity needs but perhaps even total energy needs. (See data
Over the last decade wind has been the world's fastest-growing energy
source. Rising from 4,800 megawatts of generating capacity in 1995 to 31,100
megawatts in 2002, it increased a staggering sixfold. Worldwide, wind
turbines now supply enough electricity to satisfy the residential needs of
40 million Europeans.
Wind is popular because it is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely
distributed, climate-benign, and clean--attributes that no other energy
source can match. The cost of wind-generated electricity has dropped from
38¢ a kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to roughly 4¢ a kilowatt-hour today
on prime wind sites. Some recently signed U.S. and U.K. long-term supply
contracts are providing electricity at 3¢ a kilowatt-hour. Wind Force 12
projected that the average cost per kilowatt hour of wind-generated
electricity will drop to 2.6¢ by 2010 and to 2.1¢ by 2020. U.S. energy
consultant Harry Braun says that if wind turbines are mass-produced on
assembly lines like automobiles, the cost of wind-generated electricity
could drop to 1-2¢ per kilowatt hour.
Although wind-generated electricity is already cheap, its cost continues to
fall. In contrast with oil, there is no OPEC to set prices for wind. And in
contrast to natural gas prices, which are highly volatile and can double in
a matter of months, wind prices are declining.
Another great appeal of wind is its wide distribution. In the United States,
for example, some 28 states now have utility-scale wind farms feeding
electricity into the local grid. While a small handful of countries controls
the world's oil, nearly all countries can tap wind energy.
Denmark leads the world in the share of its electricity from wind--20
percent. In terms of sheer generating capacity, Germany leads with 12,000
megawatts. By the end of 2003, it will have already surpassed its 2010 goal
of 12,500 megawatts of generating capacity. For Germany, this rapid growth
in wind power is central to reaching its goal of reducing carbon emissions
40 percent by 2020.
Rapid worldwide growth is projected to continue as more countries turn to
wind. In addition to the early leaders--Denmark, Germany, Spain, and the
United States--many other countries have ambitious plans, including the
United Kingdom, France, Brazil, and China.
In densely populated Europe, the off-shore potential for developing wind is
also being exploited. Denmark is now building its second off-shore wind
farm, this one with 160 megawatts of generating capacity. Germany has some
12,000 megawatts of off-shore generating capacity under consideration.
Wind power is now a viable, robust, fast-growing industry. Cheap electricity
from wind makes it economical to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen.
Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the highly efficient fuel cells that will
be used widely in the future to power motor vehicles and to supply
electricity, heating, and cooling for buildings. Hydrogen also offers a way
of storing wind energy and of transporting it efficiently by pipeline or in
liquefied form by ship.
With the wind industry's engineering know-how and manufacturing experience,
it would be relatively easy to scale up the size of the industry, even
doubling it annually for several years, if the need arose. If, for example,
crop-shrinking heat waves raise food prices and generate public pressure to
quickly reduce carbon emissions by replacing coal and oil with wind and
hydrogen, it will be possible to do so. If the need arises to shift quickly
to hydrogen-fueled automobiles, this can be done by converting
gasoline-burning internal combustion engines to hydrogen with inexpensive
For energy investors, growth in the future lies with wind and the hydrogen
produced with cheap wind-generated electricity. Solar cell sales are growing
at over 30 percent a year and are likely to supply much of the electricity
for the 1.7 billion people who are still without electricity, most of them
living in developing country villages. But solar cells are still too costly
to supply the vast amounts of energy required to power a modern economy.
World coal burning peaked in 1996 and has fallen 2 percent since then. It is
a fading industry, not an exciting investment prospect. Nor is oil
particularly promising, since world production is not likely to expand far
beyond current levels. Production of natural gas, the cleanest and least
climate-disruptive of the fossil fuels, is likely to continue expanding for
a few more decades, fortuitously developing an infrastructure that can be
adapted for hydrogen. Nuclear power generation is expected to peak soon,
when the large number of aging plants that will be closing down will exceed
the small number of plants that are under construction.
The energy future belongs to wind. The world energy economy became
progressively more global during the twentieth century as the world turned
to oil. It promises to reverse direction and become more local during the
twenty-first century as the world turns to wind, wind-generated hydrogen,
and solar cells. Wind and wind-generated hydrogen will shape not only the
energy sector of the global economy but the global economy itself.
For more information on wind power and the emerging wind/hydrogen economy,
see Lester Brown's forthcoming book, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress
and a Civilization in Trouble.
Chapter 1 is now online. Click here.
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