Wind Energy Boom Sweeping U.S., Industry Watchers Say

Wind Energy Boom Sweeping U.S., Industry Watchers Say

U.S. citizens are beginning to come to terms with the country’s energy needs and are finding an answer blowing in the wind, according to electric power industry experts.

“Last year, and again this year, wind is going to be the second largest source of new power generation coming online,” said Christine Real de Azua, a spokesperson for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) in Washington, D.C.

Natural gas remains the leader in new generating capacity, but wind, which currently supplies less than one percent of the nation’s energy, is booming, she adds.

This year alone, the industry is on course to add 3,000 megawatts of wind power generation. The country’s total wind power capacity was just 2,500 megawatts in 2000, Real de Azua says.

A megawatt is enough electricity to power 250 to 300 average U.S. homes, according to AWEA.

This August, U.S. wind energy generation capacity breezed over a milestone of 10,000 megawatts. That’s enough electricity to power at least 2.5 million homes.

Stephen Wilson is a renewable energy analyst with Xcel Energy in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He says increased awareness of the country’s energy needs is helping drive the interest in wind power.

“With the cost of oil, the Iraqi war going on, and natural gas prices spiking up, I think people’s consciousness of our energy position has probably hit an all time high,” he said.

And wind “is a very visible renewable energy resource,” he added in reference to the wind towers, which can stand some 300 feet (91 meters) tall and have giant rotors spinning in the breeze.

In addition, Wilson and Real de Azua point out that the industry is racing to install and turn on new wind turbines before a tax incentive expires at the end of 2007.

Buffalo Ridge

Buffalo Ridge””a range of hills that juts southwest across South Dakota, Minnesota, and into Iowa””is a shining example of the wind power boom, according to Real de Azua.

For generations, the glacier-deposited soils there hosted crops such as corn and soybeans. Today the electric power industry considers the region one of the best wind resources in the country, and turbines are popping up there like weeds.

More than 500 towers line the ridge, and several hundred more are in the works, according to Conrad Schardin, a Lake Benton, Minnesota, farmer and wind advocate.

Schardin, who has had turbines spinning on his farmland for more than a decade, is currently leading a community wind power project to install 30 megawatts of new capacity on the ridge by the end of 2007.

Power companies have plans to add an additional 150 megawatts of capacity in the region, he said.

Meanwhile, Xcel Energy is in the midst of a 160-million-U.S.-dollar update to the region’s transmission lines to export an additional 500 megawatts of wind energy from the rural ridge to urban centers.

Wilson of Xcel Energy explains that transmission capacity needs to grow to deliver the wind energy.

“Wind generation goes up much faster, perhaps three times faster, than transmission can ever be built,” he said. “It’s something we are trying to manage.”

And all the development, Schardin said, is a boost to the local economy.

“The average tower generates 4,500 to 5,500 [U.S.] dollars per year, and each tower takes up less than an acre [0.4 hectare]. That’s a good return,” he said.

Wind Potential

Today, almost half of all U.S. electricity is generated from coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration. Nuclear and natural gas account for nearly 20 percent each.

Wind itself makes up less than one percent of the total mix, but its “potential is vast,” Real de Azua said.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates there is enough harvestable wind blowing across the country to meet the twice the current total energy demand.

According to AWEA, even states that appear to have little wind are installing new wind generation capacity.

“A case in point is New York,” Real de Azua said. “People don’t think New York is really windy like the Dakotas, but its resource potential is about the same as California, and California has had a lot of wind energy development.”

California currently has 2,323 megawatts of wind power installed, and until this summer it had the highest wind power capacity in the country. Texas squeaked past California in July, reporting 2,370 megawatts installed.

Xcel Energy’s Wilson said discussions on wind potential are “very subjective depending on who is doing the analysis,” but he agreed that the industry is in the midst of a growth spurt.

The energy company has seen its wind resources surge sixfold in the past five years, he said.

And Schardin, the farmer and wind energy advocate, says he sees no slowdown soon. “As long as we can get rid of the power, they’ll keep on developing,” he said.

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