I recently spoke with Angelika Pullen, communications director for the Global Wind Energy Council, about the impact of the recent U.S. midterm elections on renewables, differences between renewable energy policy in Europe and the U.S. and other wind/renewable-related topics. Here's a transcript of the interview:
JS: In the recent mid-term elections in the United States the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives and closed the gap in the Senate. What does this mean for the future of wind power and renewable energy generally?
AP: It’s hard to say for sure, but the sort of political happening in the U.S. generally doesn’t bode well for renewables. In many European countries like Germany, Spain, and Denmark, there’s strong and steady political commitment to renewable energy, so I’m very optimistic about the European Union’s goal of producing 20% of all energy from renewable sources. That’s going to happen because it’s policy that’s legally binding on all EU member states. As a result, investor confidence is there, and so people go out and build wind farms.
In the U.S. that’s much more tricky because the commitment hasn’t been there on the political level. Investors [in wind and solar farms and other renewable projects] need long term [market] stability in order to make large up-front investments. But without that long-term commitment at the federal level, it’s just not going to happen. From a European point of view it seems to be a product of how the U.S. political system works. The president may have a strong commitment to renewable energy but can’t push policy through Congress. And then there’s the political power of the coal states.
So when it comes to wind, compared to Europe and China especially, the U.S. market is trailing badly and is in disarray at the moment. Last year set a record for wind installations in the U.S. thanks mainly to stimulus money, but in 2011 that will be cut nearly in half.
JS: Nevertheless, during the past few decades wind energy has seen steady and impressive growth around the world. What have been some of the most exciting and significant developments in wind energy?
AP: After an initial spurt of activity in California in the 1980s, which didn’t go very far, wind really got going in Europe in the 90s when countries including Denmark, Germany, and later Spain began taking political action to support wind power, largely through feed-in tariffs. That’s been very successful. The European Union also introduced legislation for specific targets for renewable energy, which incentivized all member states. In the U.S., what we have seen is that wherever governments, typically state governments, make concsious decision to support renewable energy, that provides a framework and leads to significant development. And where the political framework is not in place, renewable tend to not take hold. I think something like 30 states in the U.S. have introduced renewable portfolio standards, which is great. But it’s still missing an overarching national policy that will provide longer-term commitments.
JS: How important is the U.S. when it comes to the future of wind energy?
AP: The U.S. used to be more important than it is today. America still comprises an important chunk of global market, but its share is shrinking every year. This year we’re seeing a U.S. [wind energy] market that’s very slow. Yet globally the market for wind energy is growing, led by China.
JS: The wind energy market may be growing, but it still represents only a tiny percentage of the global energy economy. How do you respond to critics claiming that wind is and can only ever by a niche energy technology?
AP: It depends how and where you look. In some markets where wind energy has grown significantly, it already generates a fair chunk of electricity. In Denmark, for example, 20% of electricity comes from wind. In Spain it’s 15%, and in some parts of Germany already 50%. Globally wind may still be very small, but that’s partly because in many parts of world we haven’t started scratching the surface. We’re seeing very promising signs of development in big, largely untapped regions like Latin America. Some studies claim that the wind resources in Argentina alone could power the entire continent.
JS: One problem that’s always dogged wind power is the fact that wind doesn’t always blow. Since there are not yet any viable means of storing excess electricity generated by wind, how do you answer critics who claim that the intermittent nature of wind makes its an unreliable source of power?
AP: First, I don’t to describe wind as “intermittent,” which means starting and stopping. It’s rarely the case that wind has either completely stopped or is blowing at full blast. It’s normally somewhere in between. More accurately, wind is variable, depending on how strongly the wind blows in any part of a particular area. The variability of wind can be managed in two ways--first by improved forecasting, which helps wind farm developers and operators know beforehand how strongly and how often wind blows in a given region. So when it comes to the demand for electricity, the variability of wind can be factored into the larger picture. The way is through interconnection, meaning having a big, integrated electricity system to capture wind that’s always blowing somewhere. If you have a large system, like in Northern Europe, doesn’t matter if wind ceases to blow in some part of Denmark because there will be areas in Germany where the wind is still blowing. So wind-blow electricity from one region can be shuttled to other areas where wind has temporarily died down.
To read more about my thoughts on wind energy and to check out excerpts from my book-in-progress on renewable energy go to www.renewablebook.com