Reading the Wind Industry’s Undercurrents

There is more to the direction of this country than Democrats vs. Republicans, but in an election year it is hard to get past the imminent choice we as a nation face in a matter of months. Never before have I felt that an election carried so much weight or that I had such a personal stake and burden in the outcome. My impressions were only affirmed a couple weeks ago as I was again shamed by my government.

RE Insider, April 12, 2004 [] I recently had the honor of attending Global WINDPOWER 2004, an international conference on wind energy. My ticket to the conference was the column I wrote on Feb. 10 for the Cornell Daily Sun comparing wind turbines to fuzzy bunnies. It ended up on the desk of the Executive Director of the American Wind Energy Association and landed me a personal invitation. The conference was interesting and a great place for networking, but had a wholly odd dynamic. Unlike the solar conferences I’ve attended where everyone is there to “save the world,” this wind conference was full of big businessmen with no interest in the environment. ExxonMobil, of all companies, had a booth and a contingent of a dozen hand-shaking representatives. Initially horrified when I saw those two stylized, linked x’s that represent the bane of renewable energy, I feared that they were there to spy on the wind industry and shut it down. Not so. Apparently they have a big, profitable business selling lubricants for the gear boxes in wind turbines. The oil barons saw this as just another business opportunity. They were joined by the steel industry, welding equipment manufacturers, rope dealers, and lawyers. This conference was about making connections and making money. There was little talk about climate change or carbon emissions, mercury levels in tuna or smog-induced asthma. It was strange to be surrounded by 3000 people interested in wind energy without focusing on the clean nature of the power it produces. It was also refreshing, as it means that wind power has broken beyond the niche market. Economies of scale over the last few years have dropped the price of wind power to the level of conventional power. Wind power investment is at a tipping point between something to be done out of the goodness of one’s heart and being sound financial sense. The next few years will see if engineers can pull the price down even further, knocking the scales over. To help make sure that happens, we can look at how we got to this balancing point in the first place. This historic explanation was given at the opening plenary of the conference, along with plans for the future. The U.K. Director of Investment, the Director-General of the German Environment Ministry, the Brazilian Vice Minister of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, and the Indian Minister of State for Non Conventional Energy Sources all shared what their countries had done in the past few years to promote wind energy and the policy decisions that will carry them ahead. Germany blew everyone out of the water, boasting one third of the global installed wind power capacity. In the last five years they have doubled their new-renewable energy capacity to eight percent and have official targets of doubling this again by 2010, achieving 20 percent by 2020 and eventually relying upon 50 percent renewable energy. The rest of the European Union also has the target of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. The U.K. additionally has a target of cutting their carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent by 2050 — the much contended Kyoto Protocol, that the U.S. found to be too stringent, only calls for an eight percent reduction from the U.K. Kyle McSlarrow, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, also spoke at the opening plenary, giving the “American” point of view. He filled his twenty minute address with campaign-pushing Bush-praising but little talk about wind. He spoke about the impressive record of the current administration on energy issues: we are about to have the first zero-emissions coal plant. He also claimed that it is very important for the U.S. to go ahead and drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. representative to the windpower conference was speaking about the need for more oil drilling. It was absurd! Did he not have a chance to change his power point slide from last month’s address to the oil and gas industry? I was ready to stand up and jeer, but looking around the room I didn’t see any upset faces. Was everyone asleep? Why weren’t the Europeans laughing out loud at this ridiculous juxtaposition between their action and our lack of vision? It is not as though wind technology in Europe is any better than it is in the U.S., nor does the wind blow stronger on the other side of the pond. It is no less expensive for them to use renewable energy, yet they have goals of twenty percent renewables by 2020 while the U.S. market will be lucky to have five. The U.S. could have had a renewables goal, but President Bush is firmly against such a policy. I used to think that engineers were needed to bring the cost of renewable energy down so that the policy makers could promote it and the average citizen could afford it, but now I feel otherwise. The price has come down to where it is today because the policy makers in countries like Germany have encouraged the necessary economies of scale. Without good policy to financially support the research, the engineers will not improve the technology. My attempts at being above politics have come crashing down, and I see that everything hinges on this game of promises and popularity contests. While it is weak and short-sighted to use Bush as the conclusion to all arguments about why the U.S. is not doing enough for the environment, his strong influence on setting U.S. policy is responsible for a good portion of it. Are you registered to vote? About the Author… Abigail Krich will graduate this May from Cornell University with a B.S. in Biological and Environmental Engineering. She has focused her studies on renewable energy systems. In 2002 she co-founded the Cornell University Renewable Energy Society and in 2003 co-founded the Cornell University Solar Decathlon Team. She is currently employed as a research assistant in a materials science laboratory on campus in addition to working for Cornell Utilities on a wind project she proposed. In the summer of 2003 she worked for Berkshire Photovoltaic Services, a PV contractor in western Massachusetts. In 2002 she did an engineering co-op with Cornell Utilities and the department of Planning Design and Construction. In the summer of 2001 she worked with Professor John Duffy of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell on a project installing and repairing small RE systems in Peru.
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