Tipping Point for Wind Power

Wind power has reached a tipping point where its success and growth as an alternative to fossil fuels will proceed at an increasing pace, ushering in a new era of clean, diversified and domestically produced energy, said Christopher Flavin, president of the WorldWatch Institute.

Boston, Massachusetts – March 17, 2003 [SolarAccess.com] Flavin delivered the keynote address at the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s (NESEA) annual Building Energy conference that brings together a variety of companies and individuals involved with Renewable Energy, sustainability and energy efficiency. While his speech to a packed crowd of more than 1000 people covered a host of topics related to Renewable Energy, Flavin’s focus was clearly on wind energy. “Wind Power is breaking out into the mainstream,” Flavin said. “With scores of incremental advances, and a steadily continuing decline in prices, wind power will be the lowest cost electricity within the next few years.” Flavin cited that three-quarters of the 31,000 MW of wind power currently installed throughout the world was not in place just five years ago. Renewable Energy as a whole has experienced tremendous growth in the past few years with solar growing at around 20 percent a year and wind at just under 30 percent a year. With these high growth rates, Flavin expects Renewable Energy – with wind power in the lead – to become part of the mainstream energy industry. While fossil fuels have long been blamed for significant sources of pollution, their links to geopolitical strife have come under increasing attention as well. “Two thirds of the world’s oil comes from the Middle East,” Flavin said. “If we continue, we will become ever more dependent on what is arguably the most dangerous, least dependable area of the world.” Going further than issues of fuel sources and their origins, Flavin sees much to be addressed from the U.S. energy demand side. “Our disproportionate use of resources is creating displeasure around the world,” Flavin said. “U.S. demand is currently greater than that for both India and Brazil combined.” While many expected the burgeoning economies in rapidly developing countries such as China and India to shift the scales of consumption, Flavin said the U.S. has still managed to increase their world share of oil within the past decade. However, increasing U.S. efficiency, thereby lowering resource demands, and diversifying the energy portfolio with Renewable Energy doesn’t stand a great chance under the Bush administration, Flavin said. “The current administration’s idea of energy diversity is a President and a Vice President from two different oil companies,” Flavin joked. While Renewable Energy and wind in particular have experienced much success in Europe, Flavin said Renewable Energy in the U.S. is not given enough credit where it is due. “Focus on absolute market share does not reflect the industry growth,” Flavin said. Wind Power has led the way with renewables and Flavin attributes much of this to the technology’s benefits that go beyond the obvious environmental ones. Economies of scale from larger turbines to larger wind farms have enabled the industry to drive the price down to where it is competitive with fossil fuels. In an era of market instability, it’s wind power’s insurance against price volatility that is becoming increasingly attractive. Once installed, wind power is not affected by fluctuating fuel prices. While the benefits of wind power have caught on in Europe, the U.S. has yet to create an adequate atmosphere for wind power to flourish in. “Seventy-five percent of wind power is in Europe which doesn’t necessarily have the best wind resources,” Flavin said. “What happened was Europe intervened in the marketplace. They established RPSs (Renewables Portfolio Standards), tax incentives, various financing, low interest capital loans which is so important because all the cost is up front.” Flavin cited Denmark and Spain as two good examples where government policies helped foster the wind power industry. While Denmark made the push for the variety of wind power’s benefits, Spain’s push came less from environmental concerns and more from wanting to create new industries, jobs, and economic development. They are now major exporters of the technology. “The national piece of this is the weakest link,” Flavin said. “A dozen states have undergone much change. Environmental concerns remain strong, but there is a real desire to revitalize local economies. Instead of sending money to other states and countries, if we are to keep it here, Renewable Energy is the means to do this.” Whether wind power will achieve continued growth and success in the U.S. has yet to be seen. The technology is no longer in question, but like every fledgling industry seeking to break out into the mainstream, political will must support that technology. “Wind power has hit a tipping point,” Flavin said. “The question is, where are we going with politics and policies? You don’t get through this early stage without political momentum.” Jesse Broehl can be reached at jesse.broehl@solaraccess.com
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