Wind Energy: Coming to a Grid near You

The winds of change are blowing across our nation's energy sector. No longer just a negligible power source with limited applications, wind energy is poised to become a major energy player in the United States with widespread distribution via the huge network of power grids.

Basically, wind energy works by using turbines to convert the kinetic energy of the wind into other forms of energy. Large, modern wind turbines operate together in wind farms to produce electricity for utilities. Homeowners and remote villages use small turbines to help meet their lower-volume energy needs.

During the past two decades, technological breakthroughs have driven down the cost of wind energy more than 80 percent. Consequently, wind generation is experiencing a 20 percent to 30 percent annual growth, which makes it the most rapidly increasing large-scale power generation technology in the world. According to researchers at the Electric Power Research Institute (, if utility networks are able to successfully integrate large concentrations of wind energy into electric power grid system, this clean form of power could boost its contribution to U.S. electricity from 0.4 percent in 2004 to as much as 5 percent by 2020. As officials from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Wind & Hydropower Technologies Program ( point out, wind energy diversifies the nation's energy supply, takes advantage of a domestic resource, and helps the nation meet its commitments to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, which threaten the stability of global climates.

EPRI staff members explain that advanced design and the use of stronger, lighter-weight materials have made wind turbines larger and more efficient than ever. For example, some turbines sit on top of towers that measure more than 110 meters in height. As far as generating power goes, one company is testing a 5 megawatt turbine.

Unfortunately, the generation of wind energy does have some inherent problems. EPRI President Steven Specker explains in a commentary in EPRI Journal's spring 2006 issue that land-use concerns will make wind power inappropriate for many sites. He also states that wind resource limitations -- such as unpredictable intermittency -- will exclude other locations. He emphasizes that finding sites with the strongest, most consistent wind patterns may not be as challenging as finding economical ways to transmit the electricity generated from remote sites to major load centers.

One recent high-profile incident involving the proposed placement of a wind project near Cape Cod, Mass. illustrates the concerns that some communities have about wind farms being placed in their own backyards. In 2005, Cape Wind Associates proposed placing an off-shore 130-turbine wind farm near the resort. Backed by local residents, opponents complain the 24-square-mile project would harm tourism and fishing. Additionally, they have concerns about the potential hazards the 400-foot-high turbines could pose to ships navigating Nantucket Sound.

Despite the predictable instances of local opposition to wind farms, the advocates of wind power are committed to forging ahead with more projects in many locales throughout the United States, particularly in sparsely populated areas in the upper Midwest, the Great Plains, and the Southwest.

At present, the federal government is striving to provide several different types of funding to promote the development of renewable energy sources, including wind power. For example, Section 17 of the 2005 Energy Policy Act (Pub. Law No. 109-58) establishes a loan guarantee program administered by DOE to provide incentives for innovative energy technologies that avoid, reduce, or sequester air pollutants or greenhouse gases. Eligible projects include wind energy projects and other new technologies, such as solar energy and coal gasification. However, a number of U.S. senators have criticized DOE for not moving fast enough to implement the program. In response, DOE officials have countered that they currently are having problems finding the needed agency resources to implement the loan program.

Additionally, President George W. Bush's request for the 2007 fiscal budget, which was sent to Congress on Feb. 6, proposes an overall budget for DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy of $1.17 billion, up $2.6 million, or 0.2 percent, from last year's budget. However, critics of the administration, such as the Sierra Club (, complain this amount is too small. They further assert that President Bush missed a great opportunity last year when he opposed adding a federal renewable portfolio standard to the omnibus energy bill that would have required the nation's utilities to produce 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, by 2020.

Even without robust federal funding, wildcatting for wind energy is becoming a booming business as the United States attempts to develop a diverse portfolio of power generation choices that includes clean, renewable sources. As far as solving our nation's future energy needs, part of the answer is indeed blowing in the wind.

This editorial originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 17, No. 6

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.