Windmills turn the tables on renewable energy

When someone mentions “renewable energy,” what comes to mind? Solar panels on a roof? Biodiesel-powered cars? The term covers several technologies that could power the green economy of the future. However, one type of renewable energy is beginning to emerge as the best alternative to fossil fuels: wind power.

A 2007 report by the Global Wind Energy Council estimated that wind power generated 94 gigawatts of electricity worldwide, up from just 7.6 gigawatts in 1997. They project that by 2012, this number will be closer to 240 gigawatts.

In the United States, wind power is the second fastest growing source of electricity, providing 35 percent of the new electricity generated in 2007.

Although wind power makes up less than one percent of the national electricity grid, it’s expected to expand massively. The Department of Energy has estimated that by 2030, 20 percent of the U.S. electricity grid could be generated by wind power for a cost of approximately 50 cents per month per household. This expansion has the potential to create some 450,000 jobs, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

The emergence of wind power as the preferred renewable energy source isn’t an accident. The basic turbine technology that provides the basis for wind power has been around for decades. Advances in materials, electricity transmission and turbine mechanics have drastically improved the technology over the years, allowing for greater production of electricity at a lower cost.

Electricity from wind power is generated on farms that consist of multiple turbines. These have an advantage over other power plants, such as coal or nuclear, in that they can easily be built to any size by adding or subtracting turbines. They can be located anywhere sufficient wind speed and frequency is found. As a result, wind farms are popping up everywhere from the plains of Texas to the shores of Massachusetts.

These factors make wind power one of the easiest and cheapest forms of renewable energy to implement. However, it’s still more expensive than traditional fossil-fuel-based electricity generation, and to achieve the goal of 20 percent by 2030, some incentives are still needed.

One such incentive is the federal production tax credit, established in 1992 to help make wind power competitive. It has been extended twice since expiring in 1999, but it lacks a long-term guarantee, creating uncertainty as to the future of wind power.

Another major incentive is the existence of Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which require that a certain percentage of the electricity grid come from renewable sources. With the passage of Initiative 937 in 2006, Washington became one of the first states to implement an RPS. Due to this initiative, which called for electric utilities to obtain 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, wind power has increased statewide to 2.8 percent of the electricity grid, and up to 5 percent in the Seattle area.

While renewable energy covers a wide variety of sources, wind power provides the path of least resistance in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. With a little more encouragement, we can easily achieve a goal of 20 percent wind power by 2030.

Reach columnist Mike Noon at opinion@dailyuw.com.

Please read our Comment policy.