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Capturing the Wind: Power for the 21st Century
(Released June 2008)

  by Ethan Goffman  


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Wind, Wind Everywhere


Local opposition may be slowing wind power in places, but only marginally. With its relatively low installation cost, providing an endless supply of virtually free energy, wind is proving to be the most competitive of renewable energies. The source of solar power might seem even more ubiquitous, but high installation costs have blunted its appeal. Hydropower is cost competitive, but depends on the availability of rushing water; furthermore, the dams required to generate hydropower alter local hydrology, creating harmful environmental effects. Biofuels, such as ethanol, depend upon the availability of land that may have other uses, and such exotic-sounding alternatives as geothermal power work only where there is a dependable source of underground heat, notably in Iceland.

farmers and wind towers
Wind turbines near Dhule, India

The following chart gives a quick comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of various energy sources, both renewable and nonrenewable:

Energy Source Comparison
Oil Inexpensive until it runs out. Causes local pollution and is a heavy contributor to global warming. Nonrenewable and may be nearing its peak availability.
Natural Gas Inexpensive and clean burning. Extensive reserves. Can be difficult to mine and storage is difficult. Flammable. Nonrenewable. Infrastructure not in place for fueling vehicles.
Coal Inexpensive. Extensive reserves. Highly polluting in every aspect, from mining to local pollution to global warming. Nonrenewable. Difficult to use for personal transportation.
Nuclear No local or global warming emissions. Expensive start-up costs. Fear of nuclear accidents and terrorism. Wastes pose a long-term hazard. Difficult to use for personal transportation.
Biofuel Available from farm products. Easily produced locally. Takes energy input to create farm products. Displaces land that can be used for food or wilderness. Current biofuels, notably corn ethanol, may cause a net increase in greenhouse emissions.
Solar Infinitely renewable. Easily produced locally. No emissions. With current technology and worldwide silicon shortage start up costs are extremely high. Panels take up a relatively large area; solar depends on a steady source of sun.
Hydro Renewable. No emissions. Expensive start up. Depends upon availability of rapid water. Building dams alters hydrology resulting in population displacement and environmental costs.
Wind Renewable. No emissions. Cost competitive. Depends upon wind availability. Intermittent. Best wind farm locations often far from human habitation. May harm birds and bats and have other local environmental effects.

Given its advantages it's not surprising that wind power is growing at an enormous rate. As one source explains, "wind power produced in the United States in 2001 was comparable in price to conventional power produced using natural gas" (Johnson). As energy prices increase and wind generation becomes more efficient, the balance leans increasingly in wind power's favor.

Wind power is also competitive because of government subsidies. Notable in the United States is the Production Tax Credit (PTC), which "provides a 1.9 cent per kilowatt hour credit for electricity produced commercially from a wind energy facility during the first ten years of its operation" (Greenpeace 46). Although there is little additional federal policy, there is also an array of "state-based polices such as Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), Renewable Electricity Standards, and Renewable Energy Production Incentive (REPI)" (UPI, Wind) to spur wind energy development. And other countries less averse to government intervention, notably in Europe, have been far more aggressive about comprehensive planning to build a potent wind energy network.

Free market purists may dislike government incentives for wind power; theoretically, they contend, wind should be able to compete on its own. Yet wind is fighting against deeply entrenched energy interests with long-term subsidies of their own. Indeed, Greenpeace claims that "conventional energy sources, such as coal and oil, receive an estimated $250-300 billion in subsidies per year worldwide" (15). According to one expert, ""It's kind of hard to say that wind energy wouldn't be pretty attractive in the absence of subsidies, because coal, oil, gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric power all get some form of subsidization" (Averett).

Despite any subsidies, and despite its competitiveness and cleanness, wind power remains far behind other means of energy generation. As of 2006, "modern technologies, such as geothermal, wind, solar, and ocean energy together provided some 0.8% of final energy consumption" (UPI Australian). Yet, given the problems with other sources and the advantages of wind, it is not surprising that the use of wind power is growing exponentially, notably in Europe but, in the past few years, also in China, India, and the United States. Indeed, "global wind power capacity reached 94,100 megawatts by the end of 2007, up 27 percent from the previous year, and then topped 100,000 megawatts by April 2008" (Sawin 1). This growth is occurring in spite of a shortage of parts for wind turbines. This shortage will not last; "manufacturers are now positioning themselves to increase production of gearboxes, rotors, and other components, and it is expected that this will eliminate the turbine shortage by sometime in 2009" (Sawin 1). The use of wind power can be expected to accelerate in the coming decades.

As of 2008 Europe remains the largest user of wind power, but it may not remain so for long. While it's true that"Germany remains the world leader in wind power capacity, with a total of 22,247 megawatts, almost 24 percent of the global total" (Sawin 2), other countries are leaping forward. China, notably, "was barely in the wind business three years ago but . . . in 2007 trailed only the United States and Spain in wind installations and was fifth in total installed capacity" (Sawin 2). India, too, has been a huge surprise in the last few years; it now ranks "fourth overall for total installations, with an estimated 8,000 megawatts" (Sawin 2).

chart of rising wind power use
Wind Capacity Increase

Another country leaping forward in wind power use is the United States. According to the American Wind Energy Association, wind power generating capacity grew and astounding 45% in 2007, to total 16,818 megawatts (Installed). The United States has also emerged as a major market for European wind manufacturers: "European wind energy companies have been making a beeline for the United States, which is fast emerging as an investment hub for wind energy generators" (UPI Wind). While early wind farms appeared mostly in California, the stereotypical environmental state, Texas is now the U.S. leader in wind power, with "more than 3,000 MW now installed, including three of the five largest wind farms in the U.S." (Welander). Texas is a sensible place for this explosion of wind power, given that it is ranked second in wind power potential, behind the smaller and less economically vibrant North Dakota (Welander).

wind god blowing
Aeolus, Greek God of the winds
Despite the meteoric rise of wind power in the United States from almost none in 1980, it still generates less than 1% of total U.S. energy (NRC 1). Yet a U.S. Department of Energy Study says that wind can generate 20% of America's power by 2030. The potential for growth, then, remains tremendous, not only in America but around the world. In coming years a wave of turbines spinning dizzily in the distance should become a common sight. This will be the contribution of wind, a mythic, ubiquitous force from the primeval human past, to a sustainable human future.

© 2008, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals


  1. American Wind Energy Association. Installed U.S. Wind Power Capacity Surged 45% in 2007: American Wind Energy Association Market Report. January 2008.

  2. American Wind Energy Association. Wind Energy Basics.

  3. American Wind Energy Association. Wind Energy and Economic Development: Building Sustainable Jobs and Communities.

  4. American Wind Energy Association. Wind Energy FAQs, 2002.

  5. Arnett, Edward, et al. Patterns of Bat Fatalities at Wind Energy Facilities in North America. Journal of Wildlife Management 51:1, January, 2008.

  6. Averett, Steven. Written on the wind. Industrial Engineer 37: 3, March 1, 2005.

  7. Brown, Alan S. Wind Capacity Blows Away Records. Mechanical Engineering , March, 2008.

  8. Ewing, Rex. Life on the Sunny Side: Is Homegrown Wind Power Right for You? Countryside & Small Stock Journal 92:1, January, 2008.

  9. Ebbert, Stephanie. A Long-Winded Debate ; Seven Years of Spirited Arguments on Cape Proposal Have Solved Little. Boston Globe, March 14, 2008.

  10. The Economist. Turning Wind Power on Its Side. March 11, 2006.

  11. Gobar Times: Environment for Beginners. Tilting for the Windmills. New Delhi, India: Center for Science and Environment. 2006.

  12. Greenpeace & European Wind Energy Association. Windforce 12. June 30, 2002.

  13. Heiman, Michael & Barry Solomon. Fueling U.S. Transportation: The Hydrogen Economy and Its Alternatives. Environment , October 1, 2007.

  14. Horn, Jason, Edward Arnett & Thomas Kunz. Behavioral Responses of Bats to Operating Wind Turbines. The Journal of Wildlife Management 72:1, 2008, pp. 123-132.

  15. Johnson, Gregory, et al. Mortality of bats at a large-scale wind power development at Buffalo Ridge, Minnesota. American Midland Naturalist 150:2, October 1, 2003, pp. 332-342.

  16. Layton, Julia. How Wind Power Works. How Stuff Works.

  17. Marsh, David. Wind Chimes In. Electronics Design, Strategy, News. October 14, 2004.

  18. National Research Council. Environmental Impacts of Wind Energy Projects. Washington: National Academies Press, 2007.

  19. Rawlins, Wade. Wind farms: Where? Clean-Energy Generators Popular If Not Too Close to Home. The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C. March 4, 2008.

  20. Sawin, Janet. Wind Power Continues Rapid Rise. Worldwatch Institute, April 2008.

  21. Schneider, David. Penetrating Winds. American Scientist, November 1, 2007.

  22. University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Renewable Energy Research Laboratory. Wind Power: Capacity Factor, Intermittency, and What Happens When the Wind Doesn't Blow.

  23. UPI Space Daily. Detailed Overview of the Australian Renewable Energy Industry. March 11, 2008.

  24. UPI Space Daily. Wind Energy Companies Flock To North America. December 20, 2007.

  25. U.S. Department of Energy. 20% Wind Energy by 2030: Increasing Wind Energy's Contribution to U.S. Electricty Supply. May 2008 (prepublication version).

  26. Welander, Peter. Wind Power's Growing Contribution: Wind turbine and grid interface advancements bring this green power source into the mainstream. Control Engineering 15:10, October 1, 2007.

Note: All webpages cited here have been downloaded in May of 2008