Is the Answer Blowing in the Wind?

As one of the most popular renewable energy technologies, wind energy has received loads of media attention in recent years. It’s been touted as the most versatile technology to power our future, an expensive obstruction to once-pristine landscapes, a bird killer, and more. As we now know, the truth nearly always lies somewhere in the middle.

Wind farms have been popping up across the world over the past few decades. In the United States, that pace has been eye-popping; in fact, the capacity of installed wind generation increased by more than an order of magnitude between 2002 and 2012 and made up just under three percent of all US generating capacity in 2011. This nearly carbon-neutral technology (don’t forget impacts over the entire lifecycle) has developed significantly even in the last ten years, and the turbines commonly used in utility-scale projects today are between 80 and 100 meters tall. This map shows wind potential in the US at a height of 80 meters. In general, wind speeds of 6.5 meters per second (orange) or higher are suitable for development.

Average US wind speeds at 80 meters, both on land and offshore.

So it’s clear that the US has plenty of wind resources. A 2008 study by the Department of Energy determined that wind could meet 20 percent of national electricity demand by 2030 at a minimally elevated cost to consumers (around $0.50 more per household per month). While the report identified a number of challenges, DOE concluded that wind generation on this scale was entirely feasible alongside a national commitment to cleaner energy.

The resources are there and we can scale-up in a way that’s cost effective. But what are some of the challenges? Often, the first one that comes up is the variability of the wind and the challenge of storing excess electricity to use during peak demand. Today, when demand spikes, ‘peaking plants’ – smaller power plants that respond quickly and generally burn natural gas – are called into service. We can’t increase the winds by will (remarkably, considering the success with which we are altering the climate), so an electricity grid that relies largely on wind without a system to handle peak demand would be vulnerable to intermittency. Storing excess energy produced during times of low demand to release during peak demand is an obvious solution, but the technology isn’t quite there. A few storage technologies exist today, such as pumped water storage and compressed air, but none is yet cost-effective or appropriate to implement on a national scale (again, regional variations impede upon the be-all-end-all approach we are accustomed to). And the problem of grid-scale storage doesn’t only affect wind – it’s a big challenge for solar, as well.

One concern that we hear about from time to time has to do with the hazard turbines can pose to bird populations. This is a real problem, but one that proponents are confident can be managed. One of the most effective ways to reduce bird deaths is through better siting to avoid building wind farms in migratory paths. Concerns about bird populations present an interesting challenge as in some cases they have pitted traditional allies – environmental organizations and the renewable energy industry – against each other.

Another challenge has affected wind farms across the country, and has hit offshore wind development particularly hard. Known as NIMBY (Not In My Backyard), the frequent perception that wind turbines ruin beautiful vistas and take over the landscape, among other concerns, presents a constant and significant hurdle for wind projects. This is a primary reason that there are still no offshore wind farms operating in the United States. The most (in)famous example of NIMBY is the proposed Cape Wind Project off the coast of Massachusetts. Many of those opposed on these grounds actually support wind energy in general, just out of sight. I suppose those who support coal might feel similarly about coal-fired power plants.

The Verdict: Wind resources abound in the United States, and we have the means to harness a substantial amount cost-effectively. This technology is already being deployed on a large scale, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t play an even larger role in our energy profile going forward. As long as we take relevant concerns seriously, a commitment to aggressively pursue wind energy will prove to be a real winner.

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