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Wind Energy is Riding High

Jan 13, 2006,

High gas prices and a concerted effort to curb global warming are breathing new life into the wind industry. About 2,500 megawatts of wind power have been added to the United States' generation mix in the last 12 months, which equates to roughly 9,200 megawatts of total generating wind capacity here.

Nations around the globe are taking action to diversify their energy mixes and to cut harmful emissions. Beyond that, specific industries are finding out that such environmental strategies are good for business: Companies are relying more on alternative fuel sources that cut their energy use and subsequent overhead as well as their carbon dioxide output. DuPont, for example, has reduced its emissions by 40 percent -- between 1990 and 2000 levels by using such techniques as re-using steam heat. Meanwhile, it's producing goods at a 30 percent faster rate.

Wind is one of the beneficiaries of these new dynamics. The growth in wind power construction comes at a time when customers across the country are facing electricity and natural gas rate hikes because of the natural gas supply shortage, with 2005-2006 winter gas prices projected at $10-13 per million BTUs compared to last year's average prices of $5-7 per million BTUs. Wind power, which generates energy without using fuel, provides a hedge against rising energy costs because wind energy production is immune from fuel price spikes.

"The market forces are now in place," says Tom Matthews, president of US Wind Force in Pittsburgh. "By that I mean the numerous mandates that have been passed in the Mid Atlantic region and in New England. The tax credit has also been extended through 2007. Most of the opposition with regard to wind energy is NIMBY -- not in my backyard -- related. The vast majority support renewable energy, particularly wind that is 100 percent emission free."

Certainly, wind is still a small component of the nation's energy mix, producing less than one percent of all electricity here. Still, the American Wind Energy Association estimates that an installed capacity of 9,200 MW of wind power will save over half a billion cubic feet of natural gas per day in 2006, alleviating a portion of the supply pressure that is now facing the natural gas industry and is driving prices upward. The U.S. currently burns about 13 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas for electricity generation, which means that by the end of the year wind power will be reducing natural gas use for power generation by 4-5 percent.

Wind power plants can be permitted and built in one to two years, whereas the drilling of new natural gas fields and the construction of Liquefied Natural Gas terminals takes much longer. The wind association projects that more than 14,000 megawatts of wind capacity could be part of the nation's generation supply by the end of 2007, producing the equivalent of .85 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas.

Rapid Growth

Wind is also riding high because it does not contribute to the nation's environmental problems. Burning fossil fuels for electricity generation causes over a third of the greenhouse gas emissions in the country, as well as more than two-thirds of the emissions that cause acid rain, and one-third of the emissions that cause smog.

"Wind power's rapid growth provides what is potentially the quickest and best supply-side option to ease the natural gas shortage," says Randall Swisher, executive director of the wind association. "We are hopeful that the momentum started in this record-breaking year will continue because of the Congress's foresight in extending the wind energy production tax credit through December 31, 2007. The wind power industry is stepping up to provide the U.S. with a significant amount of its power needs in this time of uncertainty."

To be sure, the wind industry faces many challenges. The wind, for example, does not blow on demand and it generally cannot be economically stored. That's why wind farms must be backed up by conventional power plants to ensure that electricity will be available when needed. That duplication of capacity not only diminishes the environmental benefits of wind, critics say, but it also increases the cost of wind power while adding an extra burden on the transmission system, although federal regulators have acted to make it easier for wind units to connect to the grid.

And then there's the issue of birds and bats running into the windmills and dying. It's created a bit of an uproar, although the Government Accountability Office released a study on the environmental impacts of wind energy that found that it is not a significant source of bird deaths, especially when viewed in context with other, much more deadly sources of bird mortality like plate glass. "No fuel supply and no form of energy are without consequences," says Frank Maisano, spokesman for a coalition of wind developers in the Mid Atlantic region.

Wind farms, meantime, are generally more expensive to build than fossil-fueled generation. The U.S. Department of Energy says that roughly 80 percent of the cost of wind projects is the machinery, with the balance being site preparation. And with today's steel prices at least 50 percent more than last year, constructing a wind farm is a costly endeavor. Still, once a wind farm is built, the price of the power is stable. Further, with the current subsidy, it is also cost competitive.

Critics of wind power, however, say that the tax breaks and subsidies are paid for by taxpayers and electricity customers. MidAmerican Energy, for example, is scheduled to complete by year-end a 310 megawatt wind farm in Iowa -- a plant it acknowledges would not have been built had it not been for the production tax credit. "Every other form of power generation is subsidized in some manner," says Matthews, with Wind Force.

Good Value

Capital, of course, flows to where it is naturally most welcome and where investors can earn reasonable returns. Along those lines, Siemens AG says that it sees a 10 percent growth in the wind energy market and notes that it plans to invest primarily in China, Europe, India and the United States. The hope is that major players such as Siemens and GE Energy will facilitate further development by making modern technologies more accessible to the utilities that would use them.

"People will pay more for green energy and I wouldn't underestimate the value of these projects in the market," says Barry Abramson, a Wall Street analyst with Gabelli Utilities Fund. Puget Sound Energy, for example, says that wind power is the best value.

The confluence of more government attention with general demand in the market for greater efficiencies, reduced energy costs and a cleaner environment have joined to give wind energy a boost. While wind is a relatively minor component of the nation's energy mix, it is expected to gain a higher profile. And with energy consumption expected to rise about two percent annually for the foreseeable future, the nation needs all the fuel supply it can get.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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