Our Wind-Powered Future: Will Congress make it possible, or stand in the way?

Jul 1, 2009 by

Wind_turbines Before finishing their debate on the ACES (American Clean Energy and Security) energy bill recently passed by the House, the Senate needs to take a look at this bit of breaking science news: Analyzing the latest and best weather data from sources around the world, a recent study by Harvard environmental science experts predicts that, using current wind turbine technology, with strategically placed wind turbines, the United States could generate 16 times the amount of electricity the nation currently uses.

Let me repeat that for you: Some of the most respected environmental scientists in the world just predicted that if the United States were to shut down every existing coal-fired power plant, every electricity-generating trash incinerator, every nuclear power plant, every natural gas plant, every hydroelectric plant, and even every solar power generator currently in existence and just build wind turbines using current technology to supply ourselves with electricity, we could still produce 16 times the electricity we currently need.

In fact, the study predicts that if nations around the globe were to switch to a wind-power-only electricity generation system, the world could produce 40 times the electricity it currently uses. That means all of the people currently living without electricity in developing nations could hook up to the grid and attach a refrigerator and a washing machine and a computer and a plasma TV and pretty much start living just like power-hungry Americans, and (materials cost of all those new appliances notwithstanding) the world would still have more than enough electrical power to go around. Without having to wonder what to do with the nuclear waste produced by fission plants. Without fighting wars over dwindling fossil fuel resources. Without having to figure out some way to capture and lock away greenhouse gases from carbon-belching coal.

The study took into account the possible environmental impact of wind turbines on birds, and the resulting need to leave some areas free of wind turbines to preserve wildlife habitats. It took into account the fact that not every person wants a wind turbine spoiling their view of the prairie or coastline, and that therefore there will be some areas where building wind farms would be impossible for cultural or economic reasons. It took into account the fact that the wind does not blow in all places all of the time. And even having taken all these factors into account, and adjusting predicted wind turbine placement and efficiency values accordingly, the study’s authors still predict that if humanity were to make a concerted effort, now, to switch entirely to wind power, wind powered energy plants could produce much, much more electricity than we need.

So what does this new information about the potential efficacy of wind power have to do with the ACES Act?

If this wind power study is correct — if this study is even half right — in fact, if even this study is over-predicting wind power production capabilities by 75% — then the oft-stated arguments by the coal industry and the nuclear power industry that, regardless of potential environmental impact, here in the United States, we need more coal-fired electric plants to meet our energy needs just lost all value.

For decades, supporters of so-called “Clean Coal Technology” (which has yet to actually be invented) have argued that, until the technology supporting alternative energy sources like solar and wind power improves, the U.S. simply needs to continue investing in not-so-environmentally friendly energy sources in order to keep its economy running, its televisions glowing, and its milk cold. And our politicians — particularly those from states that benefit financially from coal mining or nuclear power production — have for the most part bought into this argument, continuing to subsidize energy sources, like coal, that damage the environment and contribute to global warming, while failing to provide strong incentives for the development of new alternative energy technologies.

Here are the Senators from coal-rich West Virginia with some words on the supposed necessity of continuing large-scale investment in coal:

Energy demand in the United States and, in fact, throughout the world shows the need for a continued dominant reliance on coal-based power generation.

[ . . . ]

There are those who want to push coal aside like stove wood and horse power as novelties from a bygone era, but we cannot ignore coal as part of the solution to our future energy challenges. I have been diligent in seeking a comprehensive approach for the near- and long-term viability for coal, both at home and abroad. It is time that we reexamine the opportunities for coal, and let the successes of the past be our guide to the future.

– Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat, West Virginia

Record high oil prices mean we’re paying more for everything from gas to food to electricity to power, heat and cool our homes. West Virginia families are looking for solutions, not excuses. We need a plan of action. We need a sustainable source of fuel, and coal – especially clean, West Virginia coal – has to be part of the answer.

– Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat, West Virginia

Time and again, when questioned about the U.S. government’s failure to adopt a comprehensive alternative energy promotion program, U.S. politicians have claimed that we must keep subsidizing energy solutions that are less environmentally sound because alternative energy sources like wind and solar simply could not produce enough power to satisfy the electricity needs of the United States.

And as a result of our continued failure as a nation to recognize the viability and importance of alternative energy sources through comprehensive energy policy reform, several countries in Europe have moved far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to implementing alternative energy technologies; Germany, a country roughly the size of Montana, is the world’s biggest consumer of solar energy products, accounting for nearly half the global solar energy market in 2007. And Germany’s wind power industry, considered the most technologically advanced in the world, has created 70,000 jobs.

While U.S. policy makers continue to debate whether global warming is even happening, nations like Germany have been racing ahead in the alternative energy field for years, and proving that not only it is possible to make great strides in alternative energy policy without breaking an industrialized economy’s back, but that switching to Earth-friendly alternative energy sources can be profitable.

Though progressives and environmentalists hoped the ACES energy bill might finally change this state of affairs for the better, in order to get enough votes to pass the the bill in the House, Democrats have already substantially weakened its environmental punch. The current version of the bill provides massive concessions and financial incentives to the coal industry, weakening the originally proposed alternative energy targets. And the EPA predicts that alternative energy sources may actually develop less effectively under the ACES plan as currently written than they would without it.

There is still time to strengthen the pro-alternative energy provisions in the bill as it goes through the Senate, or at least protect them from being further weakened by pressure from the fossil fuel industry. The Senate must accept the truth: coal energy is outdated, unnecessary, and environmentally harmful. It may be valid for Senators in currently coal-dependent states to argue that they feel an obligation to protect their constituents from a sudden spike in energy costs by making certain concessions to coal-driven energy companies; and certainly, it’s important to consider how coal workers might be retrained and current coal industry jobs replaced by jobs that create green energy. But the argument that coal is somehow necessary to provide for our energy future is officially dead.

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  1. Excellent & well-timed post–I'll be talking it up to my Senators. Is there any way we can show West Virginia (and other states) what their likely piece of the wind pie is? (I mean, I find the German statistics convincing, but then again I don't need to be sold on wind power.)

    If all some states know is coal, nuclear, and fossil fuel, they won't loosen their death grip on the very things that are bad for the environment and the workers in those industries. Instead, they'll stick with the poison they know instead of the cure they don't.

  2. Excellent post. Here in Michigan the state is encouraging the unemployed to attend schooling for this. There are new windmill plants opening and fields being propped all over the state.