The wind power industry is growing rapidly: it has increased 23 to 30 percent in each of the last five years. It is clean, abundant, ever-renewable, and free from producer boycotts or embargoes.
Randal Swisher is the Executive Director of the American Wind Association. He says, "Certainly we have an enormous wind resource of wind in the U.S., equivalent to Saudi Arabia oil reserves, except the wind is not depleted over time."
Today only one percent of U.S. energy comes from wind. It provides more than 20 percent of Denmark's energy. The U.S. hopes to match that within 20 years. But there are many obstacles to making wind power a true alternative to oil. Industry experts say inconsistent government policies have discouraged investors.
And there are not enough transmission lines to get the power generated by wind onto the grid, says Edward Duggan, the Vice President of Oak Creek Energy Systems. "If we had the transmission lines we could immediately make 20 percent more electricity. However, on the land that we have here we could more than double our output by installing new turbines."
In Washington D.C., the Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency, Andy Karsner, says there is a bottleneck in energy transmission. "There is a greater dilemma now, that we immediately face, which is how to move the wind (power) from the windiest, most valuable, effective places to locate the actual wind farms to the load centers or the cities that need that power -- and that is a transmission dilemma that has to be addressed."
There are also political objections to wind power, according to Jim Johnson, the Operations Engineer at the National Wind Technology Center in Denver, Colorado. “Today the obstacle over all is not technical, it is political … Wind by far is three to four times more cost effective than any of the other technologies still."
Part of the political problem is that established energy industries, such as petroleum, do not want competition. Another is that many people do not want to live near wind turbines, which they consider unsightly, loud and harmful to birds and other wildlife.
So wind farms, as they are known, are in places like the Tehachapi desert in California. About a dozen wind companies have operated here since the 1980s. This is the oldest and biggest wind farm in the U.S., concentrating over 5,000 wind turbines that use a wide range of technology.
The largest and newest is 150 meters tall, and produces 2.5 megawatts of electricity. Its blades are about 45 meters long and weigh about 10 tons. It is highly productive, even during low winds.
Michael Burns is a mechanical specialist with Oak Creek Energy. ”That's the computer down here at the corner…."
Entire wind farms can now be controlled, monitored, and diagnosed by computer.
"…I am monitoring all the turbines, approximately 50," points out Burns.
With oil and natural gas prices rising rapidly, the political climate for alternative energy development seems to be gaining momentum in the U.S. More than 22 states have ordered their traditional utility companies to diversify into alternative sources of energy.
Linda White is Director of the California Wind Energy Association. She tells us, "In California we have a renewable portfolio standard. Which is legislation. Utilities by 2010 and by 2020 will need 10 to up to 20 percent of renewable energy in their portfolios. Which is substantial, and that is putting this industry and this technology on the map. It is here to stay."
Ten years ago people might have laughed at that kind of statement. Not today.