Across the United States, large wind farms dot the landscape, and leaders of the wind-power industry say a shift to wind can help curb global warming. Industry leaders who met in Los Angeles this month say that by 2030, the wind could provide Americans with 20 percent of their electricity needs.
It is an ambitious goal, because wind power provides less than one percent of U.S. electricity today. But the U.S. Department of Energy says wind-power capacity grew 27 percent last year, and wind farms, once concentrated in such states as California and Texas, are spreading.
Towering turbines are sprouting up in many places, including Iowa and Montana. The governors of those states told delegates to the annual conference of the American Wind Energy Association, they have plenty of wind and want to build more wind farms.
The association's executive director, Randall Swisher, says enthusiastic political support like that is one reason his industry will continue to grow, and he lists some others: "Environmental, because wind is one of the most promising sources of emissions-free electricity generation. It is a key answer to dealing with the challenge of global warming. And energy security, because it's an indigenous resource that is plentiful, a secure form of electric generation that means that we will not have to be importing liquefied natural gas from the Middle East or other places."
Wind-power technology has improved since the 1980s, when small, isolated windmills could be seen scattered across farmlands. Today's big wind turbines have rotors up to 90 meters long and are grouped together by the hundreds.
Denmark is a leader in wind-power production, relying on the wind for more than 20 percent of its power. Germany ranks first in total output, and the United States is tied with Spain in second place. Based on current growth rates, industry experts expect the United States to overtake Germany as top producer by the end of the decade.
But the industry faces the challenge of getting its power from windy places, which are usually outside the cities, to the places with high demand for electricity. Victor Abate is Vice President of Renewables for GE Energy, a major manufacturer of wind turbines. He says the technology has improved, but the infrastructure still has problems. "Today, a gearbox will show up at our factory, and just a matter of hours later, the unit leaves. And just weeks later, it could be at site. So you start to see assembly efficiencies occurring, and now the question is, can you get these units online, can you get them plugged in, in a reliable way?"
Industry leaders say a $60-billion investment in transmission lines is needed to move power more efficiently.
The U.S. Department of Energy says rising equipment costs could slow the growth of wind power. Robert Lukefahr, president of BP Alternative Energy North America, says the industry also needs more reliable, longer-lasting turbines. But he sees wind as an important part of the world's energy future, a renewable source of power that will reduce the coal, oil and natural gas emissions that accelerate global warming.
"The demand for power is doubling over the next 30 years," Lukefahr points out, adding, "60 to 70 percent of the plants that will produce that power haven't been built yet. So we need to make decisions today that are going to affect our carbon footprint far into the future."
The wind industry has its critics. Some complain wind farms are unsightly. Others say that wind farms can pose a hazard to migrating birds and bats. Justin Tatham, of the National Audubon Society, says his group is working with the wind industry to develop guidelines to minimize the impact on wildlife. "We also realize that there's a need for a balance when it comes to developing any energy resources, including wind, and when it comes to the potential impacts on wildlife like birds and bats, we just look to finding that balance as we move forward with development." Tatham says the environmental group supports wind power, as well as solar and geothermal power, and other clean energy sources.
Industry leaders acknowledge that because the wind is intermittent, wind power will never dominate the energy industry. But Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council, insists it has great potential. "We've only just begun to scratch the surface. And it's an energy technology with a long and very bright and promising future," he says.
The industry also faces the challenge of maintaining support in Washington and other world capitals. A U.S. production tax credit that has spurred wind-power growth is set to expire next year, and the industry is hoping for a long-term extension.