Image: Windmills on largest US wind farm
These wind turbines are going up along the Washington-Oregon border, part of a 450-turbine farm that will be the largest in the United States.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Wind power is now cheaper than coal and could become a leading source of electricity with the right political support and investment, researchers said Thursday. The Stanford engineers calculated that building some 225,000 wind turbines across the country would be expensive — at an initial cost of $338 billion — but that the payback would include a huge drop in emissions tied to global warming.

“There is no reason not to invest in wind at this point,” said Mark Jacobson, a Sanford University professor of environmental engineering. “Wind is so obviously cheaper if we look at total costs.”

Writing in the journal Science, Jacobson and Stanford colleague Gilbert Masters calculated that wind-generated energy costs 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour. Coal power is priced around there as well, but if you factor in the indirect health and environmental costs the price is more like 5.5 to 8.3 cents per kilowatt hour, the engineers calculated.

The researchers also noted that coal dust kills 2,000 U.S. mine workers annually and has cost taxpayers about $35 billion in monetary and medical benefits to former miners since 1973.

Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, acknowledged that coal mining has an environmental impact, but said “we are all working toward a goal of reducing emissions and have made tremendous strides in reducing emissions in the past 30 years since the Clean Air Act.”

Critics of wind power argue that the turbines — which look like giant propellers — have been linked to the accidental deaths of migratory birds that get caught inside the propeller blades, and that the turbines take up a tremendous amount of space. But Jacobson said these problems could be avoided by selecting sites out of migration paths and by paying farmers to put them on their land.

“Wind has trivial health and environmental problems associated with it in comparison with coal,” Jacobson said.

Although wind power is the fastest growing source of energy in the world, the United States has been slow to use it because coal is so cheap and wind has received no government incentives, Jacobson said.

Wind power provides the United States with less than 1 percent of its energy, compared to 52 percent from coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Analysts say the U.S. market will see 1,500 megawatts of new wind power installed by the end of the year.

For America to catch up with major wind power nations such as Germany, Spain and Denmark, political backing by the Bush administration and Congress is essential, Jacobson said.

In order to build more wind farms in the United States, lawmakers must be willing to offer the same investment opportunities and tax incentives given to the more established coal, gas and oil industries, he added.

The energy bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month focuses heavily on boosting domestic oil, coal and natural gas production, doing far less to promote wind power as an energy source. The Senate, still working on its version of the energy legislation, is virtually certain to focus on conservation and energy efficiency.

The authors added that a massive campaign to build turbines, while costly, would have an additional payback: a sharp drop in carbon dioxide emissions, one of the gases that many scientists fear are warming Earth by trapping heat via a greenhouse effect.

If around 225,000 turbines were built, Jacobson noted, it would cost an initial $338 billion with a minimum of $4 billion annually for maintenance. But doing so would eliminate almost two-thirds of coal-generated electricity and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels, the authors estimated.

That 1990 goal is already envisioned by the 1997 U.N. Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which the Clinton administration signed but which the Bush administration has spurned.

“If you really want a massive change then you need to do something big,” Jacobson said. “It’s expensive but the wind turbines, which have an average life span of 20 years, would pay for themselves in that time.”

The proposal follows announcements of several large projects that will see wind power available in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas and Missouri.

Minnesota Power said Tuesday it had received approval from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for a new wind power program for its residential and small commercial customers in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Minnesota Power, which serves 144,000 customers, plans to buy half the output of three new wind generators at the Chandler Hills Wind Farm in southwestern Minnesota.

Also on Tuesday, UtiliCorp United Inc. said it activated the first wind turbines on a wind farm owned and operated by FPL Energy, one of the biggest U.S. wind power players.

UtiliCorp will buy all of the power produced at the farm, which is located near Montezuma, Kan. The farm will generate 110 megawatts of electricity when construction is completed at the end of the year. Its customers will be WestPlains Energy utility in Kansas, as well as Missouri Public Service and St. Joseph Light & Power utilities in Missouri.

Wind turbine technology is ideal for flatlands like those found in the Dakotas, Kansas and Texas, as well as where wind is drawn off bodies of water such as the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean off the West coast.

The largest project in the United States is going up along the Washington-Oregon border. The 450 turbines there will generate 300 MW of electricity — enough to serve the energy needs of 70,000 homes annually — when the Stateline project starts up at year’s end.

MSNBC.com’s Miguel Llanos andReuters contributed to this story.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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