Is the answer to the U.S. energy crisis blowing in the wind? The answer is, not quite yet, but it might be soon. Wind power could supply up to 12 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2020 if current tax incentives and research funding continue, officials of the American Wind Energy Association said Monday.
Wind power is growing rapidly but is still an almost insignificant fraction of the nation’s energy supply.
This year, the industry expects to add about 2,000 megawatts of capacity bringing the total energy from wind power to about 4,500 megawatts. Each megawatt supplies enough energy for about 200 to 300 households, so by the end of the year, wind will be supplying enough energy to power about 900,000 to 1.8 million homes. While that may sound like a lot, 4,500 megawatts is less than a tenth of one percent of the total U.S. energy consumption this year.
“This is just the beginning,” said Randall Swisher, executive director of the AWEA.
Wind power is generated by turbines — giant windmills on towers 200 feet high. The turbines are often put on farms on space leased from farmers in flat, windy states. Environmentalists love the technology because it is a clean, safe substitute to fossil fuels, and without the environmental damage of hydro-electric power.
It is also getting more competitive as a free market challenger to oil and natural gas fired power plants. Swisher said that wind power has become significantly cheaper to produce over the last 20 years — dropping from 38 cents a kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to 3.9 cents now — and is now a competitive option for power companies looking to add more supply.
The amount of wind power produced in the U.S. has been doubling every three years, and Swisher said he expects it to reach 100,000 megawatts — or about 6 percent of all U.S. electricity — by 2020.
“If we have really aggressive policy, we could even double that,” Swisher said.
But the wind proponents may be tilting at, er, windmills, as the Bush administration has focused on developing fossil fuels.
In his current budget proposal, President Bush slashed the amount of funding for wind power in half — from $40 million this current fiscal year to $20.5 million proposed for next year.
The funding goes to a 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour tax credit for wind power production as well as continued research and development for cheaper wind power. The tax credit has expired but Bush asked Congress to renew it as part of its budget. But Swisher said renewing the tax credit isn’t enough — it needs to be extended for at least five years in order to get companies to commit to building wind power plants.
David Garman, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy — Bush’s spokesman on renewable power — said the administration plans to review 31 federal renewable power programs before determining which if any to restore funding on.
“We’re looking for opportunities as a consequence of that strategic review we’re undertaking to make sure we have the right funding levels,” Garman said.
Swisher said the industry can take a year of lower federal funding for research and development, but continued funding cuts would prevent wind power from being a competitive option.
“It may be a little hiccup right now, but as long as in the long run the R&D budget increases, we’ll be alright,” said Swisher.