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Wednesday, May 7, 2008 06:58 pm

Mighty wind

The industry has been surging thanks to government tax credits

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If coal or natural gas were to be substituted to generate the electricity we now get from wind, it would put 28 million additional tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

How is wind power faring in the U.S. now? Is more of it coming online and accounting for a larger percentage of the grid?
Clean and green wind energy is the new darling of alternative-energy developers, and the U.S. industry has been surging in the past three years, especially as developers take advantage of government incentives — in the form of the so-called production tax credit — for erecting turbines and connecting them to the grid. The nonprofit American Wind Energy Association reports that, in 2007 alone, total U.S. wind-power capacity grew by a record 45 percent, injecting some $9 billion into the economy. These new installations provide enough electricity to power 1.5 million typical American homes while strengthening the nation’s energy supply with clean, homegrown electricity. According to the AWEA, utility-grade wind-power installations are now in operation across 34 U.S. states, generating more than 16,000 megawatts of electricity cumulatively — enough to power more than 4.5 million homes and to generate 45,000 new domestic jobs. But even with this growth, wind energy still accounts for just 1 percent of the U.S. electricity supply. Continued growth apace with that of recent years, though, should make it a major player on the American energy scene within a decade. President George W. Bush himself recently suggested that wind has the potential to supply as much as 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Of course, the volatility of oil prices has helped wind energy gain its foothold. Once a wind farm is built, the fuel cost is essentially zero (as long as the wind blows), whereas fluctuating fossil-fuel prices have made traditional power sources more costly and risky. Upping our reliance on wind power has also allowed us to lower our overall carbon footprint. If coal or natural gas were to be substituted to generate the electricity we now get from wind, it would put 28 million additional tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Wind power also saves water by not requiring the billions of gallons used to cool coal-fired power plants, an increasingly contentious issue in arid areas with limited access to fresh water. As for the contentious Cape Wind project proposed for Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts, the federal agency in charge, the U.S. Minerals Management Service, is sifting through tens of thousands of public comments and expects to make a final decision on the project by next winter. But even if it’s given the green light, extensive permitting demands and legal challenges will likely hold up construction for years. The AWEA thinks that 2008 can be as much of a growth year as 2007 if Congress extends the PTC program. The Senate has already voted to extend the PTC for at least one more year, but the House has yet to bring it up for a vote. Meanwhile, wind-energy proponents are pacing the halls of Congress, trying to convince their representatives that what’s good for the wind industry is good for America.
For more information: American Wind Energy Association, www.awea.org; Cape Wind, www.capewind.org; U.S. Minerals Management Service, www.mms.gov.

Send questions to Earth Talk at P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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