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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

There's a Strong Wind A-Blowin'

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Jesse Wegman reports on the renaissance of wind power. In this past year alone U.S. wind farms have added a billion watts of generating capacity. And the Dept. of Energy recently pledged to increase the amount of electricity derived from wind by nearly fifty fold by the year 2020.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Clinton Administration says it plans to increase the amount of electricity derived from wind nearly 50-fold by 2020. Called the Wind Powering America initiative, the move comes in the middle of a windpower renaissance. Wind farms in the US currently generate up to 3-1/2 billion kilowatt hours per year, enough to power about a half million homes. And windpower is expanding faster than ever before. Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman has more.

(Milling voices)

MAN: This particular turbine is a 750 kilowatt, so it'll produce 750 kilowatts per hour in a 27-mile-an-hour wind. The blades are 50-meter diameter, 164 feet, which is bigger than most commercial airline wingspans.

WEGMAN: Many people see wind turbines like this one in Vermont as an answer to the problems of air pollution and climate change. But wind-generated power has been slow to develop in the US. That is, until recently. Windpower is suddenly growing in this country. Tom Gray of the American Wind Energy Association says in the past year alone, wind farms have added a billion watts of generating capacity.

GRAY: I did some numbers and discovered that that's equivalent to taking more than 200,000 sport utility vehicles off the road, in terms of the CO2 emissions that we would prevent that otherwise would be emitted by fossil-fired power plants.

WEGMAN: Tom Gray and his organization recently hosted a conference on windpower. The centerpiece of the event was the announcement of a pledge from the Clinton Administration to push the Federal wind program out of the doldrums it's been in since the mid 1980s. Dan Reicher is Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. He says taking a long-term approach will help build a competitive wind industry.

REICHER: And that's what the research and development is all about: building more efficient turbines, bringing down manufacturing costs, increasing the power output, economies of scale that can come from greater production, a whole host of things that can be done to further bring down the price.

WEGMAN: The price per kilowatt hour has dropped substantially, from 40 cents in the 1970s to 5 cents today. But wind is still more expensive than coal and natural gas. Tax breaks to help make wind more competitive expire June 30th. But the Administration predicts the credits will be renewed by Congress this session. In wind's favor is the continuing deregulation of the electric utilities market. This trend gives consumers a choice of their power source. Leif Andersen is with the windpower manufacturer NEG Micon USA.

ANDERSEN: People want windpower. Every time you take a poll and ask people if they want windpower, they do, and you just have to find the right tool to go out and make it happen.

WEGMAN: But until recently, consumers haven't had a choice, says Chris Flavin of the World Watch Institute. And as a result, the US has lagged behind its European counterparts.

FLAVIN: It's difficult for the US to play too strong a role if we don't have a strong domestic market. That's I think the reason we have only one serious US manufacturer left, is because we've had virtually no wind market for about 10 years, up until the last 12 months.

WEGMAN: The industry remains fragile, and investors are nervous about what will be at best a lapse in the tax credit. But industry watchers say they expect growth to continue. Just this month, Green Mountain Energy of Vermont announced plans to build a 10-megawatt wind farm in western Pennsylvania, in the heart of coal country. For Living on Earth, I'm Jesse Wegman.



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