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Friends and enemies

The American Wind Energy Association has been quick to seize the opportunity of California's electricity crisis to sell the virtues of an energy source which has no fluctuating fuel costs and can quickly provide new capacity. What a great chance for the wind lobby to hoist all its very best sails and sally forth as a rescuer, flying its price and popularity colours for all they are worth. But what a shame it is that such an opportunity will go to waste. Wind power allows itself to be tarred with the same "too expensive" brush as the renewables which lie far behind it on price -- particularly solar. And deals with nuclear which give spin-off benefits for wind leave a nasty looking trail of scum in their wake.

'Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good, the mess in California being no exception. The American Wind Energy Association has been quick to seize the opportunity of the state's electricity crisis to sell the virtues of an energy source which has no fluctuating fuel costs and can quickly provide new capacity (page 34). For consumers panicked by electricity prices going through the roof and facing a dearth of generation, it's a sales pitch with punch.

Indeed, wind is looking decidedly cheap these days in areas of America where, unlike in California, utilities are allowed to pass on increases in wholesale prices to customers. Retail rates are being hiked by as much as 15% in the Northwest in response to the rules of supply and demand which caused the alarming price spikes of last summer. In comparison new wind generation is looking like an attractive option to utilities -- witness the activity in Washington and Oregon (page 35). Texas, too, is responding to the levelling of the power industry playing field by embracing wind power. The state's cleverly structured Renewables Portfolio Standard focussed utility attention on the cheapest renewable around, but these days utilities are building wind plant not just because of a mandate, but because it's the most economic option, certainly with the federal production tax credit in place. Importantly, too, wind has broad popular support. Remember that much of the debacle in California is a direct result of environmentalists consistently blocking plans for new power plant for over a decade.

The upshot of these observations is that the ill wind blowing over California's citizens and stranded utilities could well become a strong tail wind for the most market-ready renewable around. With the eyes of the world focused on the energy drama in California, what a great chance for the wind lobby to hoist all its very best sails and sally forth as a rescuer, flying its price and popularity colours for all they are worth. But what a shame it is that such a golden opportunity will go to waste, the victim of a mistaken belief in gentlemanly behaviour -- and a dubious tendency to allow a most dangerous enemy, nuclear, to climb into wind's berth instead of being recognised for what it is.

First, the good ship wind power (let's give this metaphor all it's got) allows itself to be tarred with the same "too expensive" brush as the renewables which lie far behind it on price. It's one thing to allow that flashily painted member of the fleet, solar, a free ride on wind's quarter wave; it's quite another to happily hitch solar to a tow rope, allowing it to be a giant anchor while thermal competitors head for the horizon. Solar is not going to drown if wind leaves it behind -- not with the likes of BP and Shell spending heaps on tinkering with design improvements -- -- and there is no need for this overly sporting behaviour. The price flag needs waving far harder, and right in the face of the more expensive renewables.

Second, wind is manoeuvring into dangerous waters when it believes it can gain from sheltering behind nuclear. Deals with nuclear which give spin-off benefits for wind leave a nasty looking trail of scum in their wake. Building wind in the Midwest on the back of an agreement to store nuclear waste does not make for a comfortable anchorage, any more than the spectre in Nevada of political mileage being made out of a wind plant in the battle for a permanent atomic waste dump (page 19). Passive condoning of nuclear by the wind lobby is even more overt when industry associations deliberately avoid promoting wind as an alternative to new nuclear, as was the case in Finland recently when Greenpeace was left to fight that battle on its own.

go it alone and woe betide nuclear

There are plenty of arguments for why wind should not cut the tow ropes of the more expensive renewables and why it should not go head-to-head with powerful nuclear. For owners of existing wind plant, warring against far larger competitors to retain premium prices for their kilowatt hours, seeking strength in numbers and forming renewables federations is clearly a good tactic. But for an industry which today produces technology within a whisker of seriously competing on the open market, especially on deregulated markets as the rush in Canada is revealing (page 18), it is time to sail its own course. The environmental movement, wind's most important ally, should no longer be left exposed as a sitting duck to get repeatedly pushed under for being unworldly on economics. Arm Greenpeace and the others with the price flag and hoist that flag high.

Fear of incurring the wrath of the mighty nuclear industry is the argument for not going up against it. But nuclear needs wind to provide it with a green disguise far more than wind needs nuclear to give it shelter. This is the reason for the steady penetration of wind associations by nuclear double agents. Woe betide nuclear if it were to set itself against wind. Nuclear's steady infiltration of the wind movement in search of environmental respectability must be stopped. If not, that ill wind stemming from California -- and heralding a new era of expansion for electricity generation -- could be blowing nuclear to the front instead of the wind industry. At the risk of repeating the sentiments expressed in this column last month, it's time for wind to accept the mantle of adulthood and sail away from its not so grown-up brethren -- and yesterday's foolhardy generation.

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