Just 25 years ago, before ozone holes and widespread understanding of global climate change, a few mildly anarchistic young Danes became the first citizens to connect their own wind turbines to the grid. As recently as ten years ago, the most optimistic (and even laughed at) prediction for Europe was 4000 MW of wind by 2000 -- a prediction which has missed the actual installed capacity of 12,000 MW by a factor of three. On this yardstick of progress, the next 25 years will be interesting indeed.
In the next 20 years, the World Energy Council is projecting wind's installed capacity at anything between 180,000 MW to 474,000 MW. Which figure is reached will depend far more on the strength of the political will to clean up our energy act than on technology innovation. Of the few existing wind markets worldwide, there is a yawning gulf between the most active and the most inactive. At one extreme is Australia, the largest exporter of coal. It has less than 20 MW of wind, yet the government, with mind-boggling audacity, is claiming the country will become a "world leader" in renewable energy by legislating for an extra 2% of electricity from new renewables over the next decade (page 24). Contrast this to Denmark, where wind this year will supply around 15% of the country's electricity and the government is pursuing a 50% goal for 2030. Here, the sight of a wind farm is a non-event-just another couple of wind generators, no more noticeable than the ubiquitous power pylon.
To get to that point on the global market, however, wind will have to move from being a new idea to being an accepted idea. There is a big difference. From inside the wind industry it is easy to forget that outside of Denmark and northern Germany-even in the markets of the rest of Europe and the United States where thousands of wind turbines turn-most people have only the faintest glimmering of what a wind energy conversion system might be, let alone what it could do for the world. This negative passivity frequently changes to positive activism on close acquaintance with the technology, but for that to happen requires a major change in the mindset of the power generating industry.
As we enter the 21st century, the first oil "crisis" in 1973 is almost forgotten. Running out of oil is not on the red light agenda. Talking at the International Oil Summit in November, the International Energy Agency's, executive director, Robert Priddle, described the "certainty of oil" in the new century as a "pillar of energy security." He added: "Oil-fired generation has certain advantages.... As a swing supplier of electricity, oil could benefit from increased back-up demands, as systems increasingly rely on renewable energies, many of which are intermittent, such as solar and wind power," he said.
The IEA's "business-as-usual"' scenario shows the world will need 65% more energy in 2020 than in 1995. Further, 92% of the global energy supply in 2020 will be provided by coal, oil or gas and they will account for 95% of the total demand increase between now and 2020. Although Priddle cautions that such an outlook cannot be taken as a forecast, the "underlying trends are powerful and not easily malleable," he said. There is no doubt that in a world of steam boilers and massive cooling towers, wind is still a new idea. Developing countries, meanwhile, are still struggling to understand what renewables are-let alone how to increase their market share.
In a world of such a mindset there is, however, a wonderful, creeping, Internet-inspired paradox. The next 25 years will contain even more change than the last 25. Such is the scope for change, that the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US has produced a positive economic scenario where 14% of US energy comes from renewables by 2010 and oil use declines, saving the country $21 billion a year and giving it 800,000 jobs. Heady stuff. But even within this scenario, a "disruptive technology" may just as easily reduce wind's contribution as increase it. The rapidly developing fuel cell may be a great friend-or enemy-to wind. With a billion US dollars in current R&D, the implications of a competitive fuel cell that has no visual impacts, is modular, scaleable, produces only water as waste, and can run on a variety of fossil or non-fossil fuels, are enormous.
To be a winner in the 21st century, wind will have to be prepared. It needs to be far more pro-active on the information front, feeding the fires of political will as the basis for market growth. It needs to prepare itself for the first essential of business: rapid adjustment to the needs of customers in evolving competitive markets. As a young, lightweight and dynamic industry it is well placed to do so. On the technology front it has few worries. Turbines for offshore use are just around the corner and the scope for further advance is huge: the long awaited ultimate wind turbine-highly flexible, lightweight, big, and mass produced-is a gleaming promise for the world. Meet these demands and-with a dose of good fortune-wind turbines will have stopped turning heads by 2025.