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Wind has potential to outstrip hydro

Wind power is now the world's fastest growing energy source, in part because the increase is from a relatively small base writes Chris Flavin in the September/October issue of World Watch Magazine. The US remained the single country with the largest amount of wind power capacity at the end of 1995 but growth in Europe has been "explosive" , and China and India are the countries with huge future potential. Although wind is unlikely to replace all fossil fuels, it has the potential to exceed the 20% share now provided by hydro.

For a Kansas farmer, wind could be a financial windfall. A hectare of prairie that now yields $400 worth of wheat a year could also produce $10,000 or even $25,000 worth of wind power. So says Chris Flavin in the September/October issue of World Watch Magazine entitled "Windpower: Small, But Growing Fast." Wind power is now the world's fastest growing energy source, but that is in part because the increase is from a relatively small base. Global wind generating capacity rose to 4900 MW at the end of 1995, a 32% increase from the 3700 MW a year earlier, he also writes. Flavin, vice president of the American pro-sustainables research group, based in Washington DC, is environmental advisor to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). World Watch also tagged wind's growth a "vital sign" in its annual report of key global indicators for 1996.

Since 1990, wind power has risen 150%, which represents an annual growth rate of 20%. In contrast coal combustion has not grown at all since 1990 and nuclear is up at a rate of less than 1% yearly. Flavin compares the rapid technological advance of wind power -- the double digit growth -- with that of the computer industry. He notes that though wind produces less than 1% of the world's electricity, its steady technological advances suggest it could become an important source within a decade. He recalls that personal computers provided less than 1% of world computing power in 1980 -- but a decade later they now dominate the industry. And he notes that in Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, wind went from providing less than 1% of the electricity in 1990 to 8% in 1995.

"Wind is being propelled largely by its environmental advantages," he continues. He points to the trend of more rapid growth for wind in Europe, the result of financial incentives and high purchase prices for renewable energy because of environmental concerns. Europe had 2500 MW of wind power at the end of last year, a rise of nearly 300% from the 860 MW in 1992.

The US remained the single country with the largest amount of wind power, 1650 MW of capacity at the end of 1995, says Flavin, but the pace in Europe has been "explosive." Germany had gained fast with 1130 MW. Denmark was third with 610 MW and India fourth in the world with 580 MW -- and an estimated 730 MW as of April 1, 1996, writes Flavin. That would make India the most active wind market in the first quarter of this year.

Flavin notes the trend towards larger machines. In Germany, the average turbine in 1995 had a capacity of 480 kW, up from 370 kW in 1994 and 180 kW in 1992. He also notes that costs are down to $0.05-0.07/kWh with average annual wind speeds of six metres a second, similar or slightly lower than the range for new coal plants.

But he laments how much the industry has stalled in recent years in the US because of uncertainty about the future of the electricity industry. He points, too, to the bankruptcy of California wind company Kenetech, caused by a slow market and mechanical problems that together led to large financial losses. "The US has simply not allowed wind developers access to the grid at an attractive power price," he said at a press briefing to introduce his findings. "It has not been possible to make wind power into a profitable venture."

Indeed Flavin maintains that global world wind potential is roughly five times current global electricity use. In the US, he says it appears that wind turbines installed on 0.6% of the land in the 48 contiguous states -- mainly in the Great Plains -- could meet one-fifth of US power needs. That would be double the current contribution of hydro power. By comparison, maize is currently grown on about 3% of US land, a proportion five times as high.

Countries of potential

China's wind potential is estimated by its government at 253,000 MW, an amount that is 40% higher than its current generating capacity from all sources. Much of that potential is located in Inner Mongolia, which is also near some of the country's major industrial centres. And India's potential is estimated at 80,000 MW, which equals the country's total current generating capacity. And he notes that wind development will be driven in the Third World not so much by environmental concerns but by a desperate need for electricity.

Flavin concludes that although wind is unlikely to replace all fossil fuels, it has the potential to exceed the 20% share now provided by hydro. He recalls that wind is one of the most widely distributed energy resources, and that most countries that have large resources of coal or hydro also have large amounts of wind potential and could thus significantly reduce their carbon emissions. Other countries that have the potential to power themselves mostly with wind include the United Kingdom, Argentina, Canada, Chile and Russia.

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