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United States

An Olympian change

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Wind weenies have always known the wind's advantages. But there's more and more proof that the message is getting out to the general public, to trend spotters, and to big business and the financial community. In the words of a new Merrill Lynch report: "Wind power can hardly be called niche." Just last month that was a message received by millions of Americans tuned in to watch the Winter Olympics Games in Salt Lake City who glimpsed a wind farm during a commercial break -- one of several images flashed across the screen in an advertisement for General Electric, one of America's five largest companies. "More than a century of innovation, we bring good things to life," concluded the advert for the multi-billion GE. It turns out the commercial was a preview. Ten days later GE Power Systems announced it is buying much of Enron Wind, an unequivocal affirmation that wind is now seen as serious stuff.

In another Olympian boost, wind is a major feature in an exhibit pulled together in Salt Lake City by, among others, the International Olympics Organising Committee, soft drinks giant Coca-Cola, and the World Resources Institute. "Global Warming and You" is open to the public and highlights the University of Colorado, whose students each pay a dollar more in fees so the campus can be powered by wind for four years. Not only forward thinking students, but the press, too, are picking up on the vibes. In the New Year issue of USA Today's weekend magazine, wind power is listed as one of just seven scientific reasons -- and the only energy related reason -- to be optimistic about 2002. America's most widely read general newspaper, USA Today has a whopping daily circulation of 1.7 million. Wind power, says the article, "can transform life for the better," along with other scientific advances such as America's Hubble Space Telescope, organ transplants, treatment of heart disease and microchips that help a blind person to see.

Last month the newspaper also ran a prominent pro-wind article entitled Wind Power Picks up as it Crosses the Atlantic. "Throughout Europe, wind power has turned into a serious source of energy, leaving the USA -- the country that pioneered it as a modern technology -- in the dust," it says. "Part of the explosion in wind power is a result of breakthroughs in technology... Allegations that the turbines suck birds into their wind stream have been disproved... There is widespread public support for the energy source."

That's some change of tune. Not long ago, a mid-market newspaper would have dismissed wind turbines as "bird cuisinarts" or worse. In yet another striking pointer, the respected futurist Faith Popcorn, known for inventing the terms "couch potato" and "cocooning," highlights wind power in her new "Dictionary of the Future: the Words, Terms and Trends that Define the Way We'll Live, Work and Talk." Popcorn, despite her silly name, consults to BMW, Eastman Kodak, McDonald's, American Express, Campbell's Soup, Proctor & Gamble and Cigna. When she predicted the failure of New Coke, Fortune Magazine dubbed her the Nostradamus of marketing. Wind turbines, she predicts, will continue to flourish because they can finally compete economically with other power sources. "On an environmental basis, they will always be a winner because they have no emissions... and, unlike hydro-electric power, require no dams."

Then there's the recent touting of renewables by the foreign columnist of the New York Times, America's newspaper of record. In a plea for less reliance on OPEC, post-September 11, Tom Friedman called for real and lasting change in America. "Imagine if the president announced a Manhattan Project to make us energy independent in a decade, on the basis of domestic oil, improved [vehicle] mileage standards and renewable resources, so we Americans, who are five per cent of the world's population, don't continue hogging twenty-five per cent of the world's energy?" he writes, chastising President Bush for focussing only on a military response. "This is our turn to be a greatest generation."

Carrying the torch

From the business world, the retired chairman of Shell, Mark Moody-Stuart, is working tirelessly for an Olympian shift away from fossil and nuclear and towards renewable. Huge sums go to the conventional energy sector in subsidies, export credits and tax revenues, he writes in Greenpeace Business. "So it is a matter of adjusting the very large existing financial flows to make sure the outcomes are less perverse." As long as the necessary trading systems are in place, any cost to the consumer of government mandates for renewables will be negligible, he stresses. "Technologies such as wind have already become competitive." As a former co-chair of the G8 Task Force on renewables and now chair of the international Business Action for Sustainable Development, he will carry the renewables torch at the Rio+10 summit in Johannesburg in August.

Even in the US, regarded by much of the world as an environmental dinosaur for President Bush's rejection of Kyoto, the message is finally getting out. The Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, Dick Gephardt, a likely presidential contender in 2004, made waves on January 29 by stating, "America should launch an Apollo Project to develop environmentally smart, renewable energy solutions to make our nation energy independent by the end of the decade." One-fifth of America's energy could come from renewables by 2020, he said. "Alternative energy has the potential to be America's largest growth market and job producer in the next ten years."

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