Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Reaping the Wind
It seems appropriate to follow a discussion of solar energy with one on wind power, since they share many characteristics, as well as a common source: the sun. Both are intermittent in nature, producing energy only when the sun shines or the wind blows. This means neither can produce reliable power without some means of storing power for use in the dark or calm, or a backup generator. And both are low intensity, in the sense that they require a much larger footprint for producing a quantity of power equivalent to a natural gas or coal-fired central power plant.

But whereas solar power is still a niche product, wind power has moved well into the mainstream. The US added 1700 MW of wind generation last year, moving into second place behind Germany in total installed wind turbines.

Wind has also become a significant source of revenue for family farms in states like Minnesota. Even with the Federal subsidy for new wind power installations in abeyance, due to the stalled energy bill, wind will continue to grow in importance, partly due to state renewable power mandates.

As positive as all this sounds, a collision is occurring between the drive for more renewable electricity and concerns for preserving the environment. The poster child for this dilemma is the proposed wind power installation off Cape Cod. It has divided the environmental community in two, between those who see the benefits of a non-polluting energy source and those who say "not in my viewscape."

The fundamental issue here is the same as the one underlying my posting of March 11 concerning the natural gas that is kept off limits by restrictions on offshore drilling. Everyone wants their appliances and cars, but few indeed want the energy needed to run them to come from anywhere they can see or easily imagine.

We are nearing the end of the time when such views can prevail without exacting a high price in dependability. Last summer's northeast blackout, which added extra anxiety to the birth of my daughter that day, was a signal of how tenuously we are stretching the infrastructure upon which we rely. We may get another signal this summer, in the form of a gasoline price spike related to the Balkanization of state regulations governing gasoline specifications--a topic for another day.

None of this will change until we start, as a country, to connect actions and consequences: mentally linking the flip of a light switch to the spinning of a turbine somewhere, the turning of an ignition key to the drilling of an offshore oil well. The energy industry has made this pretty seamless for a long time, but the seams are beginning to show.

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