Losing the race

Friday April 30, 2010

Feb. 28 was a breezy Sunday in West Texas, so breezy that an important milestone in the development of wind energy in the United States was achieved. That day, a record-setting 6,242 megawatts of electricity was produced by Texas wind farms for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the power grid that serves most of the state. That represented 22 percent of the state’s power demand that day.

So much energy was produced that Sunday, it outstripped the capacity of the ERCOT power lines to carry it to urban areas. The spot market price for the wind power fell to negative numbers -- meaning wind farms would have to pay ERCOT to keep generating power.

Texas ranks No. 1 in the nation in wind power, with a total of 9,410 megawatts, which represents more than 10 percent of the state’s electric generation. More wind farms are being built, along with the extra transmission lines needed to bring the power to market.

Wind power is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the nation’s energy mix, so much so that utility companies relying on fossil fuels and nuclear power are worried that the prime conditions for wind energy in Texas and the Great Plains will make electricity that’s too cheap for coal or nuclear plants to compete.

The announcement on Wednesday by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar that he had approved the nation’s first offshore wind farm, the controversial Cape Wind project off of Cape Cod, marked another important milestone in wind energy development.

Cape Wind’s 130 turbines, which would stand more than 400 feet above Nantucket Sound, would produce enough wind power to handle three-quarters of the electric needs of Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and reduce carbon emissions by the equivalent of 175,000 cars.

The project has undergone nine years of environmental review and political maneuvering at the state and federal levels. Foes of Cape Wind -- who have raised every possible objection from effects on property values and aesthetics, to disruption of bird and fish habitat, to endangerment of historic and cultural sites -- say they will seek an injunction to prevent construction.

But, as Pat Parenteau, who teaches at Vermont Law School, told The Boston Globe on Wednesday, "It would be very difficult to get an injunction to stop a project that’s been through nine years of review by the state and by the federal government. People have been poring over this project with a fine-tooth comb for so long that my litigator’s instincts tell me it’s going to be very hard to find a fatal flaw in what they’ve done."

The long-running Cape Wind saga is proof that the main obstacles to increased wind power generation are political, not technical. And while Americans argue about where wind farms should be sited or whether moving toward a low-carbon economy is even feasible, other nations are whizzing past us. The Scandinavian countries, Spain and Germany have seized the lead, with China coming up fast.

It should be infuriating to Americans that our nation, with its tremendous research, industrial and economic resources, is lagging behind the Chinese. China is now the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines and solar panels, and is pushing hard on other clean energy technologies. Some fear we could become as dependent on China for solar panels and wind turbines as we are now on the Middle East for oil.

This is unacceptable. The United States should be the world’s leader in green energy. Our researchers have developed many of the innovations in this field. Unfortunately, a lack of vision has meant that American know-how is being implemented in overseas factories.

Why can’t our empty factories in the Middle West be brought back to life building the next generation of wind and solar generation technology? Why can’t we start putting more money in upgrades to our nation’s electric grid? Why can’t we harness our nation’s considerable resources to building a green economy, and give it the same urgency that we gave to building the atom bomb or landing a man on the moon?

We’re seeing glimpses of that future on the plains of West Texas. Cape Wind could be the first of many offshore wind farms. Other alternative energy ideas, big and small, are bubbling up all over our nation.

If we wish to remain a viable economic power, the United States has a choice -- eat the dust of Europe and China and lag behind in the race toward a low carbon future, or seize the initiative and be one of the leaders of the new green economy.


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