100% wind energy: Let’s get to 20% first

A recent article on the environmental blog TreeHugger discussed Denmark’s plan to increase the percentage of electricity it obtains from wind turbines from the current level of about 20 percent to 42 percent by 2020 and perhaps much higher–as high as 100 percent–by 2050.

The mention of 100 percent, even though qualified by the article’s author, brought a sharp reaction from one commenter, who pointed out that if that could be done, it would only be due to Denmark’s ability to export excess wind power to Germany and Sweden (presuming they also don’t decide to go 100 percent wind energy).

I hate to even get into discussions like this, because it seems to me that they often lead to a "straw man" type of argument: if you can show that wind energy can’t do it all, then there’s no point in pursuing it. In fact, there are many reasons to substantially expand U.S. and world wind farm generation, and they were addressed in some detail in a 2008 U.S. Department of Energy technical report which examined the feasibility of obtaining 20 percent of U.S. electricity from wind power. According to the report, the impacts of achieving that amount of wind generation would be as follows:

– The wind energy industry would support 500,000 jobs.

– America’s electricity supply would become substantially more diversified, with wind displacing 50% of the natural gas and 18% of the coal that would otherwise be burned in power plants.

– Wind farm developers would pay more than $600 million annually in rent to family farmers, ranchers and others around the country, providing a long-term steady income source. See the stories of Iowa farmer Tim Hemphill and Wyoming rancher Shaun Sims for examples.

– Wind farm developers would pay more than $1.5 billion in property taxes.

– The use of increasingly scarce fresh water by the electric sector would be reduced by 17%, because wind turbines uses virtually no water, in contrast to every other form of utility-scale energy generation, all of which use large amounts.

– Many other impacts of our existing energy system–from mining and transportation of fuels and from waste disposal–would also be reduced.

The net increase in cost above a no-new-wind energy scenario would be just 2%, or about 50 cents a month for the average American household.

In short, while it would be great to obtain all of our electricity from this clean, affordable, homegrown energy source, there are huge benefits to be realized from increasing it from current levels, whether we ever get to 100 percent or not.

By Tom Gray, www.awea.org/blog/