Let the wind blow (again)

By Bryan Walker 16/03/2011

Lester Brown doesn’t let up when he’s published a book. Over successive months his Earth Policy Institute produces follow-up articles focusing on particular topics. The latest is on wind power, which was strongly advocated in his recent book World on the Edge as the early leader in the move to renewable sources of energy. What he has to say about the global development of wind power ties in with my recent update on wind power in New Zealand and is well worth reporting here. What follows is mainly extract from his article.

There are now more than 70 countries developing wind resources. Between 2000 and 2010, world wind electric generating capacity increased at what Brown describes as frenetic pace from 17,000 megawatts to nearly 200,000 megawatts.

Measured by share of electricity supplied by wind, Denmark is the leading nation at 21 per cent and looking to push the wind share of its electricity to 50 per cent by 2025, with most of the additional power coming from offshore. Three north German states now get 40 per cent or more of their electricity from wind. For Germany as a whole, the figure is 8 per cent‒and climbing.

In terms of volume, the US leads the world with 35,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, followed by China and Germany with 26,000 megawatts each. Texas, long the leading US oil-producing state, is now also the nation’s leading generator of electricity from wind. It has 9,700 megawatts of wind generating capacity online and more under construction. If all of the wind farms projected for 2025 are completed, Texas will have 38,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity‒the equivalent of 38 coal-fired power plants and enough to satisfy roughly 90 per cent of the current residential electricity needs of the state’s 25 million people.

Since wind turbines occupy only 1 per cent of the land, farmers can continue to grow grain and graze livestock on land devoted to wind farms. In effect they double-crop. For thousands of ranchers in the US Great Plains, wind royalties will dwarf their net earnings from cattle sales.

In considering the energy productivity of land, wind turbines are well ahead. For example, an acre of land in northern Iowa planted in corn can yield $1,000 worth of ethanol per year. That same acre used to site a wind turbine can produce $300,000 worth of electricity per year. Brown points out that this helps explain why investors find wind farms so attractive.

Turning to China, Brown describes impressive expansion. The country is well endowed, with enough onshore harnessable wind energy to raise its current electricity consumption 16-fold. Today, most of China’s 26,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity come from 50- to 100-megawatt wind farms. More wind farms of that size that are on the way, but China’s new Wind Base program is an enormous advance. It will create seven wind mega-complexes of 10 to 38 gigawatts each in six provinces (1 gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts). When completed, these complexes will have a generating capacity of more than 130 gigawatts. This is equivalent to building one new coal plant per week for two and a half years.

Of these 130 gigawatts, 7 gigawatts will be in the coastal waters of Jiangsu Province, one of China’s most highly industrialized provinces. China is planning a total of 23 gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity.

Back in Europe prospects are also ambitious. Europe now has 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind online, but wind developers are planning 140 gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity, mostly in the North Sea. There is enough harnessable wind energy in offshore Europe to satisfy the continent’s needs seven times over.

Spain, which has 19,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity for its 45 million people, got 14 per cent of its electricity from wind in 2009. On November 8th of that year, strong winds across Spain enabled wind turbines to supply 53 per cent of the country’s electricity over a five-hour stretch.

In 2007, when Turkey issued a request for proposals to build wind farms, it received bids to build a staggering 78,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, far beyond its 41,000 megawatts of total electrical generating capacity. Having selected 7,000 megawatts of the most promising proposals, the government is issuing construction permits.

In wind-rich Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta are the leaders in installed capacity. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, has received applications for offshore wind development rights on its side of the Great Lakes that could result in some 21,000 megawatts of generating capacity. The provincial goal is to back out all coal-fired power by 2014.

How does all this development fit into the Earth Policy Institute’s Plan B to save civilization?  At the heart of the plan is a crash programme to develop 4,000 gigawatts (4 million megawatts) of wind generating capacity by 2020. This will require a near doubling of capacity every two years, not an impossible remove from the doubling every three years over the last decade.

It would mean installing 2 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts each over the next 10 years. If that sounds intimidating Brown suggests comparing it with the 70 million automobiles the world produces each year.

At $3 million per installed turbine, the 2 million turbines would cost $600 billion per year worldwide between now and 2020. Compare that for size with world oil and gas capital expenditures that are projected to double from $800 billion in 2010 to $1.6 trillion in 2015.

Brown is partly reporter and partly advocate, but the two are not hopelessly disjoined. There seems no inherent reason why what is already under way around the world should not grow with greater rapidity to the level he advocates, especially if government policies help push it along.

[Beach Boys]