You probably recall the comments by early nuclear proponents that nuclear energy would be too cheap to measure. Nuclear power may be reliable and abundant but it never lived up to the cost claim.

Despite lessons learned, we find ourselves again being sold on another energy source, wind, that is “boundless and free.” Sure, I'll admit that wind, as a fuel, is literally free and there for the taking. But that tells us only a small piece of the story. The fact is wind energy can be tremendously expensive.

Wind proponents also remind us that wind energy produces no greenhouse-gas emissions, that for every megawatt-hour of wind produced there is a corresponding reduction in fossil generation and, the ubiquitous kicker, that by shifting energy production to a stable, secure, sustained fuel source we can wean ourselves off foreign oil once and for all. And there is some truth to these claims.

But that brings us to another set of questions: What wind opportunities do we have and how much will they cost us?

By the end of 2009, the United States had just over 35,000 MW of wind installed, representing around 1.5% of our energy needs.

Two years ago, the Department of Energy (DOE) released its “20% Wind Power by 2030,” which declared the United States can meet 20% of its electricity needs through wind power by 2030. In the DOE's 20% scenario, expect to see 305,000 MW of installed wind, including 54,000 MW offshore. Massive land areas, from North Dakota to Texas, Utah to Ohio and all along our eastern coastal waters would be transformed into expansive electric generating facilities aimed at powering our population centers.

But to pull this off, we need transmission to bring wind to our load centers. Thus, we've seen quite a few proponents recommend ways to get this energy to customers. American Electric Power in its “Interstate Transmission Vision for Wind Integration (2007)” calls for 19,000 miles (30,578 km) of new 765-kV transmission lines with a corresponding investment of more than $60 billion in transmission and infrastructure assets in 2007 dollars to deliver this wind energy. This is in addition to the trillions in wind power development capital costs, which would be subsidized through energy credits borne by U.S. rate- and taxpayers.

So what's driving our support of wind? In large part, it's the creation of state renewable portfolio standards (RPS). More than half the states mandate that a set percentage of electric energy sales be generated by renewable sources. RPS policies along with federal incentives, including stimulus monies, have made the United States fertile ground for wind developers.

Here's the Hitch

Current policies that encourage renewable generation at the state and federal levels reward all renewables equally for placing a megawatt of energy on the grid. There is no adjustment based on time of day or seasonal demand, nor is there an adjustment for location of the green power facility. As a result, the least expensive, quickest built renewable projects — wind farms — are going on-line. Since wind energy is unpredictable and cannot be counted on to meet demand, it could actually be a lower-value option over other renewables including methane gas, biomass, geothermal and even solar

Even with generous incentives, the economics of wind are problematic. With typical capacity factors ranging between 15% and 35%, wind costs are spread over fewer hours of generation. This is compounded by wind's generation profile that shows it typically produces off peak when energy prices are low.

Geographically dispersing wind turbines nationwide helps dampen broad swings in wind energy but still provides little assurances the energy will be where we need it. In fact, the DOE's 20% report makes it clear wind is an energy resource, not a capacity resource, and cannot replace our need for more reliable generation.

Where Does That Leave Us?

While I agree that wind has an important role in our energy mix, let's recognize the limitations and make sure wind takes its proper place as we develop our energy mix. Today in the United States, wind development is crowding out other renewable options and now represents more than 90% of the generating capacity of all proposed new renewable energy projects. Amendments to energy policies to incent renewables should take into account peak demand periods and distances from load centers.

As we look to replace fossil-fuel generation, let's make sure that public monies to encourage the development of renewable energy provide the public with the highest return on investment.


Lisa Linowes (llinowes@windaction.org) is the executive director and spokesperson for the Industrial Wind Action Group, an advocacy focused on the impact/benefits analysis and policy issues associated with industrial wind energy development.