The eagerly awaited Bush energy plan released on May 17, 2001, disappointed many people because it largely overlooked the potential contribution of raising energy efficiency. It also overlooked the enormous potential of wind power, which is likely to add more to U.S. generating capacity over the next 20 years than coal.
In short, the authors of the plan appear to be out of touch with what is happening in the world energy economy, fashioning an energy plan more appropriate for the early 20th century rather than the early 21st century. They emphasized the role of coal, but world coal use peaked in 1996 and has declined some 11 percent since then as countries have turned away from this climate-disrupting fuel. Even China, which rivals the United States as a coal burning country, has reduced its coal use by 24 percent since 1996.
Meanwhile, world wind power use has multiplied nearly fourfold over the last five years, a growth rate matched only by the computer industry. In the United States, the American Wind Energy Association projects a staggering 60 percent growth in wind-generating capacity this year.
Wind power was once confined to California, but during the last three years, wind farms coming online in Minnesota, Iowa, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon and Pennsylvania have boosted U.S. capacity by half from 1,680 megawatts to 2,550 megawatts. The 1,500 or more megawatts to be added this year will be located in a dozen states. A 300-megawatt wind farm under construction on the Oregon/Washington border is currently the world's largest.
But this is only the beginning. A 3,000-megawatt wind farm in the early planning stages in South Dakota, near the Iowa border, is 10 times the size of the Oregon/Washington wind farm.
Advances in wind turbine technology, drawing heavily from the aerospace industry, have lowered the cost of wind power from 38 cents per kilowatt hour in the early 1980s to 3 to 6 cents today depending on the wind site. Wind, now competitive with fossil fuels, is already cheaper in some locations than oil or gas-fired power. With major corporations, such as ABB, Shell International and Enron plowing resources into this field, further cost cuts are projected.
Wind is a vast, worldwide source of energy. The U.S. Great Plains are the Saudi Arabia of wind power. Three wind-rich U.S. states -- North Dakota, Kansas and Texas -- have enough harnessable wind to meet national electricity needs.
Today Denmark, the world leader in wind turbine technology and manufacture, is getting 15 percent of its electricity from wind power. Spain's industrial state of Navarra, starting from scratch six years ago, now gets 24 percent of its electricity from wind. And as wind generating costs fall, and as concern about climate change escalates, more and more countries are climbing onto the wind energy bandwagon, including Argentina, the United Kingdom, France and China.
The Bush plan to add 393,000 megawatts of electricity nationwide by 2020 could be satisfied from wind alone. Money spent on wind-generated electricity tends to remain in the community, providing income, jobs, and tax revenue, bolstering local economies. U.S. farmers and ranchers, who own most of the wind rights in the country, are now joining environmentalists to lobby for development of this abundant alternative to fossil fuel.
Moreover, once we get cheap electricity from wind, we can use it to electrolyze water, producing hydrogen -- the fuel of choice for the new, highly efficient, fuel cell engine that every major automobile manufacturer is now working on. Daimler Chrysler plans to be on the market with fuel cell--powered cars in 2003. Ford, Toyota and Honda will probably not be far behind.
Surplus wind power can be stored as hydrogen and used in fuel cells or gas turbines to generate electricity, leveling supply when winds are variable. The wind meteorologist who analyzes wind regimes and identifies the best sites for wind farms will play a role in the new energy economy comparable to that of the petroleum geologist in the old energy economy.
For the first time, the United States has the technology and resources to divorce itself from Middle Eastern oil.
What the United States needs now is an energy plan for this century, one that takes into account not only recent technological advances in wind power, fuel cells and hydrogen generators, but also the United States' responsibility in stabilizing climate. Perhaps Congress will bring the energy plan into the 21st century and restore U.S. leadership in the fast-changing world energy economy.
Lester Brown writes for Earth Policy Institute,