It’s popular these days to talk about producing much more of our electric energy from wind generation as a clean way to reduce both greenhouse-gas emissions and our nation’s dependence on foreign oil. But so far, wind energy is generating more enthusiasm than electricity.
Wind power capacity has tripled since 1998 to 6,400 megawatts, but it supplies less than 1 percent of the nation’s electricity. To encourage its growth, 17 states have established mandates requiring utilities to obtain set percentages of electricity from renewable energy sources by a fixed date – mostly 20 percent, including 5 percent from wind, by 2020. And Congress recently extended a federal tax credit for wind turbines that will make the cost of production competitive with electricity from plants running on coal or natural gas.
Wind energy has many benefits, and some of these government measures may help. But don’t be so naive as to think that electricity derived from wind will make much of a dent in greenhouse-gas emissions or imported oil.
The problem is that wind is unreliable. Turbines turn only when the wind blows, and they typically operate at a modest 25 percent of capacity, compared with 40 percent at a gas-fired power plant or 90 percent at a nuclear power plant. When wind turbines aren’t operating, we have to get the power somewhere else. So they require expensive backup electricity, most likely from fossil fuels.
Another problem is that "wind farms" require large amounts of land. Today, a wind farm that occupies 300 square miles produces only as much electricity as a typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant.
Also, when wind turbines are sited in undeveloped or pristine areas, they detract from the environmental values of those areas. And turbines have the added drawback of killing scores of migratory birds each year.
If we are serious about reducing our energy dependence and combating global warming, we will need to find a way to eliminate waste in our consumption of energy and make use of all emission-free energy sources. One source that can make a real difference is nuclear power, which is capable of meeting much of our nation’s growing power demands.
America can’t afford to have an energy policy that’s tailored to what’s "in" politically. We need to focus our efforts on expanding meaningful alternatives to fossil fuels that can have a major impact on achieving energy security and reducing global warming.
Russell Mesler is emeritus professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Kansas.