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Get on line: wind power's real hurdle  

Here’s the $36 billion question: Is wind power an expensive distraction or a key ingredient in the global energy cocktail? It all depends how you move the juice.

The American Wind Energy Association just released its latest scorecard—as expected, states that have financial incentives are rushing to install wind power. In some places, like Iowa, it even makes an impact. In others, even in wind-friendly states like Texas, wind power’s contribution to the electricity mix is less than a polling margin of error.

Doubts over the real contribution of wind power aren’t just an American thing. Energy Tribune recites the entire litany of arguments against wind power, one of Britain’s hopes for curbing emissions of greenhouse-gases and meeting ambitious European targets for clean energy. ET’s verdict? Wind power is “overblown”: Too dependent on subsidies, plagued by technical problems, intermittent, and ugly to boot, threatening to tarnish forever British hills and beaches. (Ask vacationers in Brighton what ugly really is.)

It’s true that wind power’s development—in the U.S. and elsewhere—relies almost entirely on subsidies. So do coal, natural gas, and nuclear—if the external costs of greenhouse-gas emissions or nuclear decomissioning were included. And there’s little chance wind farms will ever come close to producing 90% of their headline generation capacity, as nuclear does; the best machines in the best spots now offer about a 35% “load factor”.

But the real question when computing cost doesn’t lie just with the turbines themselves, but rather how to get that electricity onto the grid.

Texans were already disturbed last month by wind power-induced brownouts. Now, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports, Texans “could be on the hook for $3 billion to $6.4 billion to build new transmission lines” to connect the state’s rapidly-growing wind farms to the grid. And Texas already had an ambitious program to link wind development with new transmission lines—the construction of which faces many of the same NIMBY obstacles as wind farms themselves.

The transmission question is one that threatens to torpedo even the industry’s great white-water hope: offshore wind farms. MIT Technology Review reports on a potential breakthrough for offshore wind—floating, rather than fixed, platforms. By borrowing from the oil industry and floating above the sea-bed, wind farms could move as much as 20 miles offshore—with better wind and fewer angry locals—and save a bundle on construction costs, making wind theoretically competitive with traditional power sources.

What does the MIT article leave out? Transmission costs—the same that helped sink Long Island’s proposed offshore wind farm and have for years hogtied European offshore efforts. No matter how much cheaper capital costs for turbine installation become, all those spinning blades are just treading water until there’s a cost-effective and reliable way to hook them up to the grid.

Posted by Keith Johnson

Environmental Capital – WSJ.com

3 April 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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