By TODD NEFF
Scripps Howard News Service
April 27, 2007
But energy experts know only wind - a power source so old and familiar the Phoenicians had it licked - can satisfy 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs in the foreseeable future.
President Bush's 2006 Advanced Energy Initiative cited the 20 percent figure as a goal, saying the country should "dramatically increase the use of wind energy." Without major advances in wind and related technology to boost output, reliability and transmission while cutting costs, experts say such a leap may never happen.
The heart of America's wind-research effort lies just south of the Boulder County, Colo., at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's National Wind Technology Center. A walk around the facility gives reason to fret.
Years of flat or declining budgets and congressional earmarking for such projects as community wind turbines in Michigan, Massachusetts and other states have left the center with outdated equipment and staffing at roughly half that of historical highs.
The wind center's blade-testing facility is too small for modern blades, its gear-testing machine is too small for modern gears and its researchers are mainly focused on near-term problems to support an industry struggling to keep up with demand.
Yet, on one hand, the slow flow of past research dollars to NREL has been a blessing. It spared researchers the public scrutiny inherent in a big-budget, Apollo-style program, and gave them time to work out kinks in one turbine before moving on to the next, said Robert Thresher, the National Wind Technology Center's director.
On the other hand, Thresher said, "I guess I feel a little bit constrained to hit all the issues at the level we're at."
Sandy Butterfield, the Technology Center's chief engineer and a longtime Boulder resident, was more blunt.
"We could double our budget and still not do it justice," Butterfield said.
Wind amounts to about 0.5 percent of all U.S. electricity generation - compared to about 50 percent for coal, 18 percent for natural gas and 19 percent for nuclear, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says.
Getting to 20 percent, analysts estimate, would cost about $500 billion and require technological advances on several fronts, from blade technology to gearboxes to deepwater offshore turbines and new electrical-transmission systems.
For their investment, Americans would get a source of electricity that, once manufactured and installed, emits none of coal's neurotoxic mercury, acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxides or ecosystem-altering nitrogen oxides. It could cut U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions on the order of 5 percent.
There's broad consensus that aggressively developing non-fossil energy is vital to energy security and the planet's health. Al Gore and others advocate a federal investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency and other efforts rivaling the Apollo program or the Manhattan Project to drastically cut carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.
But federal research is subject to the law of diminishing marginal returns, Thresher said, such that one can throw only so much money at a problem.
Plus, he noted, "There's a war on."
Even without a war on, the federal wind-research budget has been flat for a decade. In 2007, it's $44 million, about 70 percent of which ends up at NREL. For 2008, the Bush administration has proposed about $40 million.
Wind technology has come a long way since 200 B.C., when the Persians were grinding grain using windmills with woven-reed sails.
GE Wind's 3.6-megawatt offshore turbine blades sweep a diameter of 104 meters, or about the length of a football field including the end zones. In a good breeze, one such machine generates enough power to supply more than 3,000 homes.
Still, wind lacks the panache of solar panels, which, without a single moving part, seem to magically produce electrons. Wind's lesser status in the public imagination is particularly curious given that wind is solar energy: air stampeding at the whip of the sun's heat.
The money reflects that. The Bush administration's 2008 budget request for solar-energy research is $148 million, nearly four times that of wind.
Solar needs money, too, particularly if the quantum breakthroughs required to slash photovoltaic electricity's cost of 25 cents per kilowatt-hour are to happen. For comparison, electricity from a new coal plant costs 5 cents to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, said John Nielsen, energy program director for Boulder's Western Resource Advocates. Electricity from old coal plants runs 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, and natural-gas generation is 6 cents to 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, Nielsen said.
Despite solar's glitter, wind is being installed 20 times faster.
The American Wind Energy Association, in testimony submitted last week to a U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee, said the 2008 wind-research budget should be $110 million. The biggest chunk, $50 million, would aim to cut costs and boost reliability of rotor blades, sensors, towers and drive trains.
To make wind competitive with coal-fired generation without federal tax subsidies, existing wind turbines must cost 20 percent less than the current 6 cents to 8 cents per kilowatt-hour while delivering 20 percent more energy, Thresher said. That's been his center's main focus, he said, to the detriment of longer-term research, particularly in offshore wind, which holds the greatest long-term promise.
More than three-quarters of the U.S. population lives near coasts, where wind could serve local needs. In contrast, the best U.S. land for wind tends to be the emptiest, requiring major investments in the electricity grid.
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