Christopher Flavin says wind power surging in popularity worldwide

According to Flavin, over 40 percent of the new generating capacity added in the United States last year was from wind power. He said that number is surpassed – only slightly – by natural gas.

Christopher Flavin: Wind power is the only large-scale source of carbon-free electricity being brought into the world’s electricity grids today.

Christopher Flavin is president of the Worldwatch Institute – an environmental research organization that studies global trends in sustainability. Flavin, whose focus is on energy policy, said that wind power today across the world is surging.

Christopher Flavin: It’s beginning to displace a significant amount of coal-fired generating capacity. In the United States, over 40 percent of the new generating capacity added last year was wind. That’s only surpassed by natural gas, and that only slightly. And, just for comparison, there was much more wind capacity added both in the U.S. and in Europe last year than there was coal.

Flavin said use of wind power is rising because more countries have laws that allow its suppliers better access to the electric grid. And, he added, the technology itself has gotten better – wind turbines are bigger, and more efficient.

Christopher Flavin: And as a result, wind power is very close to economically competitive with most other new sources of electricity, particularly coal and gas.

Still, in the U.S., wind power only supplies about one percent of its electricity. Flavin said that in as little as six years that number could rise to six percent.

Christopher Flavin: Fossil fuels have been very cheap up until recently. But now that we’re beginning to not only run into scarcity with some fuels like oil, but we’re also running into the limits in terms of the atmosphere absorbing all of the carbon dioxide, wind starts to look much more attractive than it was before. So I think that the combination of those forces is going to drive very rapid wind development.

Falvin described a combination of forces that he says is going to drive very rapid wind development.

Christopher Flavin: Wind power in its modern form has only been under development for less than three decades. So there are a lot of technologies that are involved in modern wind turbines that were really not available much earlier. For example, the fiberglass blades are extremely sophisticated. And in addition to that, fossil fuels have been very cheap up until recently. But now that we’re beginning to not only run into scarcity with some fuels like oil, but we’re also running into the limits in terms of the atmosphere absorbing all of the carbon dioxide, wind starts to look much more attractive than it was before.

Wind could be a major part of the power system in the United States, says Flavin.

Christopher Flavin: There are three states in the midwest, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Kansas that literally have enough wind blowing across them to provide all of the electricity in the United States. And if you add up all of the power available across the Great Plains and then in other pockets around the country, including off-shore resources in the Atlantic, in the Pacific, and the Gulf coast, you can clearly see the way in which this could be a major part of the power system.

Wind power still has some obstacles to overcome before it can be practical.

Christoper Flavin: The big limiting factor with wind of course is that wind does not blow all the time, it’s intermittent. But if the wind capacity is spread across a large enough area, and if you design a smart electricity grid, build a modest amount of storage into the system, we believe that eventually it will be possible to operate a grid with wind providing as much as 40 to 50 percent of the total power.

Flavin said that for wind power to be a viable energy alternative, massive wind farms will have to be developed.

Christopher Flavin: If wind is going to play a major role in meeting our power needs, you’re going to need large wind farms, particularly in big country like the United States. And there definitely are negative impacts of virtually any technology including wind farms. Some of the issues that must be dealt with are questions of birds running into the turbines, noise produced by them, simply aesthetics, I think that’s really the issue on Nantucket Sound. Some of the yachtsmen don’t like the idea of having a wind farm out there in the middle of the sound. Other people, I think the majority according to the most recent poll in the Cape Cod area actually favor it.

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