As I stared out the window of the train speeding between Frankfurt and Hannover, wind turbines — sometimes thick as a grove of trees — dotted the countryside. Some 18,000 of them gracefully spin (see the video) in the Federal Republic of Germany, weaning the nation off fossil fuel dependency and creating 64,000 jobs in the process, according to the German Wind Energy Assn. (BWE). The accomplishment is impressive.
The BWE has set a target of 25 percent of Germany's energy needs coming from renewable sources. If the goals are met, renewable energy by 2020 would account for 35 percent of Germany's electricity, 25 percent of its heat and 20 percent earmarked for fuels production. In 2005, wind turbines in Germany produced 26,000 megawatts. Had that come from coal, 21 million tons of CO2 would have been the byproduct, BWE calculates. Another 1,208 turbine units were added in 2006 producing 2,233 megawatts.
On April 11, the American Wind Energy Assn. (AWEA) released its numbers for the U.S., which now generates 11,600 megawatts or enough to power 3 million households. That's also less than half what Germany — a smaller nation in almost all respects — was producing in 2005. The U.S. brought on 2,400 new megawatts of wind power in the past year and California and Texas lead the nation with output topping 5,000 megawatts. That outpaces the growth in Germany. The Horse Hollow Wind Farm in Texas produces a fifth of the nation's total output while New York's Maple Ridge Wind Farm has come on strong.
On the manufacturer side, GE Energy (by a lot), Siemens Wind Power and Danish company Vestas, in that order, are the top three, according to AWEA. GE estimates that by the end of 2007, about 83,000 megawatts will come from wind turbines with a cost of 3.5 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour — two to three times less than what I currently pay for electricity here in the expensive Northeast. And the burgeoning opportunity has not escaped the notice of turbine subcontractors like German company Bosch Rexroth, which is expanding its wind turbine gearbox and hydraulics manufacturing here.
The major difference between Germany and the U.S. is the formers collective decision to heavily invest in wind power. Parts of northern and central Germany are as flat as Nebraska, so there's little to obstruct the wind and the country is just beginning to exploit the off-shore opportunity. One cannot travel five miles without seeing a grove of wind turbines. Every time I saw them, I was reminded how adroitly Germany is adapting to the new realities of energy. In the U.S., you could travel 1,000 miles without seeing a wind turbine.
Germans are not fighting the epic battles about where wind turbines are located — they put them where there's wind. The battle for the wind energy hearts and minds is playing out in Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts with the proposed Cape Wind project. I say build already and, if you like, put several in the woods behind my house (my backyard might be a bit small). They are as silently beautiful as they are intelligent.
Economics and wind supply play a big role in wind turbine viability. In the U.S., the Wind Energy Resource Atlas provides well-defined analysis of where the winds consistently blow. Not surprisingly, the Great Plains are ideal and provide a far greater expanse than Germany. The second issue is economics, but proponents claim the cost has dropped to $1,000 or less per kilowatt from almost three times that 20 years ago. Clearly, the economics winds are blowing in the right direction although many critics remain in scientific, environmental, political and engineering circles, as well as the established power industry remain.
I have been an advocate of wind energy for 30 years when the largest turbine you could cobble together was an eggbeater standing 25 ft in the air. Everything has changed and the time for a comprehensive wind energy strategy in this country is now.
Let me know what you think at my blog, via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or the old-fashioned way, by phone at 781-734-8437.