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Wind energy could provide 20perc US power { May 13 2008 }

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Energy Dept. says wind power could be savior
David R. Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

(05-12) 19:42 PDT -- Windmills spinning over the Great Plains and along the coasts could supply 20 percent of U.S. electricity by the year 2030 and put a significant dent in greenhouse gas emissions, federal officials said Monday.

Although wind farms now generate just 1 percent of the nation's electricity, a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy found that wind power could play a far larger role in the future. It could supply roughly the same percentage of the nation's power as nuclear plants provide today.

"There are those who say it is marginal and always will be, and yet the statistics say otherwise," said Andy Karsner, the department's assistant secretary for renewable energy.

The report's findings have major implications for the fight against global warming, both nationally and in California.

The Golden State was a wind-power pioneer - it has some of the world's first large-scale wind farms on the Altamont Pass and in the Southern California desert - and already derives about 1.8 percent of its power from the wind. New wind farms are planned for the Tehachapi Mountains and the Mojave Desert. If the nation experiences a wind-power boom, California is likely to see more.

Wind farms produce electricity without spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They are one of several renewable energy sources that California officials hope will help slow global warming, by reducing the number of fossil-fuel power plants the state must build.

Under California law, 20 percent of the electricity sold by the state's utilities must come from renewable sources by the end of 2010. The utilities are rushing to sign contracts with wind farm developers.

Ralph Cavanagh, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's energy program, said the report shows that California's goals, as well as the nation's, are attainable. "It's not out-of-the-park optimistic," he said.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. electricity industry would still rise in the next 22 years, even if the nation meets the wind power targets spelled out in the report. But the increase in emissions would be 25 percent smaller than it would have been if the nation added no new wind farms at all.

"First of all, it's doable, and second of all, it's desirable," said Dan Arvizu, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one of several research institutions that worked on the report.

Generating 20 percent of the nation's power from wind won't be easy - the already rapid pace of wind farm construction would have to accelerate. Last year, the country added enough windmills to generate 5.2 gigawatts of electricity, enough for 3.9 million homes. By the year 2018, wind power's annual growth would need to reach 16 gigawatts.

In addition, the country's network of high-voltage power lines would need to be expanded and upgraded. Some of the country's strongest, most reliable winds flow over the sparsely populated Great Plains, and a nationwide "superhighway" transmission system would be needed to carry that power to states and cities that need it.

But those obstacles can be overcome without great expense, according to the report. Although wind power currently costs more than electricity generated by natural gas or coal, expanding wind would add about 50 cents to the typical American's monthly electric bill, the report says.

Karsner and Arvizu warned that the report is not a prediction. It merely addresses what is possible, not what is probable. And other energy experts cautioned that the Energy Department may be too enthusiastic.

"We see a lot of wind, but 20 percent is higher than what our modeling shows," said Thomas Key, with the Electric Power Research Institute, which conducts research for electric utilities. "Not extraordinarily higher, but higher."

The transmission problem, Key said, should not be underestimated. Construction of new high-voltage lines often runs into a buzz saw of opposition from communities along the path.

"There's enough wind blowing in the U.S. ... to come up with those numbers," Key said. "But the question is, how do you get it from the windy areas to where it's needed."

There's also a question of wind power's reliability. Windmills in California, for example, often come to a standstill during heat waves, because the state endures its hottest temperatures when summer winds off the Pacific Ocean fade.

The answer, according to the Energy Department report, lies in using natural gas power plants to back up the windmills, and balancing the amount of power generated by each. Improved high voltage lines also would improve the ability of one region to share power with another. If winds are howling over Southern California wind farms but calm at the Altamont Pass, for example, power could easily be shipped from south to north.

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