Can Wind Power the World?

Two Stanford researchers have put out a new scientific study suggesting that the potential for wind-driven energy is actually many times greater than was previously believed, and may, in fact, be more than enough to meet the whole world's energy demands. Analyzing thousands of sites around the globe, the researchers estimated that wind power could produce 72 terawatts of energy per year—many times greater than the 1.6-1.8 terawatts the world used in 2000. North America, meanwhile, was found to have the greatest wind power potential, though its unclear whether the United States could satisfy its own needs through domestic wind power alone.

There are still a number of barriers to wind power. For one, it enjoys only tenuous backing from the federal government. True, the House energy bill authorized $55-65 million per year over next five years to promote wind power development, but the most effective tool has always been the production tax credit, which finances roughly 30 percent of the cost of wind energy production. The problem is that, over the past six years, Congress has alternately let the credit expire and then be renewed three times, thus failing to provide the kind of long-term predictability that manufacturers of wind turbines and wind technology need. The current energy bill would only extend the credit through the end of 2006, even though many wind-power producers feel they could, with more support, push much further than the record growth expected this year.

There are other obstacles too. Transmitting wind energy to urban areas poses new challenges for grid operators who are used to predictable power sources and unaccustomed to dealing with the whims of Mother Nature. And while wind energy has some environmentalists excited, it also has many concerned: Critics point out that the regulatory guidelines for wind generation are weak, and that many conflicts over site placement may eventually emerge, particularly over the impact of wind farms on local bird populations. Other concerns have been raised about the disruption of scenic views, declining property values, and noise.

Of course there's a bigger picture to this debate as well: climate change has the potential to alter our landscape and poses ecological risks far beyond anything wind power could do. While blanket wind farms may be not be the answer, one can no longer ignore the potential for sensibly-sited farms to produce large amounts of clean energy.