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Hey, Maybe Wind's No Joke After All

Okay, by popular request (well... maybe just one request), here's that new Department of Energy report arguing that wind could supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity needs by 2030. It sure sounds fanciful, seeing as how wind currently provides just 1 percent of America's electricity, but the DOE thinks it can be done. And doing so would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S. electric sector by 25 percent.

Now, the big surprise here is that a wind boom of this magnitude wouldn't require any new technological breakthroughs. Nor is the wind industry constrained by the material shortages that are cramping the nuclear industry's style right now. Wind power could deliver electricity for 6 to 8.5 cents per kilowatt/hour, which is just a notch above dirty coal, and a notch below the estimated 15 cents per kwh for new nuclear plants. (As the Wall Street Journal reports today, nuclear's expected renaissance has been dampened somewhat by skyrocketing construction costs.)

The main hurdle in ramping up wind power, I'd say, is building all those new transmission lines, which, as California's discovering, can be a huge headache. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently proposed a 150-mile transmission line that would've snaked through portions of a state park, and conservationists were outraged. Wind turbines can easily fall prey to NIMBY-ism, especially with the DOE suggesting that a wind-power push could entail up to 20,000 square miles worth of new turbines. (Interestingly, when I was reporting this piece on wind-power-mania in Texas, I was told that NIMBY-ism wasn't a big obstacle to offshore wind platforms there, since Texans were already accustomed to seeing hulking oil rigs out on the horizon.)

Meanwhile, both Texas and Denmark are learning that it can be rather pricey to expand the grid to handle all those new wind turbines coming on-line. That's doubly true given that our current, creaky grid isn't very well-suited for managing intermittent power sources like wind. But the DOE study suggests that even after you factor in the transmission and grid costs, those turbines still offer one of the more cost-effective clean-energy options around (that 8.5 cents-per-kwh figure ostensibly includes all these considerations). Long story short: If the United States ever put a moderate price on carbon—or even just passed a national renewable portfolio standard—it really does seem like wind power could take off in a hurry.

P.S. On a related note, the WSJ's Keith Johnson reports that offshore wind-power farms are proving much, much trickier to build than their landlubbing counterparts. The DOE report sort of suggests as much. 

--Bradford Plumer