This summer, after four years of construction, the UK officially opened the world’s largest offshore wind farm. Known as the London Array, the farm is located 20 km off the coast of Kent and Essex on a 100km2 site. Its 175 turbines are capable of producing 630 MW of energy – enough to power almost 500,000 homes.
But the UK is not the only country with growing wind power capacity. In the United States, for example, wind power capacity has risen steadily since 2000, bringing the cumulative installed capacity to 60,007 MW by late 2012 (second only to China). This translated into 149.8 terawatt hours, or 3.67% of generated electrical energy, in the year preceding April 2013. Leading the way are Texas, California, Iowa, Illinois, and Oregon, all with over 3000MW of installed wind capacity.
Should this trend continue? Certainly, wind power has its weaknesses. It provides intermittent power, requiring a back-up supply. It has been criticized for its appearance, as “onshore wind turbines are typically more spread out than other large-scale energy infrastructure projects”. Furthermore, the rotating blades of wind turbines cause bird and bat fatalities.
However, these weaknesses are greatly outweighed by the benefits. In particular, wind power emits no carbon dioxide and emissions during the manufacturing, transportation, and installation of turbines are “considered fairly low”. Thus, by replacing other energy sources, wind power can significantly reduce CO2 emissions (the London Array alone will lower emissions by 900,000 tons/year). Moreover, onshore wind power is “one of the most affordable renewable energy sources”. At 5-8 cents/kWh, it is about a quarter the cost of solar power and “slightly cheaper, on average, than nuclear power”.
For these reasons, the Department of Energy has called for wind power to supply 20% of US electricity by 2030. The potential exists – according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the US has over 10,000 GW of onshore wind power potential. This could generate 37 petawatt hours annually, more than 9 times current US electricity consumption.
To make this vision a reality will require further “advances in cost, performance, and reliability”. In addition to the private sector and academia, government can promote these advances through research, funding, and favorable tax policies. So far, in 2013, the US government has extended the tax credit for wind power production, while Obama has pledged a 30% funding increase for clean energy technology. In July, however, the House proposed a bill to eliminate several renewable energy programs, calling into question the government’s commitment to wind energy.
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Flickr photo credit: Andreas Klinke Johannsen