Blowin' in the Wind: Turbines Take Off

Wind power has been billed as one of those fantastic green technologies destined to wean us off of oil and other fossil fuels -- except that in the U.S. it still provides just a tiny percentage of our energy needs.

But a storm has been blowing in off the coast of Spain over the last few days, with gusts of up to 75 miles an hour. There could not be better news for the renewable energy business there.

Wind power has become an important part of the energy mix in many European countries. During a storm on Jan. 23, when gales blew in off the Atlantic, wind turbines reportedly provided 27 percent of Spain's electricity demand -- yes, more than a quarter of the country's needs -- and the latest storm may well break that record.

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The wind-power business is large enough there that when the wind goes up, the price of power goes down, guided by the laws of supply and demand. Prices on the spot market for electricity dropped 11 percent.

"Once your wind turbines go up," said Christine Real de Azua of the American Wind Energy Association, "you have basically no costs. The upfront capital costs of building turbines are high, but once you've built the turbines, the fuel is free."

Why has Spain caught the wind, while the U.S. has not? For one thing, the Spanish government is more of a booster of renewable energy than America has been. Electric companies there are obliged to make use of renewable sources (wind, sun, hydropower, etc.) before they turn to conventional fossil fuel sources, such as oil, coal or gas.

Some analysts believe it would be a good thing for governments to chip in. Wood Mackenzie, a British-based energy consulting firm, estimated in 2007 that if the U.S. government required utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from so-called renewable sources, the average price of electricity would fall by about 7 percent.

"It's not great for the electric companies," said Brian Parsons, an analyst at the government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, "but it's good for the consumer."

In the U.S., wind still provides only about 1 percent of the nation's power mix. But the industry -- at least until the economic crisis of the last year -- was one of the country's fastest-growing sources of electricity. In 2008, the Energy Department reports 42 percent of new power generation came from wind turbines. Natural gas plants, with 48 percent, made up most of the rest.

Wind Power Problems

Wind's biggest problem is that it can be, well, becalmed -- both literally and politically. If the wind stops blowing, engineers say other generators, such as natural gas plants, have to kick in to make up the difference.

Builders of wind turbines also face not-in-my-backyard protests, often from environmentalists -- who are all in favor of non-polluting wind energy, but object to the noise and the sight of tall turbines in otherwise-open places.

But more favorable winds from Washington have been blowing of late.

The Obama administration, with its calls for better infrastructure and "green-collar jobs," has caused a stir in the nascent wind industry.

And the U.S. Energy Department, in a report last year commissioned by the Bush administration, said the country might well get a fifth of its power from wind within 20 years.

"We can't sit on our hands and just expect it to happen," said Parsons, who helped prepare the report. "It takes some investment. But it's very doable."