A growing number of scientists and engineers are betting that a huge part of America's struggle with greenhouse gases and dependence on foreign oil can be partly solved by returning to one of the first energy sources tapped by humans -- wind.
Harnessing the wind could produce enormous amounts of clean energy, but even this seemingly benign resource is not without its problems.
Environmentalists who at first embraced the idea of dotting the land ape with windmills have cooled to the concept because they can be deadly to birds, and, to put it bluntly, they can be pretty ugly.
Suitable land is also scarce and frequently needed for other purposes, so development of wind farms in this country has lagged behind some other areas of the world. Wind power set a new record in Europe last year, growing by 23 percent, and it is second only to gas-fired generators in new capacity.
But in Europe, as well as other parts of the world, developers are increasingly moving offshore with their wind turbines, erecting them on huge platforms in relatively shallow water where the winds are more reliable than on land.
That's not happening in this country. At least not until now. But there is evidence that is about to change, and change dramatically.
Several proposed projects are moving toward approval for sites off the mid-Atlantic shore, from the Carolinas to New England, aided by a new study that has put some numbers on the energy potential of that coastal region.
"The numbers are amazing," says Willett Kempton, professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware, who led the study. "We didn't expect them to be that big, for sure."
Offshore wind turbines could produce enough electricity to power nine states, plus the District of Columbia, with a surplus of 50 percent for future growth, according to the study. At the same time, carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 68 percent, and all greenhouse gases would be reduced by 57 percent, according to the study, published in the Jan. 24 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.
But to reach those numbers, the scale of the project would have to be equally huge. The numbers are based on 166,720 wind turbines, scattered over more than 50,000 square miles from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras.
Most would be visible from shore, and intrusion into coastal waters by any type of industrial activity is a hot-button issue in many quarters. But Kempton, along with fellow researchers at Stanford and the University of Delaware, is convinced it not only can be done, but will be done, at least in part.
"I'm almost certain it will happen," he says. "We have a proposal off Cape Cod, another proposal off New York, one off Delaware, [and] New Jersey has said they're going to do it. Maybe one of those will get blocked, but even Cape Cod has passed every review, every regulatory hurdle it's faced."
That's significant, he says, because a well-financed opposition group has fought in several arenas to block the wind turbine project.
Kempton's group has completed surveys in two communities to sample public opinion, and found very different sentiments. In Cape Cod, he says, they found "a statistically significant majority that were opposed." In plain English, most people hated the idea.
But in Delaware, he says, they got "amazingly different results."