Dec. 31, 2003 -- The fastest growing energy source in the world today isn't oil, or coal, or hydrogen, or fuel cells, or any of the whiz-bangers on the frontiers of high technology. In fact, it's the same technology that pushed boats up the Nile River as early as 5000 B.C., and pumped water in China and pulverized grain in ancient Persia around 200 B.C.
It's just wind.
Reports from varying sources in different fields ranging from high finance to environmental organizations to the U.S. Department of Energy all point to the same conclusion. Finally, at least some movers and shakers are beginning to recognize that humans have no choice but to find something other than non-renewable resources to power our cities and factories. We need to shift our emphasis to something that is inexhaustible, available in our own corner of the globe, and non-polluting.
Like wind. There's plenty of it. It's not going to go away. There's no way we can use it all up.
A recent study by the Department of Energy labeled wind the "fastest-growing energy source in the world." In the three year period from 2000 to 2003, wind power capacity increased a whopping 159 percent in Europe and 87 percent in the United States, according to Standard and Poor's Ratings Services.
Nowhere is this shift more pronounced than in Europe. Development of a huge "wind farm" off the English and Welsh coasts took a giant step forward earlier this month when 15 groups bid successfully for the right to participate in the project.
By the time it's completed, at least 1,000 giant wind turbines will be erected in three shallow seas, far enough offshore that it will be hard to see them from the beach. They are expected to produce enough electricity to power four million homes. So one out of every six houses will be powered by wind.
Britain hopes to produce 10 percent of its energy from such "green resources" by 2010.
Wind power is not likely to replace fossil fuels in the near future, but it could be a key player in shifting this country's energy dependance toward domestic, renewable sources, according to various reports. There are vast areas of the country that are suitable for the construction of wind farms, particularly in the upper Midwest. The Department of Energy has concluded that if wind turbines were erected on just 6 percent of the land in the contiguous United States, they could supply one-and- a- half-times as much electricity as the country now uses.
That's a very impressive figure, but some still argue that all this is just, well, blowing in the wind.
Wind Where You Need It
The huge turbines like those erected near the posh community of Palm Springs in the California desert are not exactly beautiful. They can be noisy. They can break down. And occasionally, a bird collides with the blades, and that has happened often enough that even some environmental groups that used to push for wind development now oppose it.
But the biggest drawback is the simple fact that wind doesn't always blow when and where you want it. You've got to take it when you can get it and feed the juice into the electric grid where it joins electricity produced by more traditional methods, but you can't count on its always being there when you need it the most. Like during the dog days of summer when those air conditioners in Palm Springs are churning away.
And unfortunately, many of the areas where the conditions are most favorable are far removed from the urban centers where the need is the greatest. For example, one Energy Department study concludes that the best place in the country to erect wind turbines is on the cold, barren Aleutian Islands that extend more than 1,000 miles out to sea from western Alaska.
The wind always blows there, frequently at extraordinary speeds, but only a handful of people live on the islands so there's not a great need for electricity. But some scientists have argued that electricity generated in the Aleutians could be used for other purposes, such as the extraction of hydrogen from sea water, which requires a lot of electricity.
The hydrogen then could be shipped south to pave the way for the much touted "hydrogen economy" which is supposed to be just around the corner.
But such a bold move probably is not necessary for this country to reap enormous benefits from wind power. Wind turbines can be very compatible with other land uses, such as farming and ranching. One Department of Energy report notes that farmers could continue farming, and ranchers could continue ranching, while collecting a nice little royalty from the local utility company for the use of just enough ground to erect a tall tower.
That's sort of like history repeating itself.
In the early years of this country, farmers across the land borrowed from the Dutch and erected thousands of windmills to pump water for their farms, and even to generate electricity for their homes. Now, perhaps we're about to come full circle.