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Wind power takes off as major energy source

Challenges remain, but technology and new laws aid a worldwide push for

By Colin WoodardSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 1999


For decades, people have dreamed of generating electricity on a large scale without creating pollution or radioactive waste. That clean-energy dream now appears closer to becoming a reality.

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The reason is the explosive growth of wind power, which experts say is finally coming of age as a viable energy source.

During the 1990s, wind-energy capacity grew by an average of 26 percent annually, and last year by 35 percent, making it the fastest-growing electricity sector. Despite barriers, it's now a $2 billion world industry, capable of producing more than 10,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to meet the residential needs of Washington, D.C., for more than 16 years.

"It's really the first major new way of generating electricity since the emergence of nuclear power several decades ago," says Christopher Flavin, senior vice president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. "The industry ... has major potential to become an important part of electricity generation in the years ahead," he says.

"Until not long ago at our conferences we'd still see people with long hair and nice ideas. Now there are more ties and three-piece suits than anything else," says Christophe Bourillon, head of the London-based European Wind Energy Association. "We've moved from being the big boy in the small pond of renewable energy to a mature industry competing with far larger oil, gas, and nuclear sectors."

Most of the recent growth has been in Europe, where governments have encouraged wind-power developments through research investments and other incentives. Denmark generates 8 percent of its power from wind, and sales of high-tech Danish wind turbines generate $1 billion in annual sales.

Wind turbines produce 20 percent of the electricity used in Spain's industrial state of Navarra, and 11 percent used by Germany's Schleswig-Holstein, says Worldwatch.

Industry sources attribute wind's rapid growth to a combination of technological breakthroughs and government policies in support of renewable energy. Growth has also been self-reinforcing because component costs are driven down as the industry reaches increasingly efficient economies of scale.

Spurring the US drive

"There's no longer any doubt that this technology is going to make it in a big way," says Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association in Washington. Wind power "has really broken out. It's only a question of how far and how fast it will grow."

The US industry received an important boost June 21, when Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced an initiative to have wind supply 5 percent of the nation's electricity.

"By 2020, we want wind energy to be a major commercial-power generation technology, helping supply the nation's electricity needs and leading the charge in the transition to renewable energy," Richardson said.

The measure appears to have solid bipartisan support in Congress.