ST. LOUIS — Ever since the 1973 oil embargo, America has searched for the energy equivalent of Cinderella.
It has subsidized and encouraged various renewable technologies. But each has faded, unable to compete in the marketplace.
Will wind power be different?
Initial signs are encouraging. The industry had its best year last year, installing nearly 2,600 megawatts of new wind capacity around the world - up 66 percent over the year before. Some 38,700 wind turbines span the globe.
The United States easily has enough wind to provide one-fifth of its own electric needs. North Dakota and its five surrounding states offer so much wind potential that researchers call the area "the Saudi Arabia of wind power."
And advanced technology has so boosted wind- turbine efficiency that a well-situated wind farm can generate power for 4 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. That's cheaper than coal, nuclear, hydropower - everything, in fact, but natural gas.
And there's the rub.
A relative newcomer, gas-fired, combined cycle plants can produce electricity at 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. They're easy to locate and fast to build, and they produce less pollution than coal-fired plants. And there's plenty of natural gas available at least for several decades.
If fossil fuels can provide cheap and ever cleaner energy, some critics ask, why should the US continue to subsidize more expensive alternatives, like wind?
"Stop throwing good money after bad," writes Robert Bradley, president of the Institute for Energy Research in Houston and adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute in Washington. "Once again, the lesson has been learned the hard way that government invariably picks losers, the market picks winners, and 'infant industries' requiring government favor have trouble growing up."
And renewables aren't completely eco-friendly either, he notes.
Wind turbines in Altamont Pass, Calif., are killing red-tail hawks and endangered golden eagles. Solar-panel manufacturing uses toxic materials such as cadmium.
It's not that simple, renewable- energy advocates respond. Sure, renewable energy has environmental draw- backs. That is why many environmentalists have stopped supporting hydropower, which supplies more than one-tenth of the nation's electricity, but also transforms rivers and can kill fish.
Nevertheless, most renewables create far less global warming than fossil-fuel use, they point out.
Fossil fuels also receive heavy federal subsidies (through tax credits for depletion allowances, for example). And there's no guarantee they'll remain cheap.
At some point early next century, production of those fuels will peak and begin to decline.
So subsidizing alternatives makes sense, advocates argue.
The main federal subsidy for renewable energy - a 1.5 cent per kilowatt-hour tax credit - ran out June 30. But Congress and the White House appear ready to restore it after they approve a budget. Most wind projects have been delayed until the credit reappears.
"We just need to remember what it is about renewables that we like," says Susan Hock, wind-energy technology manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. "They don't have any emissions. We don't have to import fuel. We can get electricity without relying on any other nation. We should be willing to pay for that."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society