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A new gust of wind projects across the US

High natural-gas prices and global-warming concerns may help wind energy gain critical mass.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 19, 2006

Out in the dwindling oil fields around McCamey, Texas, where rattlesnakes outnumber people and black-gold gushers once blew their tops, a new energy geyser is blowing - wind power.

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More than 860 wind turbines today pinwheel where oil derricks once bloomed, cranking out pollution-free megawatts for wind developers like FPL Energy, a Juno Beach, Fla., utility with the nation's largest wind-power portfolio. In turn, that energy is transmitted to cities like Austin.

"We call our town the wind energy capital of Texas," says Sherry Phillips, McCamey's wind-centric mayor.

With wind farms popping up from New York to Texas to California, wind power is riding high in the saddle again. Explosive growth of more than 40 percent this year - 3,400 megawatts of new generation is expected - could make the United States the world's largest wind-power market, a new report shows.

In the past, the wind industry has soared or swooped depending on whether Congress renewed the wind-energy production tax credit, as it did last fall. But amid the current boom, some say it won't be long until the industry is ready to stand on its own.

Rising natural-gas prices, new state mandates requiring clean energy, and utilities' concerns over global warming are key forces. Together, they leave the wind with enough momentum and critical mass to keep growing even if Congress does not renew the tax credits, some argue.

"The big story is that the North American wind-power market is reaching an entirely new level," says Godfrey Chua, research director at Emerging Energy Research, a research firm in Cambridge, Mass. "This year will see the beginning of the end of the boom-and-bust cycle that has plagued the US wind industry."

Among the biggest factors spurring growth are states taking the reins of leadership from the federal government on energy mandates. Eager to cut air pollution, global warming, and rising electric rates, at least 22 states have approved "renewable portfolio standards" - legislation requiring utilities to include renewable sources like wind, solar, hydro, and biomass in their energy mix.

At the rate wind power is being installed on the ridges and plains of North America - US and Canada - wind power will grow by 4,250 megawatts this year, compared with about 2,600 megawatts last year. If Congress renews the tax credit in 2007, the industry could be installing 6,000 megawatts a year by 2010, according to a new study by Mr. Chua.

Because wind provides power intermittently, there is a limit to how much of the energy mix it can provide. Still, some say 5 percent of total US generating capacity is a reasonable goal. In fact, the US wind building boom could soon bring cumulative wind power to more than 9,200 megawatts, serving the equivalent of 2.4 million households, according to the American Wind Energy Association. (Still, that's less than 1 percent of US power generation.)

Another key reason the wind industry is surging is due to "a whole new cast of players bringing much greater financial capital, corporate muscle, and political leverage," Chua says. Where "cowboy" developers abounded, Fortune 500 companies are jumping in. Goldman Sachs and global energy developer AES have plunged into wind-farm development. German giant Siemens has joined General Electric making wind turbines.

Horizon Wind Energy, a Houston-based developer owned by Goldman Sachs, is aggressively developing hundreds of megawatts of wind power across the country. One such endeavor is the Maple Ridge Wind Farm project about 75 miles northeast of Syracuse, N.Y. Set in maple-syrup country, the first turbines on the wind farm went online last month.