Wind power is at a turning point. If correct decisions are made in the next few years this alternative energy source "may be a breath of fresh air on the world energy scene during the '80s."
So concludes the latest paper by Worldwatch Institute, the Washington D.C.-based environmental think tank. According to senior researcher Christopher Flavin who authored the report, wind power already "is a rapidly expanding field with far more immediate potential than most people realize."
Windmills have been around for many centuries, but the current windpower renaissance began with the Arab oil embargo in 1973. It was only with the recent energy price shocks that attempts to marry this ancient idea with modern materials and aerospace engineering began.
The results of private and government development efforts around the world have been a "notable, though unheralded success story," the reseacher concludes. "Cautious engineers and technocrats who earlier steered clear of 'unconventional' technologies are now enthused about wind power. From rural development planners to utility executives, many people are now convinced that wind energy's time has come," he says.
This is despite the wind industry's being in a stage comparable to that of the automobile industry before Henry Ford introduced the Model T. The hundred or so wind-machine makers around the world hand-make each turbine. As a result, power from wind turbines remains several times the cost of conventional energy, except in remote areas. The current enthusiasm is based on economic studies that suggest that mass-produced wind turbines at favorable sites will be able to generate energy at a competitive price, the paper reports.
To estimate the potential of wind power is difficult, Mr. Flavin admits, because wind-driven devices come in a vast array of shapes, sizes, and efficiencies and because very few countries have yet to accurately survey the magnitude of their wind "resource." Still, by the early part of the next century , he estimates that many nations could obtain 20 to 30 percent of their electricity by harnessing the wind, more than nuclear power currently produces in many countries.
Modern wind devices provide energy in two different forms: mechanical and electrical. Mechanical windmills used primarily for pumping water have the greatest potential in the developing countries where some studies have shown they are less expensive than the diesel and gasoline-powered pumps currently in use. The paper points to Las Gaviotas, a rural development institute in Colombia which has recently built a plant to turn out 1,400 inexpensive yet technologically advanced windmills annually, as an example of what can be done.
The critical changes needed to capitalize on wind's potential in the third world are primarily institutional, Flavin believes. The machines should be made locally with the aid of government subsidies and be able to repaired and maintained locally if the rural poor are to benefit extensively.
In developed areas, converting wind energy to electricity is the most likey use, the Worldwatch analysis concludes. This conversion will take place at two levels: the small scale of the individual and at the larger, utility level.
Last year the Solar Energy Research Institute conducted the most detailed evaluation yet of the market potential for small wind machines. The concluded that there are 3.8 million homes in rural America and more than 370,000 farms and small businesses that could benefit from these machines. Based on this study, Flavin estimates that small wind machines may ultimately provide half the current capacity of nuclear power plants.
One of the biggest obstacles to small wind turbines is the attitude of utility companies, the Worldwatch researcher believes. Storing electricity is too expensive to be practical, so wind machines must use the electrical grid as a large storage battery, buying power when the winds is weak and selling it to the utility when the wind is strong.
This represents a totally new problem for utility executives. "A large number of independent power producers could emerge in the next several years, breaking open the electricity market and fundamentally challenging the current monopoly of the utilities. Perhaps in fear of such a development, some utilities have introduced discriminatory hookup fees and higher rates for small-wind-turbine owners who want to be linked to the electricity grid," the paper comments.
A recently implemented US law, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, requires utilities to pay small power producers a rate equivalent to the cost of energy produced from other sources. However, utility industry lobbyists have recently mounted a strong attack on these regulations.
Utilities are much more favorably inclined toward wind farms: clusters of large, multimegawatt wind turbines which they can control. The world's first wid farm is operating in New Hampshire and has 20 turbines capable of generating 600 kilowatts each.
"The technology for harnessing the wind has come a long way in the last decade, but the progress made so far could be dwarfed by the advances in the next 10 to 15 years . . . . If the impressive technical achievements of the recent past are matched by effective industry and government policies, wind power could develop very rapidly," the repo rt concludes.