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Wind Energy

Wind energy makes sense, yet whether or not it becomes a conventional energy source depends on radical changes in national policy.

By Crispin Aubrey

Christopher Flavin, the research director of the US-based Worldwatch Institute, has saidrecently that he believes "the prognosis is now extremely good for wind power to become essentially a conventional energy source within the next five years." It is currently the fastest growing source of energy in the world, with an annual growth rate of about 25% in comparison to the 3% growth of natural gas per year or the annual 1% increase of both oil and nuclear power. In Europe wind power is growing even faster than that rate - installed capacity in Europe has grown roughly ten times from 1990 to 1997, mostly due to the efforts of Denmark and Germany.

One of the biggest reasons for this rise in the popularity of wind power is global warming, which is pushing popular support away from fossil fuels and towards renewable forms of energy. While this is truest in Europe, there is still a push towards renewables and away from fossil fuels in other parts of the world, though for different reasons - the air and other pollution levels in China, for example, are bad enough that wide-scale health damage may well result if something does not change. That change could be a move away from coal-fired plants and towards wind power, particularly for China, where the best sites for wind power are immediately adjacent to the country's large urban areas. Were wind adopted in China, it could easily provide 30-40% of it's power.

For wind power to fulfil it's promise, however, national policies will be required that encourage people to set up wind power. According to Mr. Flavin, "There's no magical process where you have either public attitude towards the environment or some global agreement translating directly into a market for wind power. The only way things get actualised is through a national policy response. So whether we have a large growth of wind power in the next five or ten years is going to depend very largely on whether we have changes in national level policy," regardless of popular opinion or discussions like the recent UN climate change negotiations in Kyoto.

The two policy changes that are most effective in creating a wind power market are tax incentives of various kinds that allow you to in effect defray some of those initial up front capital costs and feed laws or something equivalent that provide a standard tariff known in advance and that will last at least a period of 15 years and which developers have automatic access to. It is most effective to have both of these policies in tandem, as shown by the booming wind markets of both California in the 1980s and Germany in the 1990s which were both made possible by the combination of these two types of policy.
A lot of countries have tried other approaches. They have tried the NFFO in the UK, they have tried a variety of programmes with electric utilities such as the "renewable portfolio standard" in the US and none of these have proved that they have anything. Maybe there will be a breakthrough at some stage, but based on the evidence so far we know what it takes to get a wind power market going - it is not really very difficult to put in place - but it does require that you provide at least a bit of a subsidy up front and be willing to stand up and defend that. It is better to pay a little bit too much and have a big wind industry than set the price too low and have no industry at all. What will happen in Germany is that the experience they are gaining now will help drive down the cost and eventually they will have wind power at a much lower price.

Other than policy initiatives, the real hope is that wind power could go the way of the computer - wind power is similar to the computer in that it is relatively decentralised. It is a manufactured device and it involves advanced electronics. There has also been a similar conceptual breakthrough. The power industry has been developed on a centralised model for the better part of this century, with plants getting bigger and bigger and more and more centralised. We have developed this system of large monopoly electric utility companies that are geared really only towards developing large projects. So there is this huge unrealised potential of decentralised technology, wind power being just one part of it, along with fuel cells and micro gas turbines in buildings.

The other parallel is that once you make a certain breakthrough and these industries get established and the costs get driven down then you get this reinforcing process. So once the computer industry took off, you get to the position where Microsoft alone spends $2 billion a year on R&D. The entire global governmental research budget for all renewable technologies combined is less than that $800 million. Why is Microsoft able to spend that sort of money? Because they have got this rapidly growing market and it is competitive. If a similar dynamic took hold with renewables, you would not have to worry about the European Commission paying for R&D. It would be done by the private companies because they could see the market growing.
  Crispin Aubrey is the editor of Wind Directions

Adapted from an interview of Christopher Flavin by Crispin Aubrey which was published inWIND DIRECTIONS, Jan. 1998. European Wind Energy Association, 26 Spring Street, London W2 1JA. England. Tel: +44 (0)171 402 7122. Fax: +44 (0)171 402 7125. E-mail:

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