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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003



Alternative power is set to blow away the old

Even with the switch to alternative power sources already well under way, apologists for the status quo continue to insist that dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear power is inevitable. Fortunately, though, the only inevitability about such thinking is that it will be proved wrong.

News photo
A turbine on the roof of a school in Ede, Holland, where the 7,000 kWh of electricity it can generate annually is enough to power an average Dutch home.

Beyond the short term, oil and nuclear power will remain essential only to the extent that they fill the coffers of rich and powerful corporate and government interests. In fact, most corporate leaders already admit that a conversion to alternatives is on the near horizon, but they see little benefit in going public with this knowledge until their own transitions are making notable progress.

Nevertheless, informed producers and consumers in the energy sector understand that a dramatic transformation is under way -- and they recognize that the last companies to change will be the first to lose. Ironically, those corporations that cling to "old energy" resources the longest, hoping to maximize shareholders' profits, are the most likely to ensure the collapse of their own employees' and investors' interests.

New energy sources are already decentralizing power generation and beginning to free countries, communities and individuals from the high environmental costs of oil and nuclear energy. These new sources include the sun, wind, geothermal heat, plant biomass, and new approaches to using water, including the tides. At the pace that alternative energies are being developed -- and despite the failure of governments to provide any but the most minimal subsidies -- most of us alive today will live to see the rapidly accelerating demise of oil- and nuclear-based electricity generation.

Stages of truth

Granted, the transition to clean energy sources will take time. But as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noted in the late 1800s, "All truth passes through three stages: First it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as being self-evident." I estimate that clean, alternative energies are well into the second stage now, with the third stage just over the horizon.

These days, however, violent opposition is seen as needlessly indelicate. Instead, the oil and nuclear power industries barrage us with lavishly funded advertising campaigns that lull us into passivity: Ersatz environmentalism and avuncular rhetoric that assures us: "The sad truth is there simply aren't any alternatives. When there are, though, we will be the first to tell you. Trust us."

The oil and nuclear sectors spend fortunes each year to lobby governments for increased subsidies, and to convince consumers that environmental degradation is inevitable -- but is being managed compassionately. Meanwhile, alternative-energy firms have little money to waste on glib lobbyists and slick advertising, so they spend their precious funds on research and development, rather than on political contributions and seductive media.

Nevertheless, for some observers, Schopenhauer's third stage is already in sight. One who sees that future clearly is Lester R. Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and now head of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute. Brown believes the clean-energy answer is wind, and his arguments are encouraging. In fact, the title of his most recent report says it all: "Wind Power Set to Become World's Leading Energy Source."

Released in late June, that report offers an upbeat look at the evolution and maturation of the wind energy-generation industry. In just the past decade, wind-power generating capacity has increased sixfold, and wind turbines worldwide "now supply enough electricity to satisfy the residential needs of 40 million Europeans," according to the report. (Not surprisingly, if Americans were used as the baseline consumers, that number would be as much as 10 million people fewer.)

Technological improvements

Brown is bullish on wind for several reasons. "It is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely distributed, climate-benign, and clean -- attributes that no other energy source can match," he writes. The cost has dropped from 38 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) 20 years ago, to as low as 4 cents/kWh today, and sources cited by Brown predict costs could fall to as low as 2 cents/kWh within a decade or two.

"Although wind-generated electricity is already cheap, its cost continues to fall. In contrast with oil, there is no OPEC to set prices for wind. And in contrast to natural gas prices, which are highly volatile and can double in a matter of months, wind prices are declining," Brown points out.

The best thing about wind is that it is just about everywhere, and wind turbines of varying sizes can harness energy from atop buildings, in fields, on mountain ridges, along coasts and even offshore. In addition, as wind-turbine technology improves, it is becoming possible to capture energy at slower and slower wind speeds.

In the United States, "Twenty-eight states now have utility-scale wind farms feeding electricity into the local grid," according to Brown. "Add to this the recent bullish assessments of offshore wind potential, and the enormity of the wind resource becomes apparent. Wind power can meet not only all U.S. electricity needs, but all U.S. energy needs," he says.

Today, Denmark leads the world in the proportion of a country's wind-generated electricity generated (20 percent), while Germany leads in volume (12,000 megawatts). In fact, Germany is truly bullish on wind. "By the end of 2003, it will have already surpassed its 2010 goal of 12,500 megawatts of generating capacity. For Germany, this rapid growth in wind power is central to reaching its goal of reducing carbon emissions 40 percent by 2020," Brown notes.

Even more exciting than cheap electricity from wind is the potential for using wind to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen. "Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the highly efficient fuel cells that will be used widely in the future to power vehicles and supply electricity, heating and cooling for buildings. Hydrogen also offers a way of storing wind energy and of transporting it efficiently by pipeline or in liquefied form by ship," explains Brown.

Solar power, too, will have a key role in the new energy marketplace, and worldwide sales of solar cells are rising 30 percent annually, but Brown is most enthusiastic about wind. "Solar cells are still too costly to supply the vast amounts of energy required to power a modern economy. For energy investors, growth in the future lies with wind and the hydrogen produced with cheap wind-generated electricity," he says.

For more information on wind energy and the Earth Policy Institute, visit: www.earth-policy.org Stephen Hesse welcomes readers' comments at: stevehesse@hotmail.com

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