US researchers argue for harnessing wind power

Wind power, an abundant, clean and affordable alternative to coal, could become a leading source of U.S. electricity with the right political support and investment, researchers said yesterday.

WASHINGTON – Wind power, an abundant, clean and affordable alternative to coal, could become a leading source of U.S. electricity with the right political support and investment, researchers said yesterday.

Writing in the journal Science, Mark Jacobson and Gilbert Masters of Stanford University argue that wind power is both safer and cheaper than coal, the top U.S. energy source.
“There is no reason not to invest in wind at this point,” Jacobson said in an interview. “Wind is so obviously cheaper if we look at total costs.”

Wind-generated energy costs 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour – about the same as coal – but the indirect health and environmental costs associated with coal increase its costs to 5.5 to 8.3 cents per kilowatt hour, Jacobson said.

The researchers said coal dust kills 2,000 U.S. mine workers annually and has cost taxpayers about $35 billion in monetary and medical benefits to former miners since 1973.

Karen Batra, spokesperson for the National Mining Association, acknowledged that coal mining has an environmental impact, but said “we are all working toward a goal of reducing emissions and have made tremendous strides in reducing emissions in the past 30 years since the Clean Air Act.”

Critics of wind power argue that the turbines – which look like giant propellers – have been linked to the accidental deaths of migratory birds that get caught inside the propeller blades, and that the turbines take up a tremendous amount of space. But Jacobson said these problems could be avoided by selecting sites out of migration paths and by paying farmers to put them on their land.

“Wind has trivial health and environmental problems associated with it in comparison with coal,” Jacobson said.

Although wind power is the fastest growing source of energy in the world, the United States has been slow to use it because coal is so cheap and wind has received no government incentives, Jacobson said.


Wind power provides the United States with less than 1 percent of its energy, compared to 52 percent from coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Analysts say the U.S. market will see 1,500 megawatts of new wind power installed by the end of the year.

For America to catch up with major wind power nations such as Germany, Spain and Denmark, political backing by the Bush administration and Congress is essential, Jacobson said.

Jacobson said in order to build more wind farms in the United States, lawmakers must be willing to offer the same investment opportunities and tax incentives given to the more established coal, gas and oil industries.

The energy bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month focuses heavily on boosting domestic oil, coal and natural gas production, doing far less to promote wind power as an energy source. The Senate, still working on its version of the energy legislation, is virtually certain to focus on conservation and energy efficiency.

To help meet current U.S. energy demand, the authors propose building 225,000 turbines that would cost the U.S. government an initial $338 billion with a minimum of $4 billion annually for maintenance.

The United States could eliminate almost two-thirds of its coal-generated electricity under this plan and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels, say the authors. That goal is already envisioned by the 1997 U.N. Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which the Clinton administration signed but which the Bush administration has spurned.

“If you really want a massive change then you need to do something big,” Jacobson said. “It’s expensive but the wind turbines, which have an average life span of 20 years, would pay for themselves in that time.”

Author: Vanessa Furlong



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