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Capturing the Wind: Wind Turbines in the 21st Century

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Jul 15, 2009 5:07:00 PM

ONE OF MY FAVORITE TELEVISION COMMERCIALS from last year was GE's imaginative story about a little boy that captured the wind in a jar and gave it to his grandfather for his birthday.

When the boy opened the jar at the grandfather's party, the wind escaped, blowing out not only the candles on the cake, but also the windows of the house. The anecdote creatively depicted the power of the wind and implied that by harnessing the wind, we could find a green solution for our growing energy demand.
It seems that harnessing the wind is no longer the stuff of fantasies and fables. In 2008, the U.S. wind energy industry shattered previous records by installing 8,435 MW of new generating capacity in facilities across the country—which is enough to supply power to more than 2 million homes annually—accounting for 40% of the new power-producing capacity added nationally last year. With this new production capacity, we now have over 25,000 MW of wind power in the United States, which produces enough electricity each year to power the equivalent of 7 million households.

Concerns about the variable output have mostly been solved—wind power is now used by utilities to augment their supply mixes without affecting reliability or increasing cost. In fact, according to the Utility Wind Integration Group customers' electricity costs can even be reduced when wind is added to a utility's power mix system because operating cost increases are offset by savings that arise from displacing fossil fuel generation.

Because of their fixed ongoing operating costs, renewable energy sources like wind provide a hedge against fossil fuel price volatility. This hedging strategy is becoming increasingly more important to utilities, making wind a viable business opportunity. The U.S. Department of Energy expects that 20% of U.S. energy will be provided by wind by 2030, but with rising oil prices, changing regulation, heavy market pressure, and an urgent environmental imperative, it's possible that we may see wind industry growth rates far exceed our expectations.

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