Editor's note: This Q&A is a part of a survey conducted by Scientific American of executives at companies engaged in developing and implementing non–fossil fuel energy technologies.
What technical obstacles currently most curtail the growth of wind power? What are the prospects for overcoming them in the near future and the longer-term?
The largest purely technical obstacles are in the area of the supply chain infrastructure and in transmission.
Prior to the recent economic slowdown the supply of wind turbine components was the constraint on growth. The growth in demand for wind energy was greater than the growth in the component manufacturing infrastructure. This situation is due in large part to the U.S.'s short-term policy with respect to wind energy. For instance, the wind production tax credit has been on a one- or two-year extension basis, which has been too short a time frame for significant investment in wind turbine component manufacturing infrastructure. A second area of growth constraint for wind energy is the limited electric transmission facilities from the wind-rich Great Plains to where the people and electric loads are: the industrial Midwest, the East and West coasts. Like the energy resources of coal, oil and gas, which have the infrastructure to move them from where the energy source is to the people, transmission from the wind-rich areas to the people and the load does not yet exist for the U.S. in sufficient quantity. Therefore, there are great wind resources for the U.S. to utilize; we, the U.S., just have to arrange to install the electric transmission facilities to bring the wind energy to the people.
Are there obstacles to scaling up wind power to serve a larger national or global customer base?
Yes. The obstacles are primarily man-made, or more correctly not yet made by man. The primary obstacles are in the area of the recognition of the true whole cost of energy and the lack of a protocol to compensate wind energy for the indirect costs which wind energy avoids for the civilized world. These costs include but are not limited to the costs of carbon emissions and climate change, the costs of the negative balance of payments to purchase foreign oil and gas, and the loss to future generations of burning oil and gas now only because it appears to be cheap short-term. Another man-made obstacle is the dispersed permitting regime which is inefficient in both time and costs. Large-scale, cost-effective wind energy, like other energy sources such as coal, oil, gas and nuclear, needs a larger-scale, energy policy–driven, overarching permitting structure. In practice, permitting large-scale wind energy projects and the associated transmission facilities through numerous differing local agencies is not practical and is too unwieldy, time- and resource-costly; as a result the larger, more cost-effective projects don't get started.
Can the existing energy infrastructure handle growth in wind power? Or does that, too, need further modification?
The existing energy infrastructure needs an additional component to handle the growth of wind to meet its potential. The component missing is transmission facilities to move large-scale energy from the wind-rich areas of this or any country to the existing electric transmission and distribution systems—for instance, in the U.S., a system to transport the energy equivalent of many nuclear plants from the Great Plains to the West and East coasts, and to the heartland Midwest-area energy load centers.
Given the current economic crisis, can your industry get the necessary capital (from public or private sources) to adequately finance its growth?
The current economic crisis has severely curtailed the capital supply to meet the growth needed for wind energy. This is primarily in the areas of the practical utilization of the value of the production tax credit and in wind project long-term debt. The production tax credit would be more effective if rules such as passive loss limitations and applicability of master limited partnership structures were modified to permit a wider use of the credit and to make the credit refundable. Wind project long-term debt supply has contracted dramatically as lenders have apparently reduced lending in wind as well as other areas of the economy.
From a strategic standpoint, which is the bigger competitor for wind: incumbent coal, oil and gas technologies or other alternative energy technologies?
None are competitors in a direct sense. Most utilities and regulating agencies view the selection of electric energy sources in a portfolio-diversity sense as opposed to focusing on only one "best" source. Oil contributes little to electric generation in the U.S. With the coming of electric cars for local travel, however, the need for nonemission electric power generation will increase, and wind is a leading cost-competitive source. Wind's attributes complement those of coal and gas, just as coal and gas can complement wind energy. Wind is an as-available energy source—it cannot be turned on at will. Therefore coal and gas complement wind because they can be turned on at will. At the same time, when wind is available, and in many areas it is available most of the time, wind energy can offset burning coal, thereby both reducing carbon emissions and saving the coal resource for future use. The same relationship holds with gas: when the wind is on we can reduce the burning of gas, reduce the emissions today, and save the gas for the future. In effect, wind energy can be stored in the fuel not yet burned.
Is there a cost target that you and others in your industry are aiming to achieve in, say, five years?
A target is for wind to be both cost-competitive, even when carbon emissions and foreign payment costs are not fully valued, and at the same time to grow in volume such that there is sufficient wind energy to make a meaningful difference, to move the needle. The U.S. Department of Energy feasibility study concludes that the U.S. can get 20 percent of its electric power from wind energy on a cost-effective basis economically and on a rational electrical system investment basis. Wind energy providing 20 percent of the U.S.'s electric supply, cost-effectively, with no climate impact from carbon, with many new long-term U.S. manufacturing and rural development jobs, is wind energy's target.