The potential of wind power to help meet America's growing demand for electricity is staggering: According to a definitive 1993 study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, areas of strong winds cover about 6 percent of the mainland states and, if exploited, could supply more than current U.S. electricity consumption. Conversely, just 0.6 percent of the land of the contiguous 48 states would have to be developed with wind turbine farms to provide 15 percent of the nation's electricity requirements. Even then, less than 5 percent of the developed land would actually be occupied by wind turbines, associated electrical equipment, and access roads. In most cases, existing land uses, such as farming and ranching, could remain as they are now.
Harnessing this potential could make an enormous contribution to reducing the United States' dependence on imported oil for power generation, as well as helping to stem an increasing dependence on imported liquefied natural gas. Adding wind power to the grid can help stabilize electricity prices, too, in the face of escalating fuel costs, with oil topping US $72/bbl and natural gas prices at all-time highs. Wind power, in contrast to oil and natural gas, is both price- competitive and price- stable , and that stability can help provide a cap on the price of electricity. And let's not forget that wind power is a whole lot cleaner than fossil fuels--be they imported oil or domestic coal.
Yet one often hears questions related to wind power's intermittent nature; unavoidably, electricity is generated only when the wind blows. Can the power grid handle massive amounts of variable production? Can wind energy be delivered where it's needed when it's needed? Can wind energy harnessed at times of low demand be stored for high-demand periods? Can new storage technologies be devised so that wind energy would become, in effect, dispatchable? The answer to all of these questions is yes, and in some cases the answers are already in practice.
Wind-energy and power-transmission technologies are already adapting to accommodate the impressive growth of wind power. Large semiconductor devices referred to collectively as power electronics are, for example, enabling wind farms to provide rapid response to fluctuations in grid frequency and voltage. This is one of many reasons why grid studies consistently estimate that the cost of integrating wind power will be low. However, integration costs will rise when one considers small power grids or high proportions of wind power in a grid. In such cases, power electronics devices can be combined with energy storage technologies that operate over a range of time scales to manage the shifts in wind power production. In fact, a growing number of innovative energy storage options are providing grid operators ways to dispatch wind power in the same way they do with thermal generating plants. Continental supergrids eventually will help, too, by distributing wind-generated power across whole regions, balancing regions where the wind happens to be blowing with those that may be becalmed, while simultaneously spreading the burden of providing backup power.
What follows is a taste of the technology and policy strategies that are already helping to give wind power new strategic importance, and which will be critical to sustaining its growth in coming decades.