The U.S. Department of Energy released a report today, May 12, saying that the country could in principle generate one fifth of its electricity with wind by 2030. Assessing this purely hypothetical scenario, a DOE task force concluded that aggressive installation of wind turbines could significantly cut reliance on fossil fuels as well as greenhouse gas emissions at a total additional cost that would be equivalent to 50 U.S. cents per month per electricity customer. U.S. wind capacity is growing at a rate of nearly 6 GW per year at present, but to achieve a 20 percent generation share by 2030, wind capacity would have to be increasing by roughly 16 GW per year by the end of the next decade.
The biggest obstacle to that much reliance on wind is transmission capacity, both to get the energy from where it's generated to where it's needed, and to provide a cushion against local and regional doldrums--confirming Europe's recent experience. But the report estimates that addressing grid issues would increase the cost of wind generated electricity by only 11 percent. For wind to achieve a 20 percent share, given DOE's expectation that electricity demand will be 39 percent higher in 2030 than in 2005, wind capacity would have to go from 11-12 GW today to about 300 GW--a staggering amount by any reckoning.
But if the United States actually managed to do that, the added wind could reduce the power sector's thirst for natural gas by half and its coal consumption by nearly a fifth. It should be noted, in this connection, that long-term projections of natural gas prices and supplies are highly uncertain, and that coal costs could be strongly affected by carbon regulation policies. That is, if natural gas prices turned out to be much higher two decades from now, or carbon emissions much more expensive, the impact of 20-percent wind could be quite different from what the report guesses.
The report does not evaluate what the impact of stronger carbon regulation might be, but it does mention prominently that 30 states already have taken steps to limit carbon emissions and encourage greater use of renewables.
Despite the clarity of its disclaimers, the DOE report is bound to be misunderstood and misrepresented. It is not a statement of policy, or an action plan, or even a recommendation. It's just what it says: an evaluation of what the U.S. electric sector could look like if one fifth of power came from wind. It concludes that such a scenario is technically feasible and economically affordable. That's all.