Most people accept that coal is a dirty fuel: Dirty to mine, dirty to burn and dirty to dispose of the ash. Already there is a shift away from coal-fired power plants, but they still account for 30 percent of our electric power nationwide. In many cases, natural gas (also known as methane) has been the preferred alternative fuel. Natural gas has some advantages, but it is important to recognize that it also emits carbon dioxide, and the leakage rates of natural gas completely negate its partial benefit as a solution to climate change.
Wind power has caught on briskly in iconically oil-rich Texas, where it generates about 16 percent of the state’s electric power at a lower retail rate than the national average. Wind power is equally or less costly than electricity derived from coal-fired power plants in nearly all environments. Various calculations show that there is vastly more potential wind energy available in the United States than the current electricity consumption rate. Most of the existing capacity is derived from land-based windmills, but there is enough potential for offshore wind power along the Atlantic coast to supply all the electricity from Virginia to Maine with windmills located in shallow waters.
Some folks don’t like the idea of windmills spoiling their view of the ocean, but my suspicion is that most of these same folks would not want to live near a coal-fired or nuclear-generating station either. And all of those who live downwind of coal-fired power plants suffer the consequences of the air pollution they generate. Some birds are killed by wind facilities, but the overall rate of mortality from windmills is much less than that caused by house cats and collisions with buildings. There are consequential impacts of generating electricity.
Utilities argue that wind power is problematic, because the wind does not always blow and it may not blow at the time of day or season that corresponds to peak demand for electricity. This problem can be overcome by an adequate, interconnected and robust grid of electric lines to move power from where it is generated to where it is needed. Mark Jacobson and his colleagues at Stanford University have shown that when using reliable grid and power storage facilities, the intermittent nature of wind power is of no consequence. The wind is always blowing somewhere.
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All this argues for electric utility companies to spend far less money planning natural gas and nuclear power plants and far more on windmills and improvements to the grid, if they are to fulfill their mission of supplying least-cost electric power to the American public. A change of mindset is needed – one that does not embrace old, unhealthy and expensive sources of electricity when newer sources are at hand. If the tradition can be broken in Texas, it can be broken anywhere.
William H. Schlesinger is Dean Emeritus of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.