By William Patalon III
Money Morning/The Money Map Report
Just as the United States is boosting its reliance on wind power, a new academic study set for release in August says that U.S. wind forces may be getting weaker.
Eugene S. Takle, a professor of atmospheric science at Iowa State University, and the director of the school's "climate science initiative," says the research study concluded that U.S. wind strength has potentially declined by 15% to 30% during the past 30 years – an average decline of as much as 1% a year.
While conducting the study – which will appear in the Journal of Geophysical Research – researchers reviewed wind data taken at airports around the United States, and then based their findings on two sets of figures: One set from 1973-2000, and the other from 1973-2005.
The study concluded that three factors could be contributing to the declines in U.S. wind strength: Land-use changes, a changing climate and changes in the kind of instruments used to measure the wind, Takle told MarketWatch.com.
"If there have been trees growing or new buildings constructed near airports, it could impact the speed of winds on airports," Takle said. However, it is also "[basic] meteorology that the wind is driven by differences in temperature between the poles and the equator, and those differences have been narrowed by climate change."
The findings come at time when the United States is making a serious push to increase the amount of electricity that's generated by wind turbines grouped into so-called wind-power "farms." Attempts to harness the wind are part of a broader national – or even global – commitment to "green" energy sources as a way of reducing dependence on oil and other fossil fuels for power generation.
Other power sources include solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and nuclear for commercial electricity production, while automakers are looking at new types of batteries and such innovations as power-storing "fuel cells" as alternatives to the conventional internal combustion engines that power most of the world's cars and trucks.
The objectives are twofold. By decreasing the U.S. reliance on foreign oil, the country is hedging against the time when global supplies of the "black gold" begin to dry up, an eventuality that will propel the prices of crude and gasoline skyward. Diversifying away from oil and, perhaps, even coal is also a way of reversing – or at least slowing – environmentally ruinous (and politically controversial) global warming.
President Barack Obama is attempting to use the ongoing financial crisis to create a sense of urgency about America's energy future, a challenge that no prior administration has yet been able to meet.
About one-third of President Obama's $800 billion-plus stimulus package will go to infrastructure, with $30 billion allocated for U.S. roads and highways and another $10 billion earmarked for railways and mass-transit systems.
President Obama has also proposed spending $150 billion "over the next 10 years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future." The administration also proposes to increase the amount of electricity that comes from renewable resources from 10% in 2012 to 25% by 2025, Wall Street 24/7 reported in early January.
Creating the power is only part of the problem. Delivering it will be a challenge, too, especially given the country's aging power grid. Upgrading that aging equipment is expected to cost more than $880 billion, according to a November 2008 report from the Brattle Group.
An Energy Boon For Entrepreneur T. Boone?
In many cases, those federal outlays will serve only as seed capital. It will likely fall to innovators in the U.S. private sector to really energize the alternative-power market.
One key player is legendary oilman and venture capitalist T. Boone Pickens, who has unveiled a plan to cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil through the power of alternatives such as wind and natural gas, Money Morning reported last July.
"We're paying $700 billion a year for foreign oil. It's breaking us as a nation," Pickens said at the time. Former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon "said in 1970 that we were importing 20% of our oil and that by 1980 it would be 0%. That didn't happen. It went to 42% in 1991 with the Gulf War. It's just under 70% now. Where do you think we're going to be in 10 years when our economy is busted and we're importing 80% of our oil?"
Pickens wants to create what he calls a "bridge to the future" that will help cut slash the U.S. reliance on imported foreign oil by focusing on two specific alternatives:
- Cars that burn natural gas instead of gasoline.
- And electricity generated by wind power.
There's a smooth and elegant logic to his strategy: By constructing electric-generating wind-power farms, the United States can free up natural gas supplies that currently generate 22% of the nation's electricity. That natural gas can then be used to power cleaner-burning cars and trucks, thereby reducing our dependence on imported oil while also reducing the damage to the environment. This will also buy time for the development of other, even-greener, alternative sources of energy.
Pickens' Wind Power Project
According to Pickens, wind power could eventually fulfill as much as 20% of the United States' energy needs. Calling the Great Plains region of the United States the "Saudi Arabia of wind," Pickens last summer launched plans for a $10 billion alternative energy project in the Texas panhandle that has the potential to one day become the world's largest wind-power farm.
Picken's Mesa Power LLP plans to purchase 667 wind turbines from U.S. industrial giant General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE). Each turbine can produce 1.5 megawatts of electricity – enough to provide the ongoing power needs of 360 to 600 U.S. homes, according to Money Morning calculations based on statistics provided by Oregon Power Solutions Inc., a Baker City, OR consulting firm.
The first phase of the Pickens project, already under construction, will produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity, enough energy to power 300,000 homes. GE will begin delivering the turbines in 2010, and current plans call for the project to start producing power in 2011.
Ultimately, Mesa Power plans to have enough turbines to produce 4,000 megawatts of energy. Overall, the "Pampa Wind Mill" project is expected to cost $10 billion and be completed in 2014.
Pickens has launched a "Pickens Plan" Web site, which is urges the country's "energy army" to lobby Congress for funding and a commitment to green-energy projects.
Other Players Showing Interest
An Irish company – its interest in the U.S. alternative energy market piqued by the green-technology money included in the Obama administration's stimulus package – on Monday acquired three Illinois wind farms located within 100 miles of Chicago, The Chicago Tribune reported.
Plans call for the Dublin-based Mainstream Renewable Power to invest $1.69 billion over four years to develop the wind farms. The purchase price was not disclosed.
"The U.S. market is of strategic importance to Mainstream, and the scale of the opportunity is strongly reflected in President Obama's economic stimulus package, which includes $56 billion in grants and tax breaks for U.S. clean energy projects over the next 10 years and a budget of $15 billion a year to fund renewable energy programs," Mainstream co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Eddie O'Connor said in a statement. "The administration's goal of generating 25% of the nation's electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025 will help revitalize the U.S. economy and protect consumers."
The farms have the potential to generate 787 megawatts of electricity by 2013, The Tribune said. The most advanced is the 120-megawatt Shady Oaks project in Lee County. When finished next year, it should be able to generate enough electricity to power about 30,000 homes, Mainstream said.
The other two wind-power farms are the 467-megawatt Green River project, also in Lee County, and a 200-megawatt project set for Boone County. Construction on the Green River project will begin next year, while the Boone County project is still in is development stages.
This is Mainstream's second North American deal in three months; it earlier announced a Canadian wind farm project. It has also announced plans to build a wind farm in Chile.
Founded a year ago, Mainstream was created to build and operate wind-energy, solar-thermal and ocean-current power plants in partnerships with government agencies, electric utilities, developers and investors in North and South America, Europe, and South Africa. Barclays Capital (NYSE ADR: BCS) has a 14.6% stake in Mainstream.
As Mainstream's proposed forays into South America, Europe and Africa demonstrate, the push to harness the wind isn't limited to the United States.
As of the end of last year, worldwide wind-powered generators were capable of generating 121.2 gigawatts (GW) of electricity. Wind power produces about 1.5% of the world's electricity and its use is surging: The amount of electricity generated by wind power doubled between 2005 and 2008 alone.
Several countries have already embraced wind power in a major way: As of last year, it accounted for 19% of electricity production in Denmark, 11% in both Spain and Portugal and an estimated 7% in both Germany and Ireland. As of this May, 80 nations around the world were using wind power on a commercial basis.
Not surprisingly, China is making a big push to commercialize wind power and by last year was already the world's sixth-largest user of wind-generated electricity. The country's largest manufacturer of wind turbines – Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology Co. Ltd. – went public last year, raising nearly $250 million. It has about 33% of China's wind-power-equipment market, according to KGI Securities Co. Ltd., a Taiwan investment-banking and brokerage firm.
"As China's wind power sector takes off, we think Goldwind is well positioned to become a major beneficiary, thanks to its strong brand and first mover advantage," KGI wrote in a research report.
Not a Complete Answer
Although wind power has substantial promise, it's not an infallible energy solution, and has some serious limitations – as the U.S. wind-power study shows. For one thing, although an estimated 72 terawatts of wind power on Earth can be potentially commercially viable – an amount that's six times the estimated 15 terawatts of total power usage on earth – not all the wind energy flowing past any given point can be recovered.
Accoridng to a science axiom known as Betz's Law – named for the German physicist, Albert Betz, who discovered the rule in 1919 – no turbine can capture more than 59.3% of the potential energy in wind.
And there are other challenges, some of which are caused by the natural lay of the land in a given location. In the United States, for instance, where there are now concerns about diminishing wind strength, some coastal areas may retain wind strength because of the greater temperature differences between the land and the ocean.
Given the growing importance of wind power, more study will be required.
Concludes the study: "Given the importance of the wind-energy industry to meeting federal and state mandates for increased use of renewable energy supplies and the impact of changing wind regimes on a variety of other industries and physical processes, further research on wind climate variability and evolution is required."
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News and Related Story Links:
Wind Strength Weakening in the United States, New Study Says.
- Money Morning:
Global Infrastructure Spending to Reach $35 Trillion Over the Next 20 Years.
- Wall Street 24/7:
Upgrading The U.S. Energy Grid: A Trillion Dollar Problem?
- The Brattle Group:
Transforming America's Power Industry: The Investment Challenge 2010 to 2030.
- Money Morning News Analysis:
Gray Skies Are Going to Clear Up: Profiting From China's Green-Tech Movement.
- Money Morning News:
Former Oilman T. Boone Pickens Taps Wind Power, Natural Gas to Replace Foreign Oil.
- The Chicago Tribune:
Illinois wind farms bought by Irish energy company.
- Oregon Power Solutions:
Frequently Asked Questions.
- The Energy Blog:
Pickens Mesa Power Orders 1,000 MW of Wind Turbines.
About the Author
Before he moved into the investment-research business in 2005, William (Bill) Patalon III spent 22 years as an award-winning financial reporter, columnist, and editor. Today he is the Executive Editor and Senior Research Analyst for Money Morning. With his latest project, Private Briefing, Bill takes you "behind the scenes" of his established investment news website for a closer look at the action. Members get all the expert analysis and exclusive scoops he can't publish... and some of the most valuable picks that turn up in Bill's closed-door sessions with editors and experts.