TreeHugger interviewed Tom Gray about the ins-and-outs of wind energy, how wind energy stacks up against other alternative energy sources, and wind energy's potential to supply a significant portion of America's energy needs.
TreeHugger: What are some of the advantages to shifting to alternative energy systems through a limited number of large projects versus many smaller ones? What are some of the drawbacks?
Tom Gray: The advantages and drawbacks depend on the specific technology. For wind, some of the advantages of installing a limited number of large turbines at a windy location include the following: the wind speeds there will be higher, which means that the cost of energy will be lower; operations and maintenance costs are likely to be lower, since maintenance staff can be stationed on site; and, for wind turbines, there is also a fundamental economy of scale, because the swept area of the rotor is a function of the square of the rotor blade length (A = pi times r squared).Installing a larger number of smaller machines is advantageous because smaller machines compete in the retail (household) electricity market, where prices are higher—they are delivering electricity directly to the end user; smaller machines do not require transmission lines—most windy areas in the U.S. are some distance from population centers, where the electricity is used; and smaller turbines can fit well into "smart" household- or neighborhood-scale power systems that are efficient and flexible.
TH: How does wind energy compare to other renewable energy sources (solar, tidal, bio-based fuels)?
TG: Solar is less location-dependent than wind, but the cost of energy is higher (especially higher when compared to the cost of energy from large turbines). Sunlight as a resource is larger than wind, although both resources are very large. Solar generation is less variable.
Tidal is more location-dependent than wind, but less variable. Wave energy as a resource is considerably smaller and is a limiting factor.
Biofuels are less variable and less location-dependent. Energy payback is generally lower (wind's is quite high). Biofuel resources are currently more limited than wind, although new technologies could change that.
TH: What are some of the factors which have contributed to greater interest in wind energy, especially considering the absence of federal leadership?
TG: This is basically a matter of technology development -- wind turbines have become larger and the cost of energy has dropped. Today's large turbines deliver electricity at about one-fifth the cost of 1980s-era machines.
TH: What are one or two of the biggest misunderstandings about wind energy, and what's the best way of correcting them?
TG: The biggest misunderstanding is the notion that because the wind is variable, it must be continuously "backed up" by other power sources (some critics claim that because of this, wind produces no net electricity at all). In fact, customer demand for electricity varies throughout the day, just like the wind, and adding wind generation to a utility system normally has little effect on its operation.
Another big misunderstanding is the idea that wind presents a serious danger to birds. While there have been problems with a few species at a handful of sites around the world, wind will never be more than a drop in the bucket of human-related bird kills (from buildings, cats, automobiles, communications towers, pesticides, etc).
The best way to correct these misunderstandings is for the wind energy industry to work with other organizations, such as utilities and bird conservation groups, to answer their questions and put them in a position to provide the facts to the public. However, we also have our own Web site, ifnotwind.org, that is devoted to providing factual information and debunking myths about wind.
TH: What are some ways that the wind energy industry could better engage the public and increase development of wind energy projects?
TG: We are in the process of building a national coalition of groups—environmental, agricultural, economic development, health, and faith-based groups, among others—called Wind Energy Works! that can help to educate the public about the advantages of wind. For more information, see windenergyworks.org.
TH: How does the rising price of oil help and hurt the wind industry?
TG: In general, rising oil prices are a plus, because they focus public and policy-maker attention on our lack of a coherent national energy policy. Such a policy would have to include increasing use of renewable energy sources because they are domestic, inexhaustible, and environmentally friendly, and their cost is stable over time.
Rising oil prices do have a minor drawback, which is that some turbine parts are imported, and their cost increases if transportation costs are higher.
TH: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to moving Americans away from fossil fuels to renewables, and where does its solution lie?
TG: The biggest obstacle is that most Americans do not really understand energy issues and connect our energy problems to their own personal lives and decisions. The compact fluorescent (CF) light bulb has been a huge success, but my understanding is that CF bulbs have never topped 5% of total annual light-bulb sales, which is amazing considering the difference they can make in terms of lower energy use, savings to consumers, and a whole range of environmental concerns.
The only solution I know of is education, so hats off to Laurie David and others involved in the making of "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary about Al Gore and global warming. They are reaching hundreds of thousands of people with information that is vital to the future of the planet.
TH: What percentage of America's energy use do you see wind energy satisfying in the next ten years?
TG: We have consistently said that wind energy can provide 6% of America's electricity use by 2020. We are now, with the U.S. Department of Energy, looking closely at what would be needed to realize the vision embodied in President Bush's remarks earlier this year noting that wind energy could provide up to 20% of U.S. electricity use.
There is good news and bad news about these numbers:
The bad news is that electricity is only about one-third of total U.S. energy use, so the numbers above need to be divided by 3. (The other two-thirds are the direct combustion of fuels: transportation, industrial processes, home heating—natural gas, coal.)
The good news is that even so, wind's contribution is not really that small. Today, at less than one percent of electricity supply, wind turbines are already generating more electricity than the states of Montana and Wyoming together use each year. By next year, the list will grow to include North Dakota.
TH: What’s the single most important thing each person in the country/ world can do to lead a more eco-conscious, TreeHugger lifestyle?
Buy "green power" or "green tags" to "green" your personal energy use. Anyone can buy tags (see green-e.org for a list of suppliers), and the more demand there is, the more companies in the energy business will want to supply renewable energy.
Choosing clean energy is the most important decision any of us can make on a day-to-day basis to reduce our impact on the environment.
Tom Gray is the Director of Communications and Outreach for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).
[Interview conducted by Treehugger intern Dave Chiu]