Friday, February 09, 2007

Boom time for farms...

Wind farms, that is. They are starting a huge one just north of me around Bloomington, IL. But you don't have to travel far to see giant wind turbines.
Wind power capacity in the United States grew 27 percent last year and is projected to increase another 26 percent in 2007, according to a report released today by the trade group the American Wind Energy Association. The U.S. now has enough installed wind power capacity - 11,603 megawatts - to power between 3 million and 3.5 million homes, which reduces annual greenhouse gas emissions by 23 million tons of carbon dioxide. The number of homes relying on electricity produced by wind energy will rise to nearly 4.5 million by year's end if the AWEA's forecast is accurate. [More]

Wind farms are the darlings of alternate energy enthusiasts and global warming crusaders. And it is hard to criticize something so obviously win-win-win-etc. Only....
  • Wind farm stories always include a "X million homes served" figure to impress how much energy they generate. These numbers are the equivalent of a "every US farmer feeding X people" - namely a useless average without any context. For a better idea of how much windpower contributes see this graph. Also keep in mind that there are about 130 million homes in the US and that residential energy demand is about half of total electricity consumption.
  • Wind farms require backup "spinning reserve" to take up load when the wind fails. This continues to make wind power relatively expensive compared to other sources, especially coal. Unless a carbon tax priced in the environmental externalities of fossil fuels. (Gosh - where did I just see that?)
  • Wind turbines are expensive and with demand growing, the prices have no reason to ease.
  • You gotta have some way to hook all these generators to the electricity grid. And our grid is having trouble keeping up.
All of these "buts" are problems for engineers to overcome and opportunities for entrepreneurs to invest and profit from. Given the chance our system will work our a solution. But we need to be prepared to see wild profits initially to attract money, and shakeout losses halfway to maturity.


Anonymous said...

"But we need to be prepared to see wild profits initially to attract money, and shakeout losses halfway to maturity"

Is this what we are seeing in the ethanol industry?

John Phipps said...

I have a poor track record on predictions - I tend to be too far in front, on those odd occasions where I do have a clue. I think ethanol has not reached the point of shakeout, but as ethanol prices decline further, new plants become more problematic.

My clue will be if heavy lobbying starts to increase the mandate.