Winds of change

Wind power has emerged as the most promising energy alternative

Peter Asmus.

Peter Asmus.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Peter Asmus has spent more than a decade writing about energy issues for publications such as the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News and the Amicus Journal. He got his start covering the battle to close down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in the late ‘80s, and has since gone on to write three books on energy and environmental issues.

In his latest, Reaping the Wind: How Mechanical Wizards, Visionaries, and Profiteers Helped Shape Our Energy Future (Island Press, 2001), Asmus tells the complex, sometimes funny, often absurd tale of the development of wind power.

The tale begins in 12th-century Europe, continues through to the great California wind farm boom/boondoggle of the early ‘80s, and finally blows toward the re-emergence of wind as the fastest-growing electricity technology in the world.

SN&R talked with Asmus about wind power’s improbable success story, and its promise of a more sustainable energy future.

There’s this enormous rush to get more natural gas plants online. Does anybody know what that’s going to do to air quality?

I don’t know if anybody has even calculated the numbers. It’s true natural gas is being called a clean fuel. It’s cleaner than coal, but there are still a lot of emissions.

I don’t think we’re going to start all of the natural gas plants that are planned because of the air quality concerns and the water concerns. These plants suck up huge amounts of water. I mean, here we are in a [potential] drought. Do we really want to build all of these plants that are going to suck up all of that water?

The whole idea of deregulation was not to make the environment worse. The idea was to be more efficient, that somehow we should be shutting down the dirty plants.

The problem with the gas plants is the NOx (nitrogen oxides), which is smog, and the CO2. If we’re really going to take global warming seriously we need to take a look at all of the carbon that’s coming out of these gas plants.

So you’re saying we can’t build our way out of the energy crisis?

I don’t think we can build our way out with gas plants. If I were Gov. Davis, my first response would be to focus on renewables [eg. solar, wind power, etc.]. Because now you can see their value more than ever. You have no fuel cost, so it doesn’t matter what [President] Bush does at the federal level. It doesn’t matter how much gas comes on line.

If you’re doing renewables, all of that stuff is off the table. The whole rush to build natural gas plants was supposedly because that was the cheapest power source. They used to say a new gas plant would generate [electricity for] somewhere around the 3 cents per kilowatt-hour range.

Today, wind power is 4 to 6 [cents per kilowatt-hour]. But wind power will be going down to 3 [cents per kilowatt-hour] within the next five years. The Department of Energy says wind power will be the cheapest of any source of energy.

Today, gas plants are generating at about 9 cents [per kilowatt-hour]. Even if natural gas prices come down, which I think they will, I don’t think they will ever come down to a level that people imagined when they did deregulation. I would argue that gas plants are not the cheapest source.

The rest of the West has grown up so much quicker than anyone predicted. We used to import power from Bonneville [Power Administration in the Northwest] or from the Southwest. But now, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Seattle—they don’t have the extra power to sell us. They’ve already sent us what they can for the year.

The whole idea of deregulation was that there would be all of this cheap electricity out here. That is no longer the case. So we should focus on doing things in state. But the focus shouldn’t be on gas plants; it should be on wind power for bulk power and on solar.

Why is the price for wind power coming down?

Well, the first turbines we put up were these huge monsters. They were 1.5 megawatts. That was because the Department of Energy hired all the old aerospace guys and their whole thing was “big is better.” But none of them worked. They would just fall apart.

In the Jerry Brown era, when he offered tax credits [for development of wind power], these private companies came in and started really small, somewhere around 100 kilowatts. What happened over time is that they learned to build them better. They scaled up gradually over time. Now, the latest turbines going in the ground are right back to 1.5 megawatts, but now they work. So they have gradually learned, and made really small adjustments over time. So they are just that much more efficient.

Wind farms can still have negative impacts on the environment. There is always the problem of siting new transmission lines, and other problems, right?

Right. The one big thing against wind power has been concern about birds. I’m a birdwatcher myself, so when I heard about the bird issue I thought, “Oh great. It’s always something.”

But what it looks like is that what was killing birds is the little fast machines. With the new big slow-moving turbines, the probability of a bird strike goes way down. And these days they do a lot of prescreening. They don’t put turbines in certain places. The Altamont Pass in some ways was one of the worst places to put in a wind farm because, as they found out later, it has one of the largest populations of golden eagles.

How much more wind power should be developed?

Right now we get about 1 percent of our power from the wind. I’ve seen estimates that we could easily get 20 percent of our power from the wind.

I just saw a figure that in the Northwest there’s enough wind to generate 600,000 megawatts of electricity. Now, not all of that is going to get built. You don’t want to build endless transmission lines.

The Clinton administration set a goal for wind power. It was called “Wind Powering America” and the goal was 5 percent of electricity was to come from the wind by 2020. That would be 4,000 megawatts per year we’d need to add. Of course, nothing happened with it. If we just implemented that policy, it would go a long way towards solving the problem.

Do you think California decision-makers are serious about renewables?

I really think Davis is getting all of his information from the utilities and the power generators. And the utilities have been fighting renewables tooth and nail for decades. They’ve always viewed this stuff as a threat. They just have the fossil fuel mindset.

If the governor were serious he would set a goal. He would say we want X amount of photovoltaics, wind power and fuel cells in so many years.

It’s too bad that Davis is such a timid guy. We really need someone radical like Jerry Brown who’s willing to make some mistakes but do something new. I mean, he kind of blew everything up. There were a lot of tax scams back then, because of the tax credits. A lot of people were ripped off. But at the same time, it got a lot of stuff in the ground and it spurred innovation.

During the Jerry Brown era, some of these fly-by-night outfits gave wind power a bad name, right? But there remain negative perceptions.

I think there’s always this perception that these things are just somewhere out in the future. There’s a lot of baggage for renewables. Even today, when people hear “solar photovoltaics,” they imagine Mendocino County and a guy in a tie-dyed shirt living off the grid.

And people still wonder if the wind farms ever work. They drive the Altamont Pass and see that the turbines aren’t working. That’s the thing—the wind turbines in California really only operate about a third of the year. Wind is intermittent. But it tends to generate electricity in the summer, when we need it most, and in the late afternoons when our peaks are. So not only is it cheap, but it gives us energy when we need it most, and that’s a value.

And the initial cost is important, of course.

It’s less of an issue with wind power I think. In 1999, about 1000 megawatts of wind power were built in one year and it cost a billion dollars. It’s huge investment. But we’re investing billions of dollars in gas plants. In my mind, it’s not that much more.

This has always been the problem with renewables. The capital costs are always higher, but then there is no fuel cost. Even with energy efficiency you see consumers balking. They look at a light bulb and think, "This light bulb costs five times more than a normal light bulb." There’s that hesitancy to face that up-front cost. But I think at some point we have to look at the long term. Getting over that initial hump is key.