The Wall Street Journal this week issued a kind of report card on all the different sources of alternative energy, where they stand and how much they are growing. One of the most interesting details was that the growth of the wind power sector will depend largely on where that wind comes from. Wind produced offshore is usually preferential to wind coming from a dusty plain in the middle of nowhere. Offshore wind would be generated close to large coastal population centers and would require less costly transmission.
This is the sort of assessment you start to hear once a power source is ready for Phase Two. Wind power has made enormous strides in recent years, both in terms of public acceptance and improved technology. U.S. wind power capacity surged 39% last year alone. The more sobering data point is that it still accounts for just 2% of total power generation in the country. If wind power producers want to increase that portion significantly, they need to start thinking strategically about how and where they build power plants.
This helps to explain why the long-contested Cape Wind project near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts is so vital to the industry’s future. If — over the many objections from coastal property owners to fishermen to the Audubon Society — the project goes through, it would be the largest offshore wind power in the country, potentially offering a whole new paradigm of the power of wind.
But in the meantime, it is the power plants built on land that are generating the most investor interest.
Of course, this isn’t really logical – why a wind farm in remote West Texas would be embraced, while one near a major metropolitan area would be blocked for more than a decade. But if we continue to bow to special interests and let them dictate where these new power plants reside, we could very well be forfeiting the industry’s future promise to be anything more than a niche player. Already, the U.S. is quite far behind: its total wind power capacity ranks fifth worldwide on a per capita basis, behind China.
Once upon a time, when wind was new, any electricity it generated was viewed as a net gain. But those days are gone and the stakes are now much higher.