If it's true that markets constantly cycle between the emotional poles of greed and fear, then the energy sector right now is in fear mode -- spooked by what's happening to oil prices. Political unrest and uncertainty in the Middle East have sent crude soaring -- and that spike in prices is once again drawing the public's attention back toward alternative energy sources, in particular solar and wind power.
Analysts say that neither wind or solar power (although many public solar companies are on the rise right now) are the magic bullet to solve the problem of America's addiction to oil -- and like other industries, both have been hit hard by the financial crisis. But researchers and investors, particularly in wind power, aren't giving up.
According to the Global Wind Energy Council, worldwide wind power capacity increased by 22% last year -- and most of that was added outside of the older and traditionally stronger North American and European markets. In 2010, China surpassed the U.S. in total installed wind capacity.
"Our industry continues to endure a boom-bust cycle because of the lack of long-term, predictable federal policies, in contrast to the permanent entitlements that fossil fuels have enjoyed for 90 years or more," says Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, in a GWEC press release. "Now that we're competing with natural gas on cost, we need consistent federal policies to ensure we have a diverse portfolio of energy sources in this country."
Dealing with the Weather and Technology
Despite such hurdles, wind power has been an established part of the U.S. grid for a decade or more. "We're well past the embryonic stage," says Paul Veers, chief engineer at the National Wind Technology Center, a part of the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. He says by the end of 2009 the U.S. had an estimated 35 gigawatts of wind power installed.
"One gigawatt is a thousand megawatts, which is a million kilowatts," Veers says. "One kilowatt is like [the power needed to run] a toaster. So that's the equivalent of 35 old-style, coal-fired power plants being generated [by wind power]."
Of course, wind power depends on the weather -- and that variability has led to skepticism about whether it could ever be more than a supplement to traditional energy sources. Another well-publicized concern is the inability of power organizations to store the electricity generated by wind power.
Veers agrees that utilities currently can't store wind energy, "no more than you can store electricity from a coal plant or a nuclear plant," he says. But developments are under way to create storage facilities that could eventually set aside some of the excess electricity generated at night by wind turbines, when public demand is lower, and then feed it back onto the grid during the day.
And the reliability issue, Veers says, is improving with the development of more dependable and more efficient technologies – affecting everything from weather-forecasting models, allowing wind farms to fine-tune how their turbines run, to improvements in the turbines' infamously delicate gearboxes. He compares the current wind turbines and their development to where autos were in the 1970s or 1980s. "They had really good equipment. It worked," he notes. "But look at the change in the frequency of [auto] maintenance from now to then, and the change in fuel efficiency. The improvements they've been able to make in cars in the last 30 years are really pretty substantial."
20% by 2030?
Both the Bush and Obama administrations have pushed to have wind power and other alternative energies generate a greater percentage of America's electrical output. A Department of Energy report details a scenario whereby wind power could be responsible for 20% of U.S. electricity production by the year 2030.
But for the moment, that remains speculative. The government realizes that, "long-term, you have to find some alternative to a resource that is still embedded in a volatile part of the world," says Ron Rizzuto, professor of finance at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business. Wind power, he says, is a "good, long-term thing, but we're still feeling our way. . .and it's not economic on its own without subsidies."
Paul Veers says that, given the incentive of subsidies, wind power is extremely cost-effective and a good investment. "It brings a lot of jobs and business activity to rural areas, remote places where the wind is located," he notes. "It also brings electrical generation to the West without the need for water for cooling -- a nice benefit there, too. That's why we're operating here. That's why we think we have a role for the future. That we can continue to bring costs down. . .and increase the productivity of these machines, so they become our cheapest energy source."