February 13, 2009
In 2008 more than 40 percent of all newly installed power in the EU and USA is generated by wind turbines.
European utilities invested 20 times more in wind-driven than in coal-fired power plants (8 GW against 0.4 GW). In Europe, the end of the “coal age” seems near, thanks to increasing public protests and the impact of EU climate policy, which penalises the use of coal.
This is pretty much a revolution.
At the end of 2008, the wind industry occupied more than 200 000 people globally, most of them in Europe and in the USA. In 2008, more than $ 30 billion have been invested in wind installations world-wide, essentially in the USA, Europe, China and India, the four leading wind regions.
2009 is bound to see a certain slow-down of demand for new capacities, especially in the USA, due to financing difficulties. But the US $ 800 billion stimulus plan is likely to partially compensate the financing problems by extending fiscal incentives for all renewable energies.
Of all renewable sources wind energy is presently the most cost-efficient and reliable. The industry has become viable.
Solar thermal power seems much less attractive. No more than 3 GW world-wide are under construction or planning, essentially in California, North Africa and Spain, compared to 27 GW new wind power installed in 2008.
Solar PV remains too expensive for large-scale generation of electricity. This is not likely to change in the next 10 years.
Of course, like all renewable energies wind has a critical drawback: It depends on wind blowing. But as the network of wind turbines expands geographically, the risk of power interruption also diminishes. There is always wind blowing somewhere in the USA or Europe, which can be transmitted at low costs over long distances, thanks to intelligent grids, which the US government plans to build across the country.
The capacity to be set aside for ensuring the base-load can therefore be much smaller in the future.
The big utilities have grasped this new perspective. Instead of fighting the wind turbines as a nuisance they are increasingly investing in wind energy.
The impressive advance of wind energy demonstrates how to make good use of “intelligent” subsidies for encouraging alternative energies. By obliging utilities to buy wind power at attractive “feed-in rates”, investors in wind power were able to cover the higher production costs, when the technology was not yet mature and costs of production high.
Wind generation should be able to become fully competitive before 2020, provided governments stick to their policy of raising the cost of fossil energies through emission caps or high C02 taxes.
The rise of wind power to a leading source of energy should not mislead to a false euphoria. In Europe, it covers presently no more than 4 percent of power demand, elsewhere its share is even lower.
The space available on earth for installing cost-efficient wind turbines is limited, even if including off-shore locations. Humanity will need all forms of renewable energy, from wind to solar, hydro, advanced biomass and ocean waves.
Wind power has the advantage of being presently the most mature form of renewable energy available. It requires relatively little investment per GW and allows for a rapid expansion of capacity.
It is therefore an ideal renewable energy for the next 10-20 years, until other alternative renewables will also increasingly become competitive.