Winds of Change: A Status Report

The first in a series of eight columns focusing on emissions-free wind power will assess where renewable energy stands globally in the marketplace. If the planets align favorably for wind, 2011 will be a landmark year that deploys important change for the leading sustainable energy resource on the world stage.

Whether folks dispute the subject of climate change or not, there is general agreement that energy is a burgeoning global challenge for the future. But the adoption of renewable energy is not as nimble a process as potential investors and environmentalists might hope it to be, as long-term clean energy policies remain elusive and tax incentives disproportionately favor energy sources responsible for high levels of greenhouse gases.

Carbon taxes may one day help to balance the scales if levied on companies and individuals with substantial carbon footprints. But a few solutions on the horizon that will be borne out of collaborations in the public-private sector may serve to achieve a low-carbon future more quickly, and take the common-sense debate of clean energy directly to the consumer. (Look for future columns about the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and announcements from key industry leaders and NGOs about a promising new independent not-for-profit organization, WindMade. Its aim will be to support corporate investment in wind energy and encourage consumer demand for wind-produced products with the first-ever global labeling initiative of its kind, among others.)

Challenges notwithstanding, wind energy, the most established of the available renewable energy sources, is destined to be an integral part of the world energy mix going forward.

First, a few unvarnished facts: Oil is in limited supply, whereas wind is something that we will actually have access to forever once all the technology to harvest and store it is sufficiently in place. Bar none, the U.S. is in possession of the greatest amount of the free wind resource on the planet, but countries all over the world are moving quickly to lessen their dependence on foreign fossil fuel. Globally, wind power companies currently meet the residential electricity needs of 250 million people in eighty-plus countries, but worldwide electricity consumption derived from wind still amounts to little more than two percent. Compared with conventional energy sources, wind hasn’t nearly begun to realize its full potential, and few dispute that we could harness twenty percent of all electricity from wind by 2020 if we set our collective mind to it. A major stumbling block? Short-term energy policies that continue to thwart its progress.

Leveling the playing field with a long-term support strategy already enjoyed by traditional energy resources translates to policies that need to last much longer than one election cycle, and long-range tax incentives would make potential investors more willing to commit to sustainable alternatives. Any corporation, with an eye toward success, would be disinclined to invest in any new energy if hamstrung by short-term, quarter-to-quarter planning. This explains the general consensus that governments must establish renewable energy policy lasting a minimum of five or ten years, to help stimulate investments in emission-free energy. (Oil, gas, and nuclear, for instance, already have twenty-year policy commitments.)

Has Its Time Finally Come?

That said, the wind energy industry is looking forward with more than some optimism to a climate of favorability in the very near future. As oil prices currently inch closer to a hundred dollars a barrel, wind production costs are declining with some projections claiming that before 2020 it will be competitive with conventional energy sources. Improved efficiency, reliability, and better quality and technology are also helping to make wind turbines considerably more competitive in the marketplace.

A number of other metrics factor positively into the discussion. For the first time in twelve years, new Federal Trade Commission “Green Guides” have been released that, among other things, address the problem of green-washing, that is, deceptive claims by businesses looking to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. While global consumer labeling is currently being considered, the FTC guidelines will begin to help U.S. manufacturers with legitimate green claims promote their low-emissions commitments to products with a smaller carbon footprint.

Popular surveys are also bolstering the mature energy source’s bona fides. A recent Financial Times/Harris poll found strong public support for wind. In America, when asked eighty-seven percent of the public favored building more wind farms. Likewise, a Gallup survey recently noted a seventy-six percent favorability rating for a credible labeling of products manufactured internationally by wind energy to better advise what consumers buy.

In addition to environmental benefits, and even in the face of an economic downturn, clean energy is providing more than 600,000 green collar jobs today both in direct and indirect employment. By 2030, the number is projected to increase to more than three million. Global and domestic companies are investing heavily in the U.S. as well as in Europe, China, and elsewhere, and wind manufacturing plants are cropping up in states like California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, and many others. A heartening perspective in a time when encouraging economic stories are in short supply, it now seems up to individual governments to place stronger muscle behind their commitments to wind power and other clean energy resources in order to foster greater energy independence.

In the next of the series, we will continue to focus on the challenges, the politics, and the potential of wind energy.