The Heat Is Online

U.S. Wind Cheaper Than Coal

Wind Power Cheaper Than Coal

STANFORD, California, August 24, 2001 (ENS) - The U.S. should make a large investment in wind farming to help meet the nation's electricity needs and address global warming, two energy experts from Stanford's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have concluded.

Writing in today's issue of the journal Science, associate professor Mark Jacobson and teaching professor Gilbert Masters conclude that wind power is an abundant, clean and affordable alternative to coal and other fossil fuels.

Last year, wind driven turbines produced less than 0.1 percent of America's electricity supply - compared to 52 percent generated from coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. One reason that wind energy has lagged so far behind is the perception is that wind farms are more expensive to build and operate than coal fired power plants - a notion that Jacobson and Masters dispute.

"Much of the recent U.S. energy debate has focused on increasing coal use," they note. "Since the 1980s, though, the direct cost of energy from large wind turbines has dropped to three to four cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable with that from new pulverized coal power plants. Given that health and environmental costs of coal are another two to 4.3 cents per kilowatt hour, wind energy is unequivocally less expensive than is coal energy."


A downside of wind turbines is that they have been linked to the accidental deaths of migratory birds that get caught inside fast moving propeller blades. Selecting sites out of migration paths can help solve this problem, observe Jacobson and Masters.

They also point out that the loss of birds from new wind farms would be small compared to the current loss of forests, birds, fish and other wildlife from acid discharge caused by coal combustion.

Concerns over the potential environmental costs of wind energy are far outweighed by the benefits of reducing coal consumption, the authors said. They point out the indirect costs of coal generated power plants, including the production of smog that causes asthma and other respiratory illnesses; carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming; and acid rain that destroys lakes and forests.

Jacobson and Masters also cite statistics from the Centers for Disease Control showing that coal dust kills some 2,000 U.S. mineworkers each year and has cost taxpayers about $35 billion in monetary and medical benefits to former miners since 1973.

"Shifting from coal to wind would address health, environmental and energy problems," note the authors. Wind is a clean source of energy, they add, and should be promoted and funded by federal and state governments.

A typical 1,500 kilowatt turbine costs about $1.5 million to install and about $18,000 to $30,000 a year to maintain - a bargain in the long haul, according to Jacobson and Masters.

"The U.S. could displace 10 percent of coal energy at no net federal cost by spending three to four percent of one year's budget on 36,000 to 40,000 large wind turbines and selling the electricity over 20 years, recouping all costs," they argue.

The authors calculate that, by building about 250,000 new turbines, America could eliminate almost two-thirds of its coal generated electricity, reducing its 1999 greenhouse gas emissions to seven percent below 1990 levels. That was precisely the goal first proposed by the Clinton administration under the controversial 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

President George W. Bush has called the Kyoto Protocol "fatally flawed," and says the United States will never ratify the international accord in its current form. Bush, a strong proponent of fossil fuels, included millions of dollars of incentives for new coal, oil and natural gas development in his long range national energy plan, proposed in May.


"If you want to solve this country's energy problem, the U.S. needs to consider some type of large scale program," said Jacobson. "The federal government could either go into the energy business for itself, or it could foster wind energy through tax incentives that would catalyze private sector investment."

State governments also should take the initiative, write Jacobson and Masters. They point out that energy strapped California could obtain 10 percent more electricity from wind by spending less than 10 percent of its state budget for one year on the construction of 5,000 new turbines, then selling the electricity over 20 years to recover all costs.

Some states are already taking taking steps to harness the inexpensive power of the wind. On Thursday, a more than 100 foot long wind power blade arrived by truck in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to mark the near completion of Mill Run, the largest wind farm in the East, which will help power Philadelphia area homes and businesses by this fall.

"Today, Philadelphia can see its future - and it is green," said John Hanger, spokesperson for the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition. "Blades just like these will be soon be turning with the wind, making clean and affordable energy for Philly customers. The Mill Run wind farm is the largest yet in the East, and is helping make Pennsylvania the wind power capital of the East."

The wind farm, composed of ten 1.5 megawatt turbines atop 210 foot high towers, will take advantage of high winds at the top of Laurel Mountain.

Turbines are most efficient in fast winds, note Jacobson and Masters, and could provide needed revenue to farmers and ranchers in areas where mean annual wind speeds are highest - including the Dakotas, Texas, coastal regions and large portions of the West and Northeast.

The authors note that, last year, Germany produced nearly three times more wind generated electricity than the U.S., and Denmark - a country roughly half the size of Maine - produced almost as much turbine power as the entire United States. Denmark and Sweden also have developed wind parks offshore, where winds are faster than over land.

"Clearly, the U.S. has not maximized its wind potential," conclude Jacobson and Masters. "Doing so would address health, environmental and energy problems."