A Mightier Wind; Wind Turbines May Soon Be Ready to Compete with Conventional Power

By Stone, Brad | Newsweek International, September 6, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Mightier Wind; Wind Turbines May Soon Be Ready to Compete with Conventional Power


Stone, Brad, Newsweek International


Byline: Brad Stone

If Jim Dehlsen ever needs to remind himself why, at 67, he's still trying to save the world, all he has to do is glance outside his window. The offices of his three-year-old firm, Clipper Windpower, look across the tranquil Santa Barbara Channel and, in the distance, to the remote marine sanctuary of Santa Cruz Island. Marring that view are eight oil rigs jutting into the ocean mist. In 1969 a well underneath one platform ruptured, releasing 750,000 liters of crude into the harbor, coating beaches and killing thousands of birds. Today, the oil rigs represent to Dehlsen America's dependence on fossil fuels. "We're not only depleting those resources but reaching the limits of what the planet can absorb, in terms of emissions," he says. "And that is clearing the way for the return of wind power."

Not long ago, wind power was the domain of fringe scientists and environmentalists. In the 1970s the idea of harvesting the wind's kinetic energy and converting it into electrons was not only expensive but impractical: the first rickety, garage-built turbines often self-destructed in storms. The industry grew in the '80s and '90s, but wind was still too costly, generating power at more than 10 cents per kilowatt hour, versus less than five cents for coal and other fossil fuels. Even today, wind power feeds less than half of 1 percent of America's ravenous energy appetite, and about 5 percent of Germany's and Spain's.

But the industry is maturing and growing quickly--and is beginning to find its place as one viable element in the energy puzzle. Dehlsen is one of its pioneers. His first wind company, Zond--founded in 1980 and sold to Enron in 1997--was synonymous with many early breakthroughs. The firm was the first to add wind energy to the California electricity grid and to bring scientific rigor to the locating of wind farms and development of wind turbines. In recent years much bigger companies like General Electric, which bought what was left of Zond after Enron imploded, have entered the field alongside Denmark's Vestas, which last year merged with rival NEG Micon to create a European wind giant. With rapidly improving technology and major corporate muscle behind wind power, costs are falling: wind contracts now average three cents per kilowatt hour (with tax subsidies), cheaper than coal and comparable to natural gas and oil. Because the wind is uncontrolled--it doesn't always blow--the challenge is to drive costs down further. Still, says Bob Thresher of the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab, "Wind is the first renewable technology that is very nearly competitive in the market for bulk power generation."

For his part, pioneer Dehlsen has returned to the fray with Clipper, which seeks to replay Zond's original game plan: broker new wind farms around the world, and use the revenues to fund advancements in wind technology. …

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A Mightier Wind; Wind Turbines May Soon Be Ready to Compete with Conventional Power
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