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Wind Power, Poised for Take Off?

A survey of projects and economics.
Fortnightly Magazine - August 2001

power requested by Bonneville Power, which should help diversify the agency' s fuel mix and offset reliance on electricity from local dams, thus extending regional water supplies.

Concerns About Reliability The fact that power output varies depending on whether and how strongly the wind is blowing, and may require "back-up" power, can pose concerns about electric system reliability. These issues certainly will be closely monitored as new wind plants come online across the country and as the proportion of wind power on the grid increases.

So far, in systems dependent on a relatively large proportion of wind power, as in Europe, the use of wind power has not called for large amounts of back-up capacity. Wind energy provides up to 20 percent of electricity supply on certain regional grids in Spain and Germany without causing reliability problems.

Moreover, in terms of capacity factor (plant availability), wind turbines hold their own against other generating resources.

Over a full year, a wind turbine typically is available 98 percent of the time, producing electricity more than 60 percent of the time, and generating about a third of its total rated potential, depending upon the site. This level of availability can help cushion the impact on a grid that is felt when a conventional fossil-fired power plant goes off-line for repairs and maintenance.

In California, for example, at the height of the energy crisis this year, close to 11,000 MW of generating capacity - an amount equivalent to about a third of the power needed by the state - was out of commission for required maintenance or because of breakdowns. Operating wind farms continued to be available throughout the crisis and in some cases helped to avert rolling blackouts.

An Industry Forecast

Wind power accounts today for only about 0.1 percent of total U.S. electricity production, yet America' s wind energy potential is ample enough to meet more than twice the total current U.S. consumption of electricity, according to federal estimates. Development of only a fraction of that potential would allow the U.S. to boost and diversify its electricity supply without sacrificing environmental standards or accelerating the depletion of natural resources.

With measures to sustain wind power' s recent growth, such as improved transmission capacity linking the Great Plain states to large electricity consumption centers in the East and West, the American Wind Energy Association estimates that wind power can provide 6 percent of U.S. electricity by 2020.

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