Driving Winds of Change
Wind can be a major global energy source, but it depends on conducive policies.
By Michael Totten


he indefatigable conservationist David Brower would remind citizens, “Politicians are like weather vanes, and our job is to make the wind blow.” Nothing could be truer in the case of ensuring politicians make judicious policy and regulatory decisions that seize opportunities presented by economically attractive, ecologically sustainable wind power. Now operational in more than 70 countries, wind power has been the fastest-growing source of renewable energy. Worldwide, wind power expanded more than 15-fold over the Michael Totten course of a decade, from 4,800 megawatts in 1995 to installed wind capacity of 74,000 MW by the end of 2006. The wind market grew a record 41 percent in 2005, and despite supply-chain constraints, in 2006 achieved an impressive 32 percent growth. Some 150,000 people now employed in the global wind industry were responsible for the $23 billion in new generating equipment installed in 2006. Europe still leads the market, with nearly 50,000 MW of installed capacity, representing 65 percent of the global total and producing roughly 100 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity. This capacity is equal to 3.3 percent of total EU electricity consumption. The countries with the highest total installed capacity are Germany (20,621 MW), Spain (11,615 MW), the United States (11,603 MW), India (6,270 MW) and Denmark (3,136 MW). Thirteen countries around the world have more than 1,000 MW of wind capacity, with France and Canada reaching this threshold in 2006. The cost of wind power has fallen dramatically as the world market has expanded. Today’s wind turbine produces 180 times more electricity per year at less than half the cost per unit (kWh) than its counterpart of two decades ago. At good

locations, wind can compete with the cost of either coal or gas-fired power. Wind energy has the potential to become a major source of global electricity supply. But will politicians establish the policies required to make this potential a reality?

assuming continuous innovation. Consequently, global demand is satisfied by 17.8 trillion kWh in 2030. Combined with the Advanced wind-growth scenario, some 2,110,000 MW of wind turbines are installed cumulatively by 2030, generating nearly 30 percent of global demand, or 5.2 trillion kWh. By 2020, the worldwide cost of producing electricity from wind energy is expected to fall to 4–5 cents per kilowatthour at good sites and 5.4–6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour at sites with low average wind speeds. The number of jobs created by the wind energy market in 2030 under the Advanced scenario reaches 2.1 million, more than 400 percent greater than under the Reference scenario.

Study Projects Huge Worldwide Growth
A compelling growth scenario is presented in the recent report, Global Wind Energy Outlook (download at www.gwec. net/index.php?id=65). According to the study, wind energy could provide 30 percent of the world’s electricity demand by 2030, “given the political will to promote its large-scale deployment paired with farreaching energy efficiency measures.” This growth would result from the most ambitious, or Advanced, scenario among three the report examines. The other two cases are a Reference scenario based on figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA), and a Moderate version that assumes current targets for renewable energy are successful. The Advanced version assumes adoption of a range of favorable policies. These three wind-growth scenarios are then matched with two scenarios for global energy demand based on IEA projections. Under the Reference scenario, growth in demand doubles from the baseline 13.4 trillion kWh in 2003 to reach 25.7 trillion kWh by 2030. Such growth will require the global power sector to construct some 4,800,000 MW of capacity between now and 2030, at an investment of nearly $4 trillion for the new generation, plus transmission and distribution networks. Combined with the Reference windgrowth scenario, this construction results in wind satisfying just 3.5 percent of global demand, or 0.9 trillion kWh, in 2030. A second, High Energy-Efficiency demand scenario, focuses on satisfying nearly 8 trillion kWh through more efficient “delivery” of energy demand services based on current best practice and available technologies in the future and


The wide-scale installation of wind farms in the Great Plains would bring an extraordinary financial boom for rural communities.

The amount of carbon dioxide emissions displaced annually reaches 3.1 billion tons by 2030 under the Advanced scenario, nearly 600 percent larger than under the Reference scenario. The report assumes 600 tons of CO2 displaced per million kilowatt-hours as an average value from wind generation. Although not calculated in the report, the market value of the Advanced scenario’s CO2 annual savings would approach $1 trillion in 2030 based on a likely carbon trading price around $30 per ton. To achieve 30 percent of total electricity demand from wind power by 2030, the SOLAR TODAY


study’s authors assume annual growth rates in wind power capacity to be 20 percent between now and 2015, then falling to 17 percent between 2016 and 2020, with a drop to approximately 10 percent from 2001 to 2025, before falling below 5 percent. For comparison, since 2000 the average annual increase in global cumulative installed capacity has been 28 percent. Other assumptions include an average turbine size of 2 MW, compared to 1.2 MW in 2006, and average capacity factor increases from 24 percent today to 28 percent by 2012.

request for wind R&D once again proposes a funding cut. This policy failure continues the misguided practices of the past. The IEA estimates that between 1974 and 2002, 92 percent of all R&D funding ($267 billion) was spent on nonrenewable energy sources, largely fossil fuel and nuclear technologies, compared to 8 percent ($23 billion) for all renewable technologies. And conventional energy sources still receive an estimated $250 billion in subsidies per year worldwide. In testimony before the Senate, the

American Wind Energy Association recently urged that the 2008 wind R&D budget be increased by 250 percent, which would keep us on course for the vision described above. Let’s heed David Brower’s sage advice and drive political weather vanes in the right direction. ● Michael Totten, the senior director of Climate, Water and Ecosystem Services at Conservation International, resides in Denver and works in China. Contact him at

For Americans, Benefits Warrant Policy Support
What would this growth look like for North America? In the Advanced windgrowth scenario, 570,000 MW of turbines would be installed by 2030, up from 13,000 MW total installed in the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2006. This implies locating 385,000 turbines, 2 MW each, throughout North America to provide 30 percent of total electricity. Let’s put this into context. More than 90 percent of U.S. terrestrial wind resources occur in the Great Plains. According to an article by energy analyst Charles Komanoff, the land space requirements to provide 100 percent of current U.S. electricity consumption would require 400,000 multi-megawatt-capacity wind turbines strategically placed over the Great Plains’ 1.2 million square miles (“Whither Wind?” September/October 2006, The actual footprint of these turbines, hypothetically squeezed into one space, would occupy just 5 square miles, about the size of a single large Wyoming strip mine. But even when spaced out for optimum wind capture, they would occupy just 2 percent of the Great Plains. And even then, the other 90 percent of the land surrounding the wind turbines would continue to be available for ranching, farming and restoration of native prairie grasses. For rural communities, this would bring an extraordinary financial boom. With a farm or ranch typically receiving a several-percent annual royalty from the wind farm, the income would, on average, exceed the earnings from farming or ranching. This amount of land is modest relative to the income that can be generated. Currently, farms and ranches occupy 75 percent of the Great Plains, yet they generate less than 5 percent of the region’s GDP. In spite of this immense triple-bottom-line gain for people, profits and the planet, President Bush’s 2008 budget

July/August 2007