When it comes to beating our oil addiction, more and more people believe the answer is blowing in the wind.
In the global conversation taking place around clean, renewable power, wind is the It source of the moment. No less than T. Boone Pickens, the legendary 80-year-old Texan who made billions in the oil industry, is betting it will provide the gushers of tomorrow. He's spending $10-billion to build the largest wind farm in the world.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, meantime, wants to put wind turbines on the city's bridges and skyscrapers. He's publicly imagined the day the Statue of Liberty welcomes new immigrants with a torch powered by an ocean wind farm.
Some people wonder if he's lost it.
Closer to home, EarthFirst Canada Inc. is hoping to flick the switch on a massive 180-megawatt wind-farm project in northeastern B.C., the first in the province. And the Naikun Wind Energy Group Inc. wants to install up to 110 turbine towers in the seabed of Hecate Strait, off the northwest coast of B.C., where gale-force winds are common. The project would rival Denmark's famed Horns Rev venture, the second largest offshore wind farm in the world.
So what's going on? Could it be that the answer to the world's energy crisis and rising greenhouse-gas emissions has been swirling around us all this time? Will the homes of tomorrow have wind turbines in the backyard to power lights and keep our toasters working?
As much as there's been lots of talk about wind addressing our energy needs in the future, that future would appear to be a long way off yet. Wind accounts for less than 1 per cent of the energy produced in Canada (Ontario is the wind-farm leader). The Canadian Wind Energy Association believes it can be 5 per cent by 2010.
The European Wind Energy Association is predicting that 28 per cent of the European Union's electrical consumption will be supplied by wind turbines by 2030; currently, it's about 3 per cent. In the U.S., they're talking about a target of 20 per cent in 20 years. Now, it's less than 1 per cent.
There's no shortage of people, including green enthusiasts, who believe the forecasts are wildly optimistic. While wind certainly offers us hope and will be a weapon in our collective fight for energy independence, it's also a technology that poses huge challenges.
For the most part, wind farms are situated in remote areas that aren't close to accessible energy grids. To meets its 2030 wind-energy targets, for instance, someone in the U.S. is going to have to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in new transmission lines. The same here in Canada.
So that's one problem.
A recent report in The New York Times suggests all is not well in the wind-power capital of the world - Denmark. The building of turbines there has slowed to a less-than-steady drip since government subsidies were cut back. The turbines at some of the country's offshore wind farms, meantime, have been damaged by storms and salt water. Fixing them has cost tens of millions of dollars, scaring off some companies looking at offshore projects themselves.
Offshore wind farms don't compromise landscapes the way onshore farms sometimes can, but the installation and maintenance costs are far more expensive.
Because wind can be intermittent and vary in intensity, conventional power plants in Denmark have had to be kept running at full capacity to meet the actual demand for electricity. Much of the wind power produced in the country is actually exported.
As the demand for wind power increases, the cost of turbines is getting pricier. According to The Wall Street Journal, turbine costs have risen by 74 per cent in the last three years alone. The few companies making them can't keep pace. The world's biggest turbine maker, Vestas of Denmark, has a $10-billion order book for its product.
Rising costs have hurt some projects, including EarthFirst's plans in B.C. The company's stock plunged in July when it was announced the estimated price of the Dokie wind farm had risen by $35-million to $360-million, and that the site wouldn't produce as much energy as first thought. The company needs $50-million more to finish construction and installation.
Finally, there has been increasing concern about the noise that wind turbines make and the toll the spinning blades of the wind towers exact on birds and other wildlife. Although, those appear to be the least of the technology's problems.
There is no question that wind power will assume an expanded role in the ever-unfolding drama that is the world's energy dilemma. Even T. Boone Pickens can see that.
But in our lifetime it's not likely to be handed the leading part that many are predicting.