The following post replies to a question from National Journal to its “energy experts” list. The question was as follows:
“Is Any Energy Form Safe?
“In light of the BP oil spill, Japan’s nuclear crisis, and a recent spate of coal-mining accidents, the risks and dangers associated with energy production are more evident than ever.
“Renewable energy is safer than fossil fuels, but production is not yet at a scale where it could displace any traditional energy source. Natural gas has emerged as a safer bet for fossil fuels in light of these other disasters, but it also must address concerns about pipeline safety and hydraulic fracturing, a controversial way to extract shale gas that has been known to contaminate drinking water.
“How should President Obama and Congress consider the risks associated with energy production when deciding how to move forward on an energy policy? What economic, environmental, and safety tradeoffs must be considered with energy production? Is there such a thing as a safe form of energy at all?
I must disagree with the premise of the question as it pertains to wind energy.
You write that “[P]roduction [of renewable energy] is not yet at a scale where it could displace any traditional energy source.” This is an odd choice of phrase, since the central point of the question is “how to move forward on an energy policy.” Presumably, an energy policy is designed not for today or next week, but for the future, and wind energy is clearly capable of displacing traditional energy sources in the not-too-distant future.
– In the past four years, wind energy accounted for 35% of all new generating capacity installed in the U.S., more than coal and nuclear combined.
– In 2011, U.S. wind farms will produce nearly as much electricity as 10 nuclear power plants.
– In the past three years, the new wind capacity installed is enough to generate as much electricity as five nuclear power plants.
– To generate as much electricity as U.S. wind turbines will generate this year, more than half a million barrels of oil a day would be required (210 million barrels all told, or nearly 9 billion gallons).
– To generate as much electricity as U.S. wind turbines will generate this year, a coal train more than 6,000 miles long (more than the distance from Los Angeles to Tokyo) would be required.
– During the Bush Administration, the U.S. Department of Energy found that wind energy could supply 20% of U.S. electricity (roughly what nuclear supplies today) by 2030. To do that, wind would have to generate as much electricity as 75 nuclear plants.
– The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates total U.S. wind resources at 14 MILLION MW–enough to generate roughly 10 times all of the electricity our nation uses.
Wind's costs have dropped in recent years. The Department of Energy reports that in 2009, the price of electricity from new wind power plants ranged from 4 to 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is competitive with other new power plants. In addition, wind offers the certainty of a long-term stable price– it is not subject to fuel price spikes, or environmental regulations on pollutants, water use, etc.
Wind energy is clean, affordable, homegrown and abundant. An intelligent energy policy should include provisions aimed at ensuring its rapid development and diversifying our nation's energy supply.