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As gas prices climb, wind power wins over new fans

WASHINGTON—Thanks to $3-a-gallon gasoline and $75-a-barrel oil, wind power—the once-wimpy little brother of the energy industry—is putting on muscle and gaining favor.

Its backers promote wind as a clean, cheap, endlessly renewable way to make electricity that can help reduce the nation's reliance on high-priced, perhaps undependable foreign sources and thereby enhance national security.

"There's been a key change in attitude in the last year," said James Lyons, an official at GE Global Research, a branch of General Electric Co. based in Niskayuna, N.Y. "Energy security is driving this."

"The culture is shifting," said Alexander Karsner, the assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the Department of Energy. "People are coming to see the importance of energy independence."

Critics say wind energy is unreliable, unsightly, harmful to wildlife and economically viable only because of government tax credits.

Nevertheless, "wind power is becoming a force to be reckoned with," said Clinton Andrews, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Andrews and others spoke at a conference of industry executives, government officials and energy experts in Washington last week.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Nora Brownell told the conference that there's an "alignment of the stars" for wind power today.

Bigger, quieter and more efficient wind turbines are sprouting across the land. About 30 states have wind farms that are able to generate almost 10,000 megawatts of electricity—enough to power 2.3 million homes—at a cost roughly competitive with that of natural gas, nuclear power and "clean coal," which has been scrubbed of impurities. Some states, such as New York and California, require that a certain percentage of their electricity come from wind.

President Bush asked Congress for $44 million to advance wind energy in his 2007 budget. Big utility companies such as General Electric are getting into the game.

"The wind industry has been built up to a critical mass," said Charles Smith, the executive director of the Utility Wind Integration Group, an organization that eight utility companies founded to speed their use of energy from wind.

Nevertheless, wind power still faces substantial problems.

Wind is notoriously variable. It typically blows most strongly in the morning, when it's least needed, and fades out in the afternoon and evening, when electricity demand in highest.

"Reliability is a critical factor," said Mark Ahlstrom, an expert at WindLogics, a wind-forecasting firm in St. Paul, Minn. "You just have to be able to deal with it."

Wind farms are often in remote areas, such as mountain passes, far from population centers. Long transmission lines must be built. Connecting wind power safely to the electric grid is a challenge, requiring constant adjustment to balance the flow of energy from other sources.

"Control room operators don't like change," said William Grant, the manager of transmission control centers for Xcel Energy in Amarillo, Texas. "It's a tough process but they're learning."

Massive wind towers, as tall as a football field is long and with rotors wider than a jumbo jet's wingspan, stir mixed reactions, especially in resort and scenic areas. Some folks, notably Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., say they spoil the landscape. Others worry about the death toll among birds, although wind defenders say more birds are killed by housecats and by crashing into windows.

Investors charge higher interest rates because of the government's "boom-and-bust" cycle: supporting the wind industry with tax credits at one time, dropping them a few years later, turning them back on. The current credit, a 1-cent-per-kilowatt-hour benefit, will expire next year unless it's renewed.

One of the main reasons wind power is catching on is that it's finally become cost-competitive with most other energy sources, its backers say.

The price of a kilowatt hour of electricity generated by wind now averages 4 to 5 cents, a reduction of 80 percent since 1985, according to John McDonald, the president of the Power Engineering Society, a branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the industry's major technical and professional association.

As of the end of 2005, 9,149 megawatts of wind power capacity were installed in the United States, up 25 percent from the year before. The industry's goal is 20,000 megawatts by 2010, and 100,000 by 2020.

That would be enough to serve 25 million homes and cut $15 billion a year off America's oil and gas payments to foreign countries, McDonald said.

For the wind industry's view:

For a contrary view:


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060424 WINDPOWER

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