WASHINGTON — Led by billionaire Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, pioneers in the emerging wind-power industry are touting their product as The Next Big Thing as they chart a course to produce at least 20 percent of the nation's electricity in just over two decades.
But reaching that goal won't be easy. The most daunting challenge centers on the fundamental question of how to get the product to customers. That will require building thousands of miles of transmission lines to carry electricity from turbines clustered on wind-swept prairies in America's heartland to distant cities and towns.
Industry leaders are calling for a national commitment to wind power on the same scale as the Eisenhower administration's commitment to constructing the Interstate Highway System. Erecting a transmission grid for wind-generated electricity, they say, would require up to 20,000 miles of new lines at a minimum cost of $60 billion — and possibly much more.
The undertaking faces "all kinds of problems," from right-of-way issues to resistance by "not-in-my-backyard" groups opposed to the aesthetic intrusion of giant wind turbines, says Steven P. Lindenberg, with the office of wind and hydropower technologies in the Department of Energy.
"It's huge," Mike Sloan, president of Austin, Texas-based Vitrus Energy, says in describing the challenge. "If you don't have a transmission system to get it there, it becomes useless."
With the price of gasoline shooting past $4 a gallon, wind power has emerged as a promising source of clean, renewable energy. Pickens, who amassed a fortune in the oil business, is now touting wind power with a $58 million multimedia campaign denouncing the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
The 80-year-old chairman of BP Capital Management, who is building the world's biggest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle, urged Congress this week to fully commit to wind energy during a series of recent appearances on Capitol Hill. Pickens says Americans can reduce foreign oil dependence by more than a third by ramping up wind power for electricity generation, thus freeing up the country's abundant natural gas resources to power environmentally friendly cars, trucks and buses.
More than 25,000 wind turbines are operating nationwide, and industry leaders envision a potential boom in coming years. The American Wind Energy Association has declared a goal of 20 percent wind energy by 2030, buoyed by an Energy Department study concluding that the goal was feasible.
"This is a technology that has been fully vetted," said AWEA President James A. Walker of the California-based enXco, which builds wind energy projects nationwide. "This is ready for prime time."
The U.S. wind industry started in California in the 1970s when an oil shortage increased the cost of oil-based electricity. After a series of ups and downs, wind power has surged with concern over global warming and latter-day oil spikes. It grew by 45 percent in 2007, accounting for 30 percent of all new power generating capacity added in the United States that year.
Most of the nation's turbine farms are located in the "wind corridor" stretching through the center of the country from Texas to the Canadian border. Texas, with more than 4,000 turbines, is the biggest wind producer, surpassing California for that title in 2006.
But wind power is also what experts call a "location-constrained resource," meaning that it can't be transported like coal or oil and is thus dependent on a network of lines and towers to reach a market often hundreds of miles away. It is thus burdened by a "chicken-and-egg problem" — wind farms don't want to locate in a site without transmission lines, and utilities don't want to erect lines where there are no wind farms.
Additionally, Pickens told a Senate committee, "long-distance transmission is only economic if it is built to high capacity, which means that there must be a large amount of generation capacity in one place."
Lindenberg, who participated in a briefing on wind energy for congressional aides, said existing lines are capable of carrying only a small amount of projected wind power, thus requiring an ambitious plan to construct new lines and towers. Walker pegged the cost at $60 billion but Pickens projects a cost of about $200 billion.