Top Stories from the Special Reports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Thursday, June 24, 1999

Windmills Are on a Roll

Operating Costs Are Down While Energy Capacity Is Up

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Most modern technologies seem to develop in leaps and bounds by overnight revolutionary discoveries. Not so windmills. The world's fastest growing form of energy production has developed through slow, incremental advances in technology as well as through changes in political attitudes over decades.

''There is no breakthrough, we're not expecting a breakthrough, we don't need a breakthrough,'' said Paul Gipe, a California-based wind energy advocate.

Worldwide, wind energy capacity has grown at nearly 27 percent annually since 1992, according to BTM Consult ApS, a Danish group specializing in wind energy. In 1998, equipment sales amounted to more than $2 billion. Over the past five years, 20,000 new jobs have been created. And in April, the world total output surpassed 10,000 megawatts, equivalent to the amount of nuclear power installed worldwide by 1968.

And unlike burning fossil fuels, wind energy's fuel the wind is not only free and inexhaustible, it also does not release any carbon dioxide or other emissions into the atmosphere.

The environmental issue is precisely what helped to give birth to the current boom. Thanks to such conferences as the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, or the Kyoto protocol of 1997, many governments now offer tax incentives and other funding programs for renewable energy sources to curb emissions.

Windmills have existed at least since the seventh century A.D. Experiments in electricity production were made at the end of 19th century, notably by Poul la Cour, a Danish meteorologist and inventor. Early this century, rural America had an estimated six million windmills, which were mostly wiped out by the end of the 1940s by fossil-fuel-burning forms of electricity generation.

But the energy crisis in the 1970s led to a revival of interest in windmill electricity, one of the simplest and cheapest forms of renewable energy technology.

Today's wind turbines, as the industry prefers to call windmills, look like a propeller on a pole, rather than the quaint mill with the oblique vanes that Don Quixote mistook for a giant.

Outwardly, the technology is as simple as a tower with a propeller on it spinning in the wind. This in turn drives a generator that produces electricity and sends it down a wire into the grid.

Since the early 1970s, steady development has touched every element of a wind turbine: the rotor, or spinning part, and its blades, gearbox, transmission and the generator. Onboard computers now monitor those parts and make adjustments, such as changing blade pitch.

Two of the biggest developments involve weight and size, according to Tom Gray, deputy managing director of the American Wind Energy Association, which held its 25th anniversary annual conference this week in Burlington, Vermont. Technological advances have reduced the amount of material required to construct a windmill, which in turn reduces the overall production cost.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the average wind turbine had a 26 kW generator and a rotor diameter of 10.5 meters, and they were 18 to 20 meters high. Today the average generators are between 600 and 700 kilowatts, with a rotor diameter of close to 50 meters, and a height of 50 to 60 meters. Such machines produce between 1 and 2 million kilowatt-hours a year, or the annual electricity consumption of 300 to 400 European households.

All these technological developments have reduced the cost of a kilowatt-hour by nearly 10 percent annually. The cost is now one-sixth what it was in 1980, or the same as for today's coal-fired power stations fitted with smoke-scrubbing equipment, which is around five cents per kilowatt-hour for an average European site.

However, the future of wind energy hinges on political choice rather than technology or even economics, some advocates say.

''The wind energy market is a political market,'' said Christophe Bourillon, chief executive of the London-based European Wind Energy Association. ''The size of the future market will not depend on the technology, because the technology is now ready. It will not depend on economics, because the efficiency has gone up and cost has gone down. The size of the future market will depend on choice.''

Official research programs and a tax credit in the United States in the 1970s and early 1980s spurred the first phase in the wind energy industry, when California dominated the industry by installing 15,000 windmills. But when the tax credit ended in 1985, the industry fell into a recession and nearly died.

Then in 1992, the U.S. government offered a wind production tax credit which gives a tax break on the amount of energy actually produced by a wind turbine. This led to another boom, during which even more turbines were installed than in the 1980s. That tax credit ends on June 30, however, and while it may be extended, some experts, including Mr. Gipe, fear another windmill recession.

Europeans, however, are more optimistic. The Danes, for instance, used the experience gained in providing wind turbines to the American market to build up their expertise and business.

''Denmark is an example of the little nation that could, and has,'' Mr. Gipe said. ''While the U.S. fell under the spell of Reaganism and Thatcherite economics, countries like Denmark just ignored it and continued with a conscious program of making the country as energy independent as possible, but also as environmentally responsible as possible.''

Fifty-five percent of the world's wind power comes from Danish-made turbines. Seventy-five percent of Danish windmills belong to individuals or cooperatives under a program that requires a utility to buy the excess electricity for 85 percent of the retail price. Germany has a similar program, offering 90 percent of the price.


JENS-ERIC Kristensen, managing director of the Danish company NEG Micon A/S, the world's leading windmill builder, says that his next generation of machine will give buyers more power for their money than the current one.

Paradoxically, wind turbines are not without their own environmental problems. Many people think they are ugly and spoil the view.

One of the most promising solutions is the out-of-sight approach of offshore wind farms. The first farm was started in 1991 with 11 turbines a few kilometers off the Danish coast. The amount of electricity produced offshore is increased, too, since the sea provides stronger, more regular winds.

Mr. Bourillon said such projects have attracted utility companies, like Electricite de France, and the oil company Royal Dutch/Shell Group, because the projects promise to create wind farms that will produce 100-plus megawatts of electricity, or levels similar to what is produced by a coal or gas power station.

BRAD SPURGEON is on the staff of the International Herald Tribune.

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