Humans have used wind as a source of energy for thousands of years. Early windmills ground grain and pumped water. In the late 1800’s, inventers designed windmills to produce electricity. However, their use declined during the Great Depression when rural electrification programs extended inexpensive grid electricity to rural areas. Today, wind power is again growing rapidly.
Wind is an abundant source of energy in the U.S. and can contribute to energy security by providing a low-cost, renewable supply. Good wind resources exist in almost every state and are theoretically capable of providing more than the total current electricity consumption of the U.S. Wind is the least expensive renewable energy source today and future technology developments are expected to lower costs further.
Investment in wind power has fluctuated over the past three decades according to changes in fossil fuel prices and government subsidies. When oil prices skyrocketed in the 1970’s, investment in developing wind technology increased. Later, when prices fell, investment and development of wind energy slowed. In 2006, the United States total wind power capacity stood at just over 11 gigawatts. While this represent only 0.5 percent of our electricity consumption, the total installed capacity since 1999 has grown 5-fold.
Investment in wind energy is increasing rapidly for a number of reasons. First, federal and state tax credits subsidize wind power production by 1.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. State programs requiring utilities to allow for net metering or to buy back renewable energy production from individuals has also spurred investment. State renewable portfolio standards that require a certain percentage of the electricity to come from renewable resources have also increased investment in wind energy. Demand for wind power has also increased due to public concern over global warming and some utilities allow consumers to choose to purchase renewable energy such as wind by paying a small additional monthly fee. Technology advancements which have lowered the overall cost of wind power and decreased maintenance and increased reliability, has also spurred investment.
The main benefit of wind power is that it does not produce nitrogen and sulfur oxides, particulates, and mercury—the pollutants responsible for acid rain and smog, amongst other environmental harms. It is also a carbon free energy source and therefore can help users meet carbon mitigation goals. Wind power also offers a boost to rural economies, where most wind resources are located. Finally, wind power has predictable fuel costs (zero) over the life of the project, something that many gas-fired combined-cycle operators wish for.
Because wind is not always available, it is not a good baseload power option. However, even without improvements to the power grid to allow transmission from windy regions to large power loads, wind can supply a much larger percentage of our electricity needs than it does today. Countries such as Denmark have shown it is possible to supply one-fifth of their electricity from wind without sacrificing reliability. A March 2007 report from the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) estimates that nearly 250 GW of wind power could cost-effectively enter the U.S. market by 2025.