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T Boone's stake in wind power


Steve Sawyer

Just as one Texan gets ready to leave office - unlikely to be missed by many in the wind and solar community - another is emerging as unlikely hero of the wind movement, despite a long history in oil. Who'd have thought it, asks Steve Sawyer.

There's more bad news on the climate change front. Newly-published research shows that ice loss from the West Antarctic ice sheet has accelerated dramatically of late, with the potential for runaway ungrounding — and collapse — an “open possibility”. This is a stark reminder that disintegration of this ice sheet would cause about 6 metres of sea level rise, globally. Less than a decade ago, in the IPCC's third assessment report, the risk of the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsing was considered to be very low, but no longer.

At the end of July 2008, two masses of ice together measuring almost 20 km2, broke off the Ward Hunt ice shelf at Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. This lends evidence to new studies that speculate we could have a summertime ice-free Arctic Ocean well before mid-century. The news keeps getting worse, and faster. As we used to stay, the climate is changing faster than the positions of climate negotiators, who once again failed to make significant progress at the latest round of negotiations in Bonn, in June 2008.

While Governments seem unable to get their act together, others are stepping up. to the plate. For instance, Iberdrola recently announced that it was not going to invest €8 billion in renewables over the next four years as previously reported, but 18bn, mostly in wind power. Vestas plans to double its turbine manufacturing capacity by the end of this decade. General Electric's wind business is one of its fastest growing divisions, and it is the only US manufacturer among the top 10 selling to the US, the world's largest wind power market.

Even though the Texan currently in the White House continues to block any serious action on climate change, another Texan is emerging as the most unlikely sort of hero for the energy revolution.

T. Boone Pickens, archetypal Texas oil billionaire and oil market prognosticator extraordinaire, is not only in the process of building the world's largest (4000 MW) wind farm in Sweetwater, Texas, but he has also launched a campaign to use wind power to help cut US dependence on oil imports. While climate change mitigation and air pollution reduction usually head the list of the benefits of wind power, these arguments do not even figure in his campaign brochure for The Pickens Plan, which you can read for yourself at http://www.pickensplan.com/. His arguments are based solely on energy security and economics, with a surprising dose of global equity thrown in to boot. He also focuses on regional economic development benefits, highlighting how the wind power industry is transforming Sweetwater Texas, increasing both the tax base and the population and attracting both investment and jobs in large quantities.

Using one of 3-Tier's wind resource maps of the US, Pickens focuses on the tremendous wind power potential in the central part of the country. “All the way from Sweetwater, Texas, to the Canadian border, we've got nothing but wind…” he pronounces in his trademark Texas drawl, positioning the US as “the Saudi Arabia of wind”. His plan, in outline, is to shift the use of the US' domestic gas resources out of the electricity generation market into the transportation sector, and replace the gas powered section of US electricity generation (about 22%) with wind, “in less than a decade”.

This would reduce the need for US oil imports by nearly half, saving the country about US$300bn a year — which would otherwise be sent overseas, “mostly to countries that don't like us much”.

While one might question the overall environmental benefits of the plan, as it does not touch on the approximate 50% of US electricity generation coming from coal, you cannot deny that it's bold and visionary, showing the kind of leadership so notably lacking from the political world these days.

To see the whole picture, one has to look beyond the CO2 and air pollution reduction benefits of wind and also consider: fuel price stability; competitive pricing; energy security; speed of deployment; zero water use; employment and regional economic development. In different combinations in different situations, each of these factors will play a role in the decision by a regional Government to facilitate the development of a local wind power industry. For Texas is by no means the only place that this is happening.

On the North Sea coast of Germany's northernmost Land of Schleswig-Holstein, for example, lies the old fishing port of Husum. Until recently one of post-war Germany's economic backwaters, it is now the centre of a renewable energy boom, particularly for the wind energy sector, and it is home to the world's largest wind energy trade fair. In fact, Husum can (and does) lay claim to the title of the “birthplace of the modern wind energy industry”. With progressive policies at both the Federal and State level, Schleswig-Holstein has attracted major investment and is home not only to more than 2600 MW of wind energy capacity (supplying in excess of 37% of the region's electricity) but also to a thriving industrial sector, employing about 7,000 people.

So it is very appropriate that at this year's Husum WindEnergy trade fair on 9 September 2008, GWEC and Husum Messe will host a one day conference entitled Wind Power Forum: The New Energy Economy. High level speakers include General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO and former US presidential candidate, and the acting director of the Danish Wind Energy Association.

Other speakers are due from Schleswig Holstein, Aragon and Andalucía, Spain, Inner Mongolia, China, and Texas, USA, to share their experiences on the regional economic benefits of wind energy development in their parts of the world. Also featured will be researchers and developers from major institutes, including the United Nations Development Program, to address the global aspects of the new energy economy. For more information on the Wind Power Forum: The New Energy Economy, visit husumwind.com.

While you may be surprised to see Inner Mongolia on the speaker list above, it is the leading region for China's wind energy industry, the fastest growing in the world. Combining strong winds, low population density and reasonably close proximity to the major demand centre around Beijing, Inner Mongolia is already home to about 1000 MW of wind power development, and many thousands more are in the development pipeline, supplying power to remote locations as well as Beijing, and creating thousands of high quality jobs, invigorating the rural economy.

While the success stories of the Spanish wind power industry are well known, perhaps less known is the extent to which this has been driven by provincial Governments, seeking to attract new jobs and investment to the local economy. Perhaps the most noted example is that of the sparsely populated region of Navarre, where the regional government has plans to go 100% renewable. A wind-power led renewable energy boom has already revitalised the regional economy.

In India as well, state Governments have up until now been the primary drivers of wind power development, first in Gujarat and Maharashtra States, but now spreading across the country. Texas, as befits its size, is the major example in the USA, but many other States have seen the light and are aggressively pursuing wind energy manufacturing and deployment within their borders. These include Iowa, Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Kansas, Oregon, Washington, and of course, California.

Thus, while national Governments dither about their response to the twin crises of climate change and energy security, an ever-increasing number of regional Governments are taking matters into their own hands and paving the way for a truly sustainable energy future. Come to the conference in Husum and learn more about it!

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