Despite White House opposition, the House of Representatives has approved a $18 billion bill to boost energy production from solar, wind and other renewable sources and to promote energy conservation. The bill was condemned by the Bush administration, Republican lawmakers and Big Oil who said it would raise fuel prices for consumers, discourage oil and gas exploration in the US and unfairly discriminate against the oil industry.
The bill still needs to pass the Senate where it has failed three times already. The last time such a bill failed in the Senate, it lost by one vote and presidential frontrunner Senator John McCain of Arizona did not cast a vote. However, supporters say that by extending tax breaks for wind and solar energy, the bill will prevent the loss of jobs linked to those fast-growing industries. Wind and solar energy companies argued strongly that investment would diminish without an extension of investment and production tax breaks which expire at the end of the year. The bill extends production tax credits for both wind and solar for three years.
Wind energy is the leading source of renewable electricity. Wind currently produces just over 1 per cent of world-wide electricity use. However some EU countries are well ahead of this average: wind accounts for approximately 19 per cent of electricity production in Denmark, 9 per cent in Spain and Portugal, and 6 per cent in Germany and Ireland. However, the cost of renewable energy technologies is significantly higher than the cost of energy derived from fossil fuel. This higher cost acts as a major barrier to their widespread introduction. The Global Wind Energy Council (pdf) says political action is needed to address distortions in the world’s
electricity markets created by many decades of massive financial, political and structural support to conventional technologies.
The biggest challenge for utilities producing electricity from wind is providing a constant flow of power, as weather conditions change throughout the day. This is where batteries come in. Xcel Energy Inc announced last week it will begin testing technology to store wind energy in batteries, The company said a fully charged one megawatt (MW) battery could power 500 homes for over 7 hours. Xcel Director of Corporate Planning Frank Novacheck said the battery would serve as a sort of "shock absorber" that will charge when the wind blows and supplement power flows when there is little or no wind.
The idea of wind power is has an ancient history. The Romans used windmills to grind grain, and the Dutch used them to keep back the sea. Early ranches in America commonly used windmills to pump water and even, in the early 20th century, to generate electricity. In 1887, Charles F. Brush designed the first windmill that powered electric lights. That machine had 144 blades and operated for 12 years. The demise of the early wind systems was hastened during 1930s by two factors: the demand of farms for ever larger amounts of power on demand, and the Great Depression, which spurred the US to stimulate the depressed rural economies by extending the electrical grid throughout those areas.
Mark Diesendorf from the Institute of Environmental Affairs at UNSW believes a mix of renewable energy sources can substitute for a conventional electricity supply system based on fossil fuels. He says wind power can substitute for coal-fired power stations. Diesendorf disputes the argument that wind cannot be a dependable source of energy and says 20 per cent wind energy contribution to electricity generation needs a relatively small amount of peak-load back-up, operated infrequently, in order to restore the reliability of the supply system to that of the pre-wind system. These he says could substitute for several of Australia’s coal-fired power stations.
Oilmen such as Terry Hudgens also sees the benefit of wind power. The former Texaco executive says he is getting into wind for the same reason he got into oil – because it’s a good way to make money. Hudgens is working on Maple Ridge Wind Farm in New York state. The farm's 195 huge white wind turbines catch steady airflow off the Great Lakes and produce 321 MWs on a good day, as much as a midsize coal- or gas-fired plant.
Companies like Hudgens's have had to invest without any government assistance. In the US petroleum and coal companies received more than $33 billion in direct subsidies between 1992 and 2002 while the 2005 energy bill gave the oil and gas industries $6 billion in subsidies another $10 billion to coal. Meanwhile, renewables can barely insure even a basic production tax credit of 1.9 cent per kilowatt hour.
In Australia the industry is similarly skewed towards fossil fuels. Australian governments provide substantial financial support for the production and use of fossil fuels, through direct payments, favourable tax treatment and other actions. These subsidies keep the cost of fossil fuel energy artificially low and make it harder for renewable energy to compete.
They also distort energy markets in favour of greater use of fossil fuels, as well as creating higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions. But as Mark Diesendorf says, the barriers to a transition to renewables are not primarily technological or economic. They are, he says, the political power of the big greenhouse gas emitting industries. The likelihood of a fourth defeat for the renewables bill in the Senate is proof positive of this.