Wind: The Center of the Plan B Energy Economy

by Lester Brown

For many years, a small handful of countries dominated growth in wind energy, but this is changing as the industry goes global, with over 70 countries now developing wind resources. Between 2000 and 2010, world wind electric generating capacity increased at a frenetic pace from 17,000 megawatts (MW) to nearly 200,000 MW.

Measured by the share of electricity supplied by wind, Denmark is the leading nation at 21%. Three north German states now get 40% or more of their electricity from wind. For Germany as a whole, the figure is 8% – and climbing. And in the state of Iowa, enough wind turbines came online in the last few years to produce up to 20% of that state’s electricity.

In terms of sheer volume, the US leads the world with 35,000 MW of wind generating capacity, followed by China and Germany with 26,000 MW each.

Texas, long the leading U.S. oil-producing state, is now also the nation’s leading generator of electricity from wind. It has 9,700 MW of wind capacity online, 370 MW more under construction, and a huge amount under development. If all of the wind farms projected for 2025 are completed, Texas will have 38,000 MW of wind – the equivalent of 38 coal plants. This would satisfy roughly 90% of the current residential electricity needs of the state’s 25 million people.

In July 2010, ground was broken for the largest U.S. wind farm, the Alta Wind Energy Center (AWEC) in the Tehachapi Pass (75 miles north of Los Angeles, CA). At 1,550 MW, it will be part of a plan for 4,500 MW of renewable energy generation, enough to supply electricity to 3 million homes.

Since wind turbines occupy only 1% of the land covered by a wind farm, farmers and ranchers can continue to grow grain and graze cattle there. In effect, they double-crop their land, simultaneously harvesting electricity and wheat, corn, or cattle.

With no investment on their part, farmers and ranchers typically receive $3,000-$10,000 a year in royalties for each wind turbine on their land. For thousands of ranchers in the U.S. Great Plains, wind royalties will dwarf their net earnings from cattle sales.

In considering the energy productivity of land, wind turbines are in a class by themselves. For example, an acre of land in northern Iowa planted in corn can yield $1,000 worth of ethanol per year. That same acre used to site a wind turbine can produce $300,000 worth of electricity per year. This helps explain why investors find wind farms so attractive.

Wind Expansion in China

Impressive as U.S. wind energy growth is, the expansion now under way in China is even more so. China has enough onshore harnessable wind to raise its current electricity consumption 16-fold.

Today, most of China’s 26,000 MW of wind capacity come from 50- to 100 MW wind farms. In addition to the many wind farms of that size that are on the way, China’s new Wind Base program is creating seven wind mega-complexes of 10-38 GW each in six provinces (1 GW equals 1,000 MW). When completed, these complexes will have generate over 130 GW – the equivalent to building one new coal plant each week for two and a half years!

Of these 130 GW, 7 GW will be in the coastal waters of Jiangsu Province, one of China’s most industrialized provinces. China is planning a total of 23 GW of offshore wind capacity. The first major offshore project, the 102 MW Donghai Bridge Wind Farm near Shanghai, is already in operation.

Europe’s Wind Could Satisfy Electricity Demand 7 Times Over

In Europe, where 2,400 MW of offshore wind is online, wind developers are planning 140 GW of offshore wind capacity, mostly in the North Sea. There is enough harnessable wind in offshore Europe to satisfy the continent’s needs seven times over.

In September 2010, the Scottish government announced it would replace its goal of 50% renewable electricity by 2020 with a new goal of 80%. By 2025, Scotland expects renewables to meet all its electricity needs. Much of the new capacity will be provided by offshore wind.

Denmark is looking to push the wind share of its electricity to 50% by 2025, with most of the additional power coming from offshore. Danish planners are turning conventional energy policy upside down: they plan to use wind as the mainstay of their electrical generating system and to use fossil-fuels to fill in when the wind dies down.

Spain, which has 19,000 MW of wind capacity for its 45 million people, got 14% of its electricity from wind in 2009. On November 8th of that year, strong winds across Spain enabled wind turbines to supply 53% of the country’s electricity over a five-hour stretch.

In 2007, when Turkey issued a request for proposals to build wind farms, it received bids to build a staggering 78,000 MW, far beyond its 41,000 MW of total electrical generating capacity. Having selected 7,000 MW of the most promising proposals, the government is issuing construction permits.

In wind-rich Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta are the leaders in installed capacity. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, has received applications for offshore wind development rights on its side of the Great Lakes that could result in some 21,000 MW of capacity. The provincial goal is to back out of all coal-fired power by 2014.

On the U.S. side of Lake Ontario, NY State is also requesting proposals. Several of the seven other states that border the Great Lakes are planning to harness lake winds.

The Broader Plan

Earth Policy Institute’s Plan B to save civilization has four components: stabilizing climate, restoring earth’s natural support systems, stabilizing population, and eradicating poverty. At the heart of the plan is a crash program to develop 4,000 GW (4 million MW) of wind by 2020, enough to cover over half of world electricity consumption in the Plan B economy. This will require a near doubling of capacity every two years, up from a doubling every three years over the last decade.

This climate-stabilizing initiative would mean installating 2 million 2 MG wind turbines. Manufacturing 2 million wind turbines over the next 10 years sounds intimidating – until it is compared with the 70 million automobiles the world produces each year.

At $3 million per installed turbine, the 2 million turbines would mean spending $600 billion per year worldwide between now and 2020. This compares with world oil and gas capital expenditures that are projected to double from $800 billion in 2010 to $1.6 trillion in 2015.


Adapted from Chapter 9, "Harnessing Wind, Solar, and Geothermal Energy" in Lester R. Brown,
World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).

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