Let the wind blow (again)

Lester Brown doesn’t let up when he’s published a book. Over successive months his Earth Policy Institute produces follow-up articles focusing on particular topics. The latest is on wind power, which was strongly advocated in his recent book World on the Edge as the early leader in the move to renewable sources of energy. What he has to say about the global development of wind power ties in with my recent update on wind power in New Zealand and is well worth reporting here. What follows is mainly extract from his article.

There are now more than 70 countries developing wind resources. Between 2000 and 2010, world wind electric generating capacity increased at what Brown describes as frenetic pace from 17,000 megawatts to nearly 200,000 megawatts.

Measured by share of electricity supplied by wind, Denmark is the leading nation at 21 per cent and looking to push the wind share of its electricity to 50 per cent by 2025, with most of the additional power coming from offshore. Three north German states now get 40 per cent or more of their electricity from wind. For Germany as a whole, the figure is 8 per cent—and climbing.

In terms of volume, the US leads the world with 35,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, followed by China and Germany with 26,000 megawatts each. Texas, long the leading US oil-producing state, is now also the nation’s leading generator of electricity from wind. It has 9,700 megawatts of wind generating capacity online and more under construction. If all of the wind farms projected for 2025 are completed, Texas will have 38,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity – the equivalent of 38 coal-fired power plants and enough to satisfy roughly 90 per cent of the current residential electricity needs of the state’s 25 million people.

Since wind turbines occupy only 1 per cent of the land, farmers can continue to grow grain and graze livestock on land devoted to wind farms. In effect they double-crop. For thousands of ranchers in the US Great Plains, wind royalties will dwarf their net earnings from cattle sales.

In considering the energy productivity of land, wind turbines are well ahead. 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. Brown points out that this helps explain why investors find wind farms so attractive.

Turning to China, Brown describes impressive expansion. The country is well endowed, with enough onshore harnessable wind energy to raise its current electricity consumption 16-fold. Today, most of China’s 26,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity come from 50- to 100-megawatt wind farms. More wind farms of that size that are on the way, but China’s new Wind Base program is an enormous advance. It will create seven wind mega-complexes of 10 to 38 gigawatts each in six provinces (1 gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts). When completed, these complexes will have a generating capacity of more than 130 gigawatts. This is equivalent to building one new coal plant per week for two and a half years.

Of these 130 gigawatts, 7 gigawatts will be in the coastal waters of Jiangsu Province, one of China’s most highly industrialized provinces. China is planning a total of 23 gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity.

Back in Europe prospects are also ambitious. Europe now has 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind online, but wind developers are planning 140 gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity, mostly in the North Sea. There is enough harnessable wind energy in offshore Europe to satisfy the continent’s needs seven times over.

Spain, which has 19,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity for its 45 million people, got 14 per cent of its electricity from wind in 2009. On November 8th of that year, strong winds across Spain enabled wind turbines to supply 53 per cent 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 megawatts of wind generating capacity, far beyond its 41,000 megawatts of total electrical generating capacity. Having selected 7,000 megawatts 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 megawatts of generating capacity. The provincial goal is to back out all coal-fired power by 2014.

How does all this development fit into the Earth Policy Institute’s Plan B to save civilization?  At the heart of the plan is a crash programme to develop 4,000 gigawatts (4 million megawatts) of wind generating capacity by 2020. This will require a near doubling of capacity every two years, not an impossible remove from the doubling every three years over the last decade.

It would mean installing 2 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts each over the next 10 years. If that sounds intimidating Brown suggests comparing it with the 70 million automobiles the world produces each year.

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

Brown is partly reporter and partly advocate, but the two are not hopelessly disjoined. There seems no inherent reason why what is already under way around the world should not grow with greater rapidity to the level he advocates, especially if government policies help push it along.

[Beach Boys]

13 thoughts on “Let the wind blow (again)”

  1. So this is George Monbiot’s latest take:


    Deep green energy production – decentralised, based on the products of the land – is far more damaging to humanity than nuclear meltdown.

    He also says:

    Like most greens, I favour a major expansion of renewables. I can also sympathise with the complaints of their opponents. It’s not just the onshore windfarms that bother people, but also the new grid connections (pylons and power lines).

    1. Monbiot seems to be part of a set of people who don’t seem to think it’s wise to wait until the dust has settled at Fukishima – or, at least, until the smoke has finished billowing from the reactors and the final sieverts have been counted and their ultimate destinations revealed – before announcing that we know the full extent of any problems arising from the event. Personally I think he’s rather recklessly throwing out quite a few hostages to fate here; but he’s scarcely alone; the nuclear industry seems to strongly attract the, um, ‘optimistic’!

      (Our new minerals minister here in SA picked yesterday to announce that we should be enriching Uranium – incidentally in complete defiance to federal Labor policy – and despite the state government having fought an expensive court battle to stop the previous federal government’s nuclear waste dump from being located here! I’m just one of many – including the Premier – wondering what the hell he was thinking… )

      Be that as it may, I don’t recall anyone here advocating ‘deep green’ production, so that’s irrelevant to our discussion.

      Secondly, new nuclear reactors don’t involve new grid connections, I gather? New reactors don’t ‘bother people’?

      Thirdly; and your point is? Oh, forget that, this whole thing is too much ‘The Eternal John D Show’ already. I’ll just say that anyone who can’t see a case for prioritising the development of renewables to the maximum extent that proves technically feasible at this point in history is a fool, in my opinion.

      Did you see that the Japanese wind turbines – some, ironically enough, being TEPCO’s – weathered the disaster very nicely, thank you? Providing badly-needed power?

      1. Secondly, new nuclear reactors don’t involve new grid connections, I gather? New reactors don’t ‘bother people’?

        The issue is energy density.
        All power stations require transmission, of course.
        No power system is perfect and all will have its detractors.

        The point with wind is that a very large part of the UK will be covered in turbines and transmission lines. Because of the low energy density of wind, this will require a very large amount of the countryside being chopped up.

        My point, for what it is worth, is that Monbiot shows some empathy with the wind farm detractors.

        Unfortunately, country dwellers are spending a lot of money fighting wind development in their area. When green advocacy organisations such as Greenpeace are fighting on the side of the corporates and not the people, this will disenfranchise the people.

        It is not a good situation for anyone and ultimately will damage the green movement.

        1. Denmark’s wind industry is almost completely dependent on taxpayer subsidies, and the Danes pay the highest electricity rates of any industrialized nation.
          A direct-drive permanent-magnet generator for a top capacity wind turbine would use 4,400lb of neodymium-based permanent magnet material. Neodymium is a so-called rare earth metal. It is commonly used as part of a Neodymium-Iron-Boron alloy [Nd2Fe14B] which is used to make the most powerful magnets in the world. There are 17 rare earth metals; they are not in short supply, but occur in scattered deposits of mixed minerals which need to be separated chemically once mined. There”s not one step of the rare earth mining process that is not disastrous for the environment. Ores are extracted by pumping acid into the ground, and then they are processed using more acid and chemicals. Finally they are dumped into tailing lakes that are often poorly constructed and maintained. Throughout this process, large amounts of highly toxic acids, heavy metals and other chemicals are emitted into the air that people breathe, and leak into ground water. Villagers rely on this for irrigation of their crops and for drinking water. Whenever we purchase products that contain rare earth metals, we are unknowingly taking part in massive environmental degradation and the destruction of communities. The reality is that, countries flaunting their environmental credentials, by speckling coastlines and unspoiled moors and mountains with thousands of wind turbines,are contributing to a vast man-made lake of poison in northern China.
          Vast fortunes are being amassed here in Inner Mongolia; the region has more than 90% of the world’s legal reserves of rare earth metals, and specifically neodymium, the element needed to make the magnets in the most striking of green energy producers, wind turbines. Hidden out of sight, in the city of Baotou,lies a 5-mile ‘tailing lake’. It has killed farmland for miles around, made thousands of people ill, and put one of China’s key waterways in jeopardy. This vast, hissing cauldron of chemicals is the dumping ground for 7 million tons a year of mined rare earth after it has been doused in acid and chemicals and processed through red-hot furnaces to extract its components. Official studies carried out 5 years ago confirmed that the villagers had unusually high rates of cancer, osteoporosis and skin and respiratory diseases. The lakes radiation levels are 10 times higher than the surrounding countryside. This is the deadly and sinister side of the massively profitable rare-earth’s industry that the ‘green’ companies profiting from the demand for wind turbines would prefer you knew nothing about.
          Isn’t it a scandal that ‘greenies’ so desperate to save the world from the imagined horrors of carbon dioxide think it is quite O.K to cover pristine,wild areas of countryside with concrete, roads and ugly wind farms, pylons and wires and solar panels. It means nothing if people become ill with vibratory noise pollution; rare birds such as large raptors and bats are regularly sliced to pieces; and ordinary country people become ill, their air and water polluted. Everything will be destroyed and ugly; but it doesn’t matter. The world will be saved from imaginary global warming.

          1. Enercon Direct Drive wind turbines, for many years and probably still the dominant make installed in Germany, and worlds largest producer of direct drive wind turbines.
            No permanent magnet generators.
            Your diatribe does not get any better after this first clanger.

            1. Yeah, and have you noticed that these magnets have a tendency to get heavier with every repeated posting?!…

            2. That’s 2 tonnes (well it’s 4 kg short, but near enough.)

              Even if it were true, it would just be a reason to design something better.
              Which seems to have been done already.

              Oh well.

          2. Background levels of natural radiation typically vary by a factor of 10 without significant risk to human health (Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation to the General Assembly). The higher level of radiation in the tailings lake is therefore unlikely to have contributed to health problems unless the background levels for the surrounding countryside are abnormally high. This is probably the case because elevated concentrations of uranium and thorium accompany the rare earth elements in the rocks that form the deposits being mined.

          3. Here is a good article that puts Shaquita’s rant into perspective:


            and this:


            There are many ways to build efficient wind turbines and permanent rare earth magnets are not necessarily the best solution at all.

            If Shaquita does not want industrial use of rare earth metals then he should abandon his PC, Laptop, Cellphone, LCD TV and a host of other high tech gear. This is where the bulk of the rare earth metals are ending up, not in Windmills!

            As of conditions in Chinese mines, well how about the high rate of death in their coal mines or the hundreds of thousands that suffer and die early from respiratory illnesses due to fossil fuel burning air pollution, especially in China!

            Besides Coal fired power plants are the biggest emitters of radioactivity:


  2. Stepping away from my Shill of Big Wind role for a moment, is there any indication of the NZ emissions trading promoting increased investment in wind and other renewables yet?

  3. Shaquita March 26, 2011 at 2:36 am

    Re the neodymium alloys my guess is that you are unfamiliar with alternative chemical technology.. so I’ll ask you rest assured (commercial sensitivities and all that) a solution with very significant merit in transportation is well on its way to actual and commercial application/s.

  4. Regarding winds..

    I seem to recall a recent scientific study (was it Australian?) pointing up how wind strengths were rising over time.. nothing dramatic so far as I could tell though given delayer tactics the findings would suggest a neat positive in terms of future wind-industry expansion/s..

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