Getting a Second Wind

Bigger blades boost offshore potential

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No renewable energy is growing faster than wind power, and yet those gigantic white turbines—one built every four hours—are churning out less than 1 percent of the nation's electricity. To get to 20 percent—President Bush's aim—production would have to ramp up to one every 15 minutes for 25 years, says Vic Abate, vice president for renewables at General Electric.

GE—a technology powerhouse not only for wind but also for natural gas, nuclear, and advanced coal—doesn't see the assembly line speeding up that quickly but anticipates steady, continued growth as nations seek energy diversification. "The percentage share is in a sense irrelevant," Abate says.

However, there is a push for bigger-scale wind power. Last month, Carpinteria, Calif.-based manufacturer Clipper announced its Britannia Project, a research program in England to develop the world's largest offshore wind turbine. The 7.5-megawatt behemoth would have a 492-foot-diameter rotor, 50 percent wider and providing more than double the juice of Clipper's current largest model. Offshore, it would take advantage of higher, steadier wind and proximity to population centers.

Pricey power. Although offshore wind power is big in Europe, it's not moving so quickly in the United States. Local opposition is often cited, but just as important is that offshore developments cost twice as much as onshore wind. Sure, the East and West coasts have enough wind to power the whole country, but the same could be said of the Great Plains and Texas.

"On shore, there's plenty of resource," says Abate, who thinks the next wave of technology will be to try to squeeze more efficiency out of large wind farms and deal with wind's greatest problem—its intermittency. When GE first entered the business five years ago, utilities would usually figure that the wind power they brought on line would deliver 30 percent of its potential capacity, because of the on-off nature of the power. But Abate says that with better turbines, the capacity factor has been upped to 40 percent.

Developers are focused in the center of the country, especially in Texas. The cost of wind power is just 8 cents per kilowatt-hour unsubsidized in a country where the average price of electricity is 10.5 cents. The economics certainly have worked well for GE, which bought the business for $250 million from the collapsed Enron in 2002 and built it into a $4 billion-a-year business.