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Harnessing Wind Power

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Taking the wind out of fossil dependence

With rising oil and gas prices and fears over dependence on Middle East oil, interest in wind power has been growing rapidly


10 February 2005

Financial Times

Wind turbines arousefierce passions in the UK, where campaigns against the tall, futuristic structures have now become commonplace.

This week the Renewable Energy Foundation - an anti-wind lobbying group, contrary to what its name might suggest - will set out plans for combating what it sees as the disfigurement of the countryside by wind power.

Yet in other countries the turbines are welcomed or simply ignored by local residents in the areas where they are erected.

Denmark currently receives about 20 per cent of its electricity from wind turbines, and Germany has the world's biggest installed capacity for wind power generation.

The US and Spain are also big users of wind, and China is beginning to bring large wind power projects on stream. In the UK, only about 1,000MW of electricity now comes from wind, though that could soon double if plans to erect more turbines succeed.

Wind energy is probably the most immediately promising of all the renewable energy technologies proposed as alternatives to the burning of traditional fuels such as coal.

Burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which trap heat on earth and thus cause global warming.

Under the UN-brokered Kyoto protocol to combat climate change, which comes into force on February 16, most developed countries have agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. For most this will demand some investment in renewable energy sources.

But in these days of rising oil and gas prices, and worries over energy security and the west's overdepen-dence on Middle Eastern oil, interest in these and other renewable energy sources has been growing rapidly.

There are manifest attractions to unending sources of power. The main problem is that at present renewable sources are not cheap.

As these technologies are so new, the investment into their research and development is still going on, and prices have not yet come down sufficiently to make most renewable energy projects comparable in price with fossil fuels.

Some renewable forms of heat and energy have been around for many years. Hydroelectric dams, for instance, have supplied electrical power to many millions of homes.

And geothermal sources of energy have been harnessed for centuries, and are still in use - witness the success of Iceland in this regard.

But most technologies are still in their early stages.

Wind carries some disadvantages - the windiest places are often remote and inaccessible, and if the wind is not blowing no electricity can be generated.

Solar power has also been around for many years but photovoltaic cells, which convert light into electricity, remain hugely expensive.

Japan, Germany, Spain and some US states, such as California, are leading the world in the use of solar power, says Jonathan Johns, partner at Ernst & Young.

Tony White, director of Climate Change Capital and a board member at Solar Century, says the cheapest way to use solar generation is to incorporate it into a building when it is being constructed.

A new house can be equipped with solar technology for Pounds 6,000 (Euros 8,725, Dollars 11,140) which would supply about 1kW of power. "That cost will come down by between 50 to 70 per cent in the next three years," he predicts.

However, the technology generally does not cover all of the average building's electricity needs, and suffers when the sun does not shine.

Some experts think the really widespread uses of solar energy may lie in small-scale, humdrum applications that most of us do not even notice. For instance, ticket machines in car parks and displays at bus stops sometimes use solar energy as this is easier than connecting them to the electricity grid.

Wave and tidal generation, which harnesses the energy of the sea, has yet to join the mainstream. "There is a bit of romance about wave and tidal energy, but they are in the embryonic stages," says Kevin McCullough, managing director of npower renewables.

Mr Johns adds: "The truth is that wave and tidal are expensive because they are still emergent technologies, and because of the stresses and strains of having to operate at sea.

"These are technologies that you might make a venture capital investment in and hope you were successful. It will be 2010 before these start to come into their own."

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Recently I was wondering whether it would be possible to use wind or solar power to run buses, at least partially. In theory it seems simple enough, especially wind.. a bus going 50 mph must generate some decent enough wind speeds. I'm sure the costs are prohibitive and/or the technology isn't there but maybe that's something we could see eventually?

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