A mighty wind blows across Europe

Rebuilding the grid benefits mostly existing companies that have refused to move in the past, while big new wind farms benefit entrepreneurs and new players. We maymake more, and save more, from economic engineering than from hot air about wind farms.

When the history of energy is written, many years from now, this will be the year of the Mighty Wind.

(Picture from the U.S. Department of Energy.)

Wind is in. It's clean, it's green, it blows most of the time. You can put huge wind projects in remote locations just like  you can oil refineries.

In the U.S. 1,210 megawatts of wind energy capacity was added in the second quarter, with Texas leading the way. The best known U.S. wind entrepreneur remains T. Boone Pickens, but he is actually a wannabe sidelined, he says, by the lack of tax and development policies to encourage him.

Nowhere, however, is the wind mightier than in Europe. Denmark has just cut the ribbon on a project of 91 towers in the North Sea , a 20 megawatt project overseen by Dong Energy.

Europe has little oil, dwindling coal reserves, a population filled with Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) types, but a lot of coastline. Like the Upper Midwest, which the American Wind Energy Association calls "the Saudi Arabia of wind," wind energy is abundant. Unlike the Upper Midwest, Europe's resources are offshore.

Europe's big windbags say they can get 10% of their electricity from wind within 10 years, nearly doubling that in another 10. Add that to the Sahara Solar Project, a $70 billion project to erect solar panels along great stretches of the African desert, and you start to see serious solutions to the growing threat of global warming.

Or do you?

Projects like the Danish wind farm and the Sahara Solar Project are based on 20th century economics, with transmission of energy over long distance lines that lose half of what they take in along the way. The grid doesn't change, it doesn't become more robust, and (in the case of the Sahara project) you're still reliant on "foreign dictators" for your raw materials.

So is this really just hot air?

A European group called Wind Energy The Facts says it will take 11 billion Euros per year ($15 billion) to supply 13 percent of Europe's energy demand with wind by 2020. Is this the right way to go?

By contrast the Galvin Electricity Initiative estimates two-thirds of our present electrical power is wasted, and that a smarter electric grid, with price incentives for conservation, can reduce that waste substantially.

The problem is that rebuilding the grid benefits mostly existing companies that have refused to move in the past, while big new wind farms benefit entrepreneurs and new players.

We may be able to make more, and save more, from economic engineering than from hot air about wind farms.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com