If it's true that markets constantly cycle between the emotional poles of greed and fear, then the energy sector right now is in fear mode -- spooked by what's happening to oil prices. Political unrest and uncertainty in the Middle East have sent crude soaring -- and that spike in prices is once again drawing the public's attention back toward alternative energy sources, in particular solar and wind power.

Analysts say that neither wind or solar power (although many public solar companies are on the rise right now) are the magic bullet to solve the problem of America's addiction to oil -- and like other industries, both have been hit hard by the financial crisis. But researchers and investors, particularly in wind power, aren't giving up.

According to the Global Wind Energy Council, worldwide wind power capacity increased by 22% last year -- and most of that was added outside of the older and traditionally stronger North American and European markets. In 2010, China surpassed the U.S. in total installed wind capacity.

"Our industry continues to endure a boom-bust cycle because of the lack of long-term, predictable federal policies, in contrast to the permanent entitlements that fossil fuels have enjoyed for 90 years or more," says Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, in a GWEC press release. "Now that we're competing with natural gas on cost, we need consistent federal policies to ensure we have a diverse portfolio of energy sources in this country."

Dealing with the Weather and Technology

Despite such hurdles, wind power has been an established part of the U.S. grid for a decade or more. "We're well past the embryonic stage," says Paul Veers, chief engineer at the National Wind Technology Center, a part of the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. He says by the end of 2009 the U.S. had an estimated 35 gigawatts of wind power installed.

"One gigawatt is a thousand megawatts, which is a million kilowatts," Veers says. "One kilowatt is like [the power needed to run] a toaster. So that's the equivalent of 35 old-style, coal-fired power plants being generated [by wind power]."

Of course, wind power depends on the weather -- and that variability has led to skepticism about whether it could ever be more than a supplement to traditional energy sources. Another well-publicized concern is the inability of power organizations to store the electricity generated by wind power.

Veers agrees that utilities currently can't store wind energy, "no more than you can store electricity from a coal plant or a nuclear plant," he says. But developments are under way to create storage facilities that could eventually set aside some of the excess electricity generated at night by wind turbines, when public demand is lower, and then feed it back onto the grid during the day.

And the reliability issue, Veers says, is improving with the development of more dependable and more efficient technologies – affecting everything from weather-forecasting models, allowing wind farms to fine-tune how their turbines run, to improvements in the turbines' infamously delicate gearboxes. He compares the current wind turbines and their development to where autos were in the 1970s or 1980s. "They had really good equipment. It worked," he notes. "But look at the change in the frequency of [auto] maintenance from now to then, and the change in fuel efficiency. The improvements they've been able to make in cars in the last 30 years are really pretty substantial."

20% by 2030?

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have pushed to have wind power and other alternative energies generate a greater percentage of America's electrical output. A Department of Energy report details a scenario whereby wind power could be responsible for 20% of U.S. electricity production by the year 2030.

But for the moment, that remains speculative. The government realizes that, "long-term, you have to find some alternative to a resource that is still embedded in a volatile part of the world," says Ron Rizzuto, professor of finance at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business. Wind power, he says, is a "good, long-term thing, but we're still feeling our way. . .and it's not economic on its own without subsidies."

Paul Veers says that, given the incentive of subsidies, wind power is extremely cost-effective and a good investment. "It brings a lot of jobs and business activity to rural areas, remote places where the wind is located," he notes. "It also brings electrical generation to the West without the need for water for cooling -- a nice benefit there, too. That's why we're operating here. That's why we think we have a role for the future. That we can continue to bring costs down. . .and increase the productivity of these machines, so they become our cheapest energy source."

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fvanderson

Please get beyond the non-technical fantasies of a world on wind power. An article was published in Scientific American suggesting that 145 Trillion dollars be spent to supply the world's electrical needs from wind power etc. Somebody needs to start asking what any proposal is going to cost and what will it do to my bill and reliability of service. A windmill in some areas of the United States will not operate at capacity more than 500 hours of an 8766 hour year. In very few places will one operate at or near capacity 2500 hours of an 8766 hour year. A new nuclear plant will probably produce electricity for about 25 cents per kilowatt hour, about 3 to 4 times the present cost of coal or oil. Adding carbon dioxide capture to those plants will increase their costs by about 50 percent(SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Nov, 2009, page 23). See also, same issue, A Plan for a Sustainable Future.
Are you willing to pay many times higher prices for power that may or may not be there when you want it? Failure to get answers to these questions is going to cost every customer in a big way.

March 16 2011 at 10:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
aegoldlaw

Oil will not stay cheap. Betweem dwindling global supplies of cheap surface light crude, increasing demand and political tensions we are done with the era of cheap, plentiful oil. Does that mean oil and gas will keep going up? No. Because harder to extract petroleum products - like deepwater crude, oil from oil shale deposits, gassified coal and very deep terrestrial oil is there for the taking. It's just damn expensive to get at. However, when oil settles at or above $150/ bbl - which it will - then the more difficult petroleum sources become viable. The same goes for large scale solar projects and wind turbine farms. They aren't cheap technologies to gear up but they can eventually make up 25%+ of the non automotive energy use in the United States. Oil use could further be reduced by better building designs and fuel economy standards for vehicles. Every decision helps. It's simply better to accept the fact that we need to atart on these technological advances now rather than wait for the market to cause so much pain that we move in a panic. Smart species avoid pain.

March 01 2011 at 6:22 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
wilkesgm

Can you spell propaganda? Those lovely high-tech turbines suck more energy to make them than they ever produce. They didn't tell you that, did they? You know what it takes to make aluminum? Electricity - lots and lost of electricity. Solar panels? Gee, put one on your car and see how fast you go at night. Batteries? Highly toxic, anti-green technology -- lots and lost of nickel. This is stupid. The solution is to take a longer view of the problem, create about 50 refineries, drill in the US and start making nuclear plants that would make electric vehicles and manufacturing practical. By the way, the sunniest places are the most dusty. Solar panels have to be clean to be effective. Where you gonna get the water in the middle of the desert - the most efficient place to put them? Oh, by the way, the EPA will have the authority to shut down all of that stuff at the whim of the director because it isn't going to be privately owned.

March 01 2011 at 5:35 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Gumby

We are still draggin' balls , hoping that we will forget about alternate energy.... Some of us are really greedy and thinking that we will end up paying $250 oil barrels and be stuck with it... Who do you think they are? If you dont know who they are, then you are probably voting for the wrong politicians!!!! You see what I mean?? C'mon, some ofyou couldnt care any less cuz ' you know you can afford any price and u dont care about your fellow people, eh? Your ways of thinking really make me puke and you sucks sky high!!

March 01 2011 at 5:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
empainc

See: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1361316/250bn-wind-power-industry-greatest-scam-age.html

March 01 2011 at 3:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bhawkes328

OH YEAH I BET GENERAL ELECTRIC AND T. BOONE PICKENS ARE READY TO GIVE THE POLITATIONS THEIR KICK BACKS

March 01 2011 at 3:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bhawkes328

SURROUND THE CAPITAL AND WHITEHOUSE WITH WIND TURBINS... LOTS OF WIND BLOWNING THERE. PLENTY OF SMOKE AND HOT AIR TOO

March 01 2011 at 2:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
yisyis

Thanks for clearing the jobs issue up for me. Obama and others keep talking about all the jobs created by alternative sources of energy. I've driven past wind turbines and seen no one manning or maintaining the generators. Yes, it's true that manufacturing turbines and maintenance do require man-hours but would it be anywhere near the number of oil drillers displaced by a shift in energy source? For the record, I'm for wind and solar but let's be honest about what the true benefits are.

March 01 2011 at 2:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to yisyis's comment
jokesl3

Yeah, but look at all the Chinese they put to work manufacturing these monstrosities. All the parts are made in China.

March 01 2011 at 6:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
goodgrief61945

Has anyone been to Niagra Falls, and witnessed the power of the river below the falls? There has to be enough power there to run who knows how many electric generators. Why not use it? Wind power doesn't even come close.

March 01 2011 at 12:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
piscesbaby36

Wind and Solar will cost 4 jobs for every green job.. Time to let go of both of these. If you want a solar water heater and can get a tax credit fine.. Wind.. useless... how about nuclear? even France has nuclear. Why can Iran have nuclear and not us? Why can Brazil drill off shore for oil and not us? Why can China use coal and not us.. And why do we need to spend $700 billion a year to give to the Arabs and not use all our own oil in Alaska and off shore. This has been done safely for 40 years until BP, Obama's corrupt corporate criminal friends.

March 01 2011 at 12:23 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to piscesbaby36's comment