Wind Power

Tehachapi Pass - click to view larger imageWind power is cool, clean, quiet, inexhaustible and free. The cost of building a wind farm is not inconsiderable. Bypassing well-known and combative partisan arguments for and against wind, nuclear, solar and hydroelectric power, we need more and cleaner power. Wind power is already here. I photographed this installation (right) from Interstate 10, near Tehachapi Pass – approaching Palm Springs, California. Wind is here to stay, already connected to the grid, and already contributing to a reduced dependency on fossil fuel solutions.

I clicked on an e-mail link in an RSS feed from Scientific American with the title “U.S. says wind could power 20 percent of eastern grid”.

The online article is by writer Tom Doggett. Excerpt:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Wind energy could generate 20 percent of the electricity needed by households and businesses in the eastern half of the United States by 2024, but it would require up to $90 billion in investment, according to a government report released on Wednesday.

Why only 20%? How much electrical energy do we use, anyway? Is $90 billion really such a big investment for this kind of payoff?

Getting relevant online national statistics was not as easy as it sounds. Regional breakdowns were not helpful – what, exactly, does “eastern half” of the US mean? Most publications focus on the consumer: household electrical consumption (but not government and industrial), and ways to save energy. Building an energy cost picture from the bottom up was not the way to go. I found a very useful table from the U.S. Energy Information Administration: Consumption, Price, and Expenditure Estimates.

I wanted the entire annual electrical consumption for the United States. That turned out to be the grand total in the lower right corner of the EIA table. Other reading suggested consumption has flattened, though ours by any standard is still by far the highest consumption by country or per capita in the world. So the 2007 figure is still in the ballpark.

Given the exactitude of phrases like “eastern half of the United States”, I had to make assumptions. I wanted a ballpark dollars figure for consumption, and if I was going to err I wanted to lowball it. Here’s what I came up with, and posted to the Sciam website as a reply to the article:

What is the current electrical consumption of this eastern “region”? Doing some Google-and-napkin calculations, in 2007 the US consumed 40,558 trillion BTU’s of electrical power. That’s about 11.9 trillion kWH. If the average cost is $0.12/kWH, the nation spent a surprising $1.43 trillion on electricity purchases in 2007. If the “eastern half” is only the Northeast and South Atlantic states, and that’s only 25% of the annual US expenditure, $357 billion doesn’t make a $90 billion regional expenditure sound so bad if amortized over even a decade.

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