July 27, 2008

OPINION: A Shift in Wind Direction

By Tim White, The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.

Jul. 27--Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens just gave us the tipping point for wind energy. It's going to happen, soon, and big.

Pickens (love that name, but by rights it ought to belong to a blues guitarist, shouldn't it?) is going to spend billions of dollars blanketing part of the Texas landscape with thousands of power-generating windmills. It will be the biggest wind farm ever.

Pickens drew flocks of TV cameras and media reporters when he testified before Congress last week about his plans. He's clearly looking to gin up more federal support for wind farming -- subsidies and assorted tax breaks that have made life good for other energy industries, and helped make Pickens a very rich man.

One of the other people who testified at the same hearing didn't get much notice, save by his hometown newspaper in Maine. It was Habib Joseph Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Laboratory at the University of Maine. He talked about the wind-turbine blades he's developing in his lab -- huge blades that would turn wind turbines on deep-water platforms 20 miles off the coast of Maine, where winter winds could produce as much as 100 gigawatts of wind energy, 10 percent of the nation's electric-power needs.

Dagher's program is working with the newly formed Ocean Energy Institute, which is researching an array of alternative energy solutions, including wind, and also looking to provide venture capital for businesses getting into the new field. Dagher's group plans to produce five gigawatts of wind power from the Gulf of Maine by 2020. The turbines, in water from 100 to 500 feet deep (out of sight from land), would stand 500 feet high, spinning 200-foot blades.

Meanwhile, back in North Carolina, officials of the State Energy Office are lamenting that nobody's interested in setting up wind farms. Last year, the General Assembly passed a law requiring state utilities to meet 12.5 percent of the state's electrical needs with alternative-energy sources by 2021.

One of the barriers, according to a story in The New & Observer, is that the state has regulations that bar offshore wind farms -- the one place where they can easily go without battling the NIMBY eruptions that have kept Carolina entrepreneurs from getting into wind energy on a commercially viable level. People just don't want to see and hear big windmills near their vacation homes, marring the view of their cherished waterfront. (For reference, see the years-long battle still raging over a plan to build a wind farm on Nantucket Sound, within view of Ted Kennedy's Cape Cod front porch.)

Wind, of course, isn't the whole answer. There are a host of things we've got to do to escape the tentacles of OPEC. That would include developing more, and cleaner, traditional energy sources along with the many alternatives that are becoming more viable.

But as T. Boone Pickens just showed us, the first good alternative answer is blowing in the wind. And it's ready to go.

Tim White is the Observer's editorial page editor. He can be reached at 486-3504 or [email protected]


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