October 2, 2008

Our Finest Hour: Wind Power and America’s Next Great Opportunity

It’s official: wind power is a good investment. It’s been America’s second largest source of new electrical capacity for the past three years running—behind only natural gas. Given that wind still provides only one percent of U.S. electricity needs, the growth potential is enormous—it grew 45 percent in 2007, and there is enough wind resource in the U.S. to supply several times our entire national electricity usage. That’s great news, given that a rapidly intensifying climate crisis demands that we kick our addiction to fossil fuels.
Denmark today generates more than 20 percent of its total electricity from wind power, with a goal of 50 percent by 2025. Germany’s goal is 25 percent by 2025. We can exceed these goals and reclaim our role as world leader in the kind of can-do-it innovation that first made us a world power.

NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen, the preeminent climate scientist of our time, says that we “have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change…no longer than a decade, at the most…we are near a tipping point, a point of no return, beyond which the built-in momentum and feedbacks will carry us to levels of climate change with staggering consequences for humanity and all of the residents of this planet.”  

In 2007, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.), warned: “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” The magnitude of the climate threat is clear for all to see. The only question remaining is, will we respond in time?

One hopeful sign is the growing number of religious leaders calling for passion and concrete action in response to this crisis. Is it moral for the wealthiest nation on earth, contributing the most* to heating the planet, to impose immense suffering on the poorest and most vulnerable people of the world through inaction? Where is the morality in causing the extinction of millions of innocent species?
But we can choose to make peace with the planet—to transition from a fossil fuel electricity grid to one powered by renewable energy—to cut net greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2020. Greening our energy grid in such a short time span will not be easy. It will require a massive World War II-type mobilization at lightening speed. But no technological breakthroughs are needed to realize this hopeful and exciting vision. We can meet virtually all of our nation’s electricity needs today through energy efficiency measures and off-the-shelf, responsibly developed, large and small scale wind, solar and geothermal technologies.

This “green dream” will only be realized if America musters its industrial might to lead the world. It begins with setting more aggressive goals than Europe, calling for a U.S. goal of 40 percent wind power (a 40-fold increase) by 2020. This must be joined by a nationwide moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, followed by a phase-out of existing coal plants by 2020. Do not be fooled by the “clean coal” myth or by the technological fantasy of being able to capture and “safely” sequester all CO2 emissions underground. The answers to today’s climate and energy challenges will not be found in repackaged polluting technologies from centuries past, but in the clean energy technologies of the 21st Century.

Those who say such lofty goals are unrealistic underestimate the creative genius and will of the American people. Americans are a supremely resourceful people with a long history of meeting, and exceeding, monumental challenges. When destiny came knocking during World War II, we answered by leading the Allied forces to victory in three and a half short years. Although it has not been called on for some time, America’s entrepreneurial can-do spirit remains alive and well. Not only can we blaze the trail to a worldwide green industrial revolution, it is in our national interest to do so. What is unrealistic is thinking we can continue with business as usual and still leave a habitable planet for our children.

The benefits to America of leading this planetary crusade are numerous and profound,  including: countless human lives saved, increased national security, protection of biodiversity, a reduced trade deficit, millions of new green collar jobs, cleaner air to breathe, strengthened U.S. economic competitiveness, reduced health care costs, a more secure energy grid, protection against volatile fossil fuel costs, reduced intensity of deadly storms, heat waves, infectious diseases and rising seas and last but not least, the renewed admiration and respect of the world.

With wind power plants now cost-competitive with fossil fuel plants, the wind industry is uniquely positioned to assert itself as the vanguard of the emerging green energy economy. Wind energy certainly can’t do it all, but as the first major renewable energy source that is “ready for prime time,” wind power must lead the way. With great opportunity also comes great responsibility, meaning modest and comfortable industry growth levels are no longer acceptable measuring sticks for success. I believe the leaders of the wind industry have a moral imperative to do everything in their power to spark this generational crusade by becoming corporate crusaders for a green industrial revolution to address this planetary emergency.

President Kennedy inspired the nation when he announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of landing an American on the Moon before the end of the decade. He knew this would be a challenging technological feat, but he also knew this was where the U.S. could lead the world. His are the kind of words we need to hear from a president today: “We commit to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Americans are dreamers, and proud of it. We dreamed we could land a man on the moon. We did it. We dreamed we could turn the tide against racial segregation. We did it. We established history’s greatest road system in only five years. Coming together to accomplish great feats is part of our greatness. It is time for America to dream again. If we are successful in helping stabilize the climate—and do it in time for it to matter—we will be lauded by future generations for our vision and our resolve. If we fail, let it not be because we didn’t try.

I believe humanity still has time to effectively respond to this planetary emergency. But we must reject the tranquilizing drugs of apathy and gradualism and act now to secure our children’s future. A successful planetary rescue effort will require risk on the part of civic, business and political leaders. But as great as the peril we face, the rewards it presents are greater: a renewed America, and world…and the exhilaration that comes with being part of what Al Gore calls: “…what few generations in history have had the privilege of experiencing: a generational mission: a compelling moral purpose: a shared cause…to put aside the pettiness of politics and to embrace a genuine moral and spiritual challenge.”
Our time here on earth is short. Let us mark it by making a stand on behalf of this glorious planet—our home—not just for this and future generations, but for all life on earth. Let this be our finest hour.

Tom Weis is president of Wind Power Solutions, an environmental consulting firm based in Boulder, Colo. When not raising awareness of the global climate crisis, he conducts environmental and public outreach for enXco, one of the nation?s largest renewable energy companies. Active in the wind industry since early 2004, Tom is a principal initiator of the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI), served as Chair of the American Wind Energy Association?s (AWEA) 2007 Fall Symposium and currently serves as Strategic Advisor to the President of the Board of AWEA.  

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