Wind Could Drive 20% of World Power Needs By 2030, With China in Lead

wind turbinesDespite earlier setbacks, wind power may have reached a tipping point. This morning we learned that Google (of all companies) is investing up to $200 million in infrastructure to support a massive wind farm 10 miles off the East Coast that will be operational in 2016. And approval was granted just last week for the first offshore wind project in the U.S., a $1 billion 130-windmill affair off the coast of Cape Cod. Earlier this year the U.K. granted licenses for nine offshore projects, which could generate up to 25% of the country's energy needs. And tiny Portugal, which has had large offshore windfarms since 2008 and opened a new onshore facility in May this year, has the second highest wind-power mix in the world.

In light of this massive expansion in wind power generation, Greenpeace and the Global Wind Energy Council have been looking at the state of the wind-powered generating industry around the world, and have predicted how wind energy usage may evolve over the next 20 years in a new report out today. Their finding: 20% of our energy needs could be powered by wind inside 20 years--and China will lead the way. Do we believe it?

Among the numerous statistics in the study, there are two stand-out conclusions: In a best-case scenario, rapid uptake of wind tech by many countries around the world could result in between 11.5% and 12.3% (about 2,600 terawatt-hours) of global electrical energy needs. Continued uptake could see this figure expand to 18.8% to 21.8% (around 5,400 terawatt-hours). Even a very conservative scenario would see 4.8% of our needs met inside the next 10 years--equal to Europe's energy consumption.

There's one simple eco-conclusion to be drawn from these figures: If the world really embraced wind power, 34 billion tons less carbon dioxide would be added to the atmosphere by 2030--that's more than the entire world's current level of CO2 output for a year, and the savings would obviously be ongoing into the future.

Which country is driving this change? The report also sheds light on that question: It's China. It came in second in the world in installed wind power capacity in 2009, and is predicted to take top-slot in 2010. The nation certainly has a vested economic interest in pursuing eco-energy, and it's not in the spirit of a better environment: If China can benefit from "free" energy (lacking the massive, expensive infrastructure needed for coal or nuclear power generation), it wouldn't have to rely on external sources for its power. And since it's the production source of significant amounts of goods for the rest of the world, it could produce things more cheaply, for greater profit. Compared to, say, the U.S. where NIMBYism is a problem and a skittish government isn't exactly leaping to embrace wind energy (despite the best efforts of folks like Google), the Chinese government is also not afraid to enforce the building of wind farms. This is proven by the mailed-fist approach to getting the Three Gorges Dam project working, displacing 1.3 million people on the way.

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