Land and Sea lecturer: U.S. wind energy future looks bright
Willett Kempton discusses wind energy during a recent Land and Sea Lecture.


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10:20 a.m., March 18, 2011----A recently announced U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) plan sets new goals for tapping the country's massive wind resource by 2020. Is it realistic? University of Delaware wind energy expert Willett Kempton told a standing-room-only crowd at the Friday, March 11, Land and Sea Lecture why he thinks it is.

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The strategy, unveiled in February, calls for the development of 54 gigawatts of wind energy capacity by 2030 at the cost of 7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh). For comparison, Delmarva Power currently pays 11 cents for electricity generated by traditional sources. Today's offshore wind cost is 16 cents.

“Is it reasonable to talk about DOE's 7 cents/kwh if that's less than half of what we're seeing today?” he asked. “Is it crazy to say here's this clean energy resource that's actually going to cost less than the dirty energy that we're paying for today? I'm going to present evidence here that it is realistic.”

Kempton, a professor of marine policy in UD's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, began by explaining that the East Coast offshore wind resource is more than enough to meet the electricity needs of residents from Cape Hatteras, N.C., all the way to Cape Cod, Mass. Adding up all residents' electricity needs -- including vehicles and heating if electrified -- shows they would require 185 gigawatts at most.

“If we use all the resource it's 330 gigawatts on average, over time,” he said. “We've got more than we need for the whole East Coast, which is surprising. It's a huge resource.”

Having established the abundance of wind, Kempton went on to discuss the likelihood of DOE's 7 cents/kwh goal.

The cost of electricity isn't the market price alone, he said. It's the market price plus externalities such as added health costs (increased cancer rates of residents living near power plants, for example) and environmental costs such as air pollution.

“I'm looking at the true costs of electricity that aren't on your power bill, they're on your Blue Cross bill,” he said. “But they're real costs; you're really paying them now.”

He referenced a recent New York Academy of Sciences study that found the cost of coal-produced electricity to be an additional 17.8 cents/kwh if you take into account health and environmental issues. While the going rate in Delaware for electricity is 8 to 11 cents/kwh, he said it's much more with externalities included.

Wind, on the other hand, has almost no environmental cost, he said, pointing to a Danish study that looked at a wind farm's effect on wildlife. The researchers found that birds tended to avoid the turbines by flying above, below, or around them, though the birds mostly flew around the whole wind farm. Kempton said the result was about three deaths per year per turbine, which would be a tiny fraction of deaths when compared to the 50,000 waterfowl that Delaware licenses for hunting each year.

“There will be an avian impact,” he said, adding that, “These are relatively small things when compared to oil spills or air pollution from power plants.”

Other factors in price include advancements in technology that could reduce wind energy costs by 20 to 40 percent. Improvements currently being tested include a new blade that could produce 4 percent more energy over current blades. A new forward-scanning laser could help yield 10 percent more energy over today's designs. The laser senses wind and prompts the turbine to move or pitch the blades toward wind that's just about to hit.

Add in other aspects such as the drop in manufacturing costs as demand for turbines increases, and Kempton concluded that DOE's goal is plausible.

Wrapping up with audience questions, Kempton received a variety of inquiries about offshore wind as well as UD's 2-megawatt wind turbine at the Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes, where the lecture took place. Kempton told the crowd about corrosion and avian research under way on the turbine and added that an analysis will take place later this year to measure the amount of electricity produced by the turbine since its implementation.

Learn about upcoming events in the Land and Sea Lecture Series.

Article by Elizabeth Boyle
Photo by Lisa Tossey