Time to take action on scaling up wind energy--and the infrastructure to move it
By Vivienne Cox
Action is urgently required on energy efficiency, bio-fuels and renewables. At BP, we are involved in all of these. But I would like to concentrate on one area--clean domestic electricity--or what we call low carbon power. There is a massive opportunity for business and policy-makers to work together here to create a low-carbon power sector. And it's because of that opportunity that we created a business called BP Alternative Energy. Alternative Energy brings together all BP's low-carbon power businesses under one roof. We will invest more than $8 billion in Alternative Energy over the next 10 years.
As we have been developing projects and working with others in the industry, it has become clear that a significant obstacle to growing the low-carbon power space is simply one of distance. How to get clean domestic power from the source of the natural resource to the cities where the power is needed? The U.S. is blessed with abundant energy resources that could deliver low carbon power. Take just wind and coal for example. The American Wind Energy Association reckons that there is enough wind to generate around three times the total electricity consumed today in the U.S. And proved U.S. coal reserves are estimated to be a much greater energy resource than Saudi Arabia's proved oil reserves.
However, while the U.S. has the natural resources to create energy, they are often thousands of miles from the people who demand it. Wind is strongest in the Great Plains states while the major U.S. demand centers are close to the coasts. Coal is also concentrated in these central regions. So should we give up on these resources? Well, distance didn't stop people building the railroads--or the interstate highways. Distance didn't stop people building the Internet infrastructure--the information superhighways. And distance should not stop us from building a national transmission superhighway to get low carbon, green power to the people.
We have a major opportunity to build the infrastructure so that we can generate huge quantities of clean electricity from wind, and clean coal, and send it to market. U.S. President George W. Bush set out a vision last year--20 percent of U.S. power to come from wind by 2020. This is a great vision. But if it is to become a reality, we have to act urgently.
Delivering the 20 percent target means 500 GW of new wind power in the coming decades. That means we need to be able to get new power out of the Great Plains at a rate of something like 10 to 20 GW a year. That means new transmission lines. But these things take time to build. So we need enabling legislation completed in the next two to three years so that we can deliver in the next five to 10 years. If we're not careful it can become a chicken and egg dilemma. One where the transmission isn't built because the capacity isn't built and so on. We see our major leadership action in this area to be the commitment to begin building large-scale wind farms in the central wind corridor of the U.S. We will just get on with it.
The industry needs to move beyond small niche wind farms where individual project economics might actually benefit from constrained infrastructure. We now need very large projects where the whole industry--and country--benefits from increased transmission options.
Today there is just 10 GW of wind capacity. If that is to grow to 500 GW, then we will need to increase the scale of the projects. The average size of a wind farm over the past 30 years has been 26 MW. We have plans for some very large projects, several of 1,000 MW or greater.
I don't think any of these barriers is insurmountable. On the contrary, I am increasingly discovering people and organizations that have a deep commitment to build a low carbon power sector in the U.S. and elsewhere. I've talked about many of the reasons for doing this--but I want to emphasize one in particular--world leadership. This is an area of global concern and global importance. And it's an area where America can show the way. Policy measures--such as stable policies and new transmission programs--are in the hands of the states and the U.S. federal government. Investment and innovation is in the hands of business. And all of us can act now.