The technology for harvesting clean power from the wind has improved greatly in the last few years. That’s the good news. It offers hope to countries all over the world that are reeling from the effects of climate change directly linked to the burning of fossil fuels for energy.
But in the United States, the country most responsible for global warming, the prospect that wind power will replace dirty fuels on a meaningful scale any time soon is very dim. What’s the problem?
Capitalist competition and lack of planning are holding back the rationalization of the national power grid, to the point where existing wind farms have to be turned off just because transmission lines are inadequate.
By contrast, the People’s Republic of China is forging ahead, moving in two years from 10th to fifth in the world in production of wind power. And its plan to greatly increase the pace of production over the next 10 years or so is boggling the minds of environmentalists and engineers everywhere. China’s plan is comprehensive, expanding not only the generation of electricity from wind power but the infrastructure to transmit the power from high-wind regions to areas of great population density.
An article entitled “Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid’s Limits” sums up the problem in the U.S.: “Wind advocates say that just two of the windiest states, North Dakota and South Dakota, could in principle generate half the nation’s electricity from turbines. But the way the national grid is configured, half the country would have to move to the Dakotas in order to use the power.” (New York Times, Aug. 26)
Many of the transmission lines are old and weren’t built for modern demand. More electricity just can’t be squeezed onto them.
The article continues: “[E]xperts say that without a solution to the grid problem, effective use of wind power on a wide scale is likely to remain a dream.
“The power grid is balkanized, with about 200,000 miles of power lines divided among 500 owners. Big transmission upgrades often involve multiple companies, many state governments and numerous permits. Every addition to the grid provokes fights with property owners.
“These barriers mean that electrical generation is growing four times faster than transmission, according to federal figures.”
This problem also applies to solar power. Some states, especially in the arid West, get abundant sunshine and are well suited to be sites for vast solar-power farms. But that sunny prospect is being dashed because they won’t be able to transmit their power very far, either, without a major upgrade in the power grid.
And who wants to invest in making that happen? Here’s where all the wrangling and poisonous competition come in. Privately owned power companies don’t exist to provide more power to the people. They exist to make money, profits. They’re interested in the bottom line—this month, this year, not 10 or 20 years from now. They don’t want to put their profits into upgrading the grid.
Competition prevents long-term planning
The more complex modern society becomes, the greater the need to take into consideration not only demand and supply for a particular product, but the environmental impact and how each element in the web of industry fits with the others. And that takes long-term planning.
What kind of planning is possible when 500 different companies are competing with each other to make the most profit out of the power grid? What kind of planning is possible when each private capitalist interest has its own bought politicians, who think only of how to please the corporate lobbyists who keep them in office?
Meanwhile, many workers can’t pay their bills for heat, transportation, lights and other essentials based on energy. The oil and “defense” companies have foisted on the people a cruel war to control the oil-rich Middle East that has already cost 20 or 30 times what it would take to fix the electric grid.
Nothing less than a mighty upheaval of the working class in this country can cut through the straightjacket of corporate greed that is strangling this economy.
To see what is possible, let’s look at China. In 2006, only 1 percent of its energy came from wind—the same percentage that the U.S. gets today. But it was already number one in the world in the production of off-grid wind turbine generators, each of which could produce from 100 watts up to 10 kilowatts of energy. These were being supplied to communities that otherwise might get no electricity at all.
China had begun building wind farms—it had 59 such farms with 1,854 wind turbine generators. It was number 10 in the world for in-grid installed wind power capacity, generating 1.26 gigawatts. (Ecoworld, July 15, 2006) A gigawatt is 1 billion watts.
Just two years later, China has moved up from 10th to fifth place in the world. Its installed wind capacity is now at least 6 GW. (treehugger.com)
And this is just the beginning. “In April 2008 the National Development and Reform Commission revised its 11th Five Year Plan Period plan for wind power development from 5 GW to 10 GW by 2010. … More impressively, wind power industry statistics show that by the end of 2008 China’s total installed base of wind power production will have already reached 10 GW, two years ahead of the revised plan. Some experts are estimating that by 2010, the total installed capacity for wind power generation in China will reach 20 GW and that by 2020 China’s installed base of wind power will total 100 GW.” (“China’s Wind Power Industry—Blowing Past Expectations,” Renewable Energy World, June 16, 2008)
“China will likely achieve its target of getting 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020” (ecogeek.com), much of this from wind.
Just 60 years ago, China was an impoverished, underdeveloped country. Today it has shown its remarkable prowess in the Olympics while also showing the world how to move toward sustainable development.
What made this possible was a mass, revolutionary movement led by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party that, in 1949, broke the power of the capitalist and feudal ruling classes who had prevented the Chinese people from reaching their true potential.