WSU Talk: Wind Power

The question is how can markets around the world generate electrical power without depleting the ozone or doing major damage to the environment.

The answer, some say, is blowing in the wind.

Adam Serchuk visited Weber State this week for a talk on the topic. Serchuk is a marketing director for Vestas, which is the world's largest manufacturer of wind turbines.

"Wind power produces electricity at a rate cheaper than solar power," he said. "Nothing is perfect, and nothing has zero impact, but wind is about as good as you can get."

Serchuk said natural gas is much cheaper, and is available in plentiful supply due to the extraction method hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. Fracking involves using high pressure to pump sand and liquids into shale, causing fractures that release trapped gas. Fracking is controversial, an environmentalists are worried about the long term effects. Fracking has been banned in several countries.

But fracking has driven down gas prices.

"Right now, natural gas is $3 to $4 for a thousand BTUs," Serchuk said. "Only a few years ago it was $12. But who knows what it's going to be tomorrow? If you are worried about the future cost of energy, wind costs zero once you have the turbine."

Serchuk said he believes eventually, wind could provide about 20 percent of the power we need.

"Gas is king," he said. "In the future, it's going to be gas, wind and solar power. Nothing is going to be 100 percent, but wind is going to be a part of the mix."

Recent years of economic decline have hurt the wind industry, Serchuk said. When factories that use wind power close down, they generally don't return. When companies using electricity from wind power discontinue shifts or cut their workforce, there's less demand for wind power.

"When economic growth flattens, so does demand for electrical power," he told the small crowd gathered in the Wildcat Theater of the Shepherd Union Building.

The government, starting in 1992, has voted for 10 years of tax breaks for new wind power producers, but wind entrepreneurs never know if the incentives will continue or lose funding, Serchuk said. Because the financial break comes after the investment, wind producers often partner with investors, who seek a reliable return on their funds, and who may be inclined to bail when they don't get one.

Wind turbines can also have a localized undesirable environmental effect, Serchuk said. Birds and bats can be killed by spinning turbine blades. In some places, he said, wind power producers can greatly lessen the damage by running equipment at the times of day when flying animals are least active. Still, it's hard for some turbine owners to accept they should turn their equipment off when wind is available.

Serchuk said the wind industry has been volatile in recent years, but is entering a more mature phase.

"The 'cowboy years' are coming to and end," he said. "The industry is on the cusp of maturity, which means transitioning to a slower growth rate."

Vestas has enjoyed periods of 23 percent growth, and now expects about 3 percent growth annually, he said. Vestas has laid off workers over the past few years, and is now stabilizing, he said.

Vestas has sold more than 50,000 turbines in 73 countries, on six continents. Serchuk said China is a big investor in turbines, as is Germany.

"China is interested in wind because they have a huge population," he said. "They are trying to improve people's standard of living, and to do that, you need electricity. China has the ability to make long term plans that Western democracies have trouble with. As air pollution grows, I expect them to remain committed to wind in the future."

Another clear advantage to wind: It's local.

"Our wind is made in the U.S.A.," he said. "It provides jobs here, and it's not sending our money somewhere else."

Originally written Nancy Van Valkenburg of Standard Examiner