The plan, to be outlined this morning by the US Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, should provide a giant boost to the wind-energy industry in America and Europe. The United Kingdom-based National Wind Power is closely involved in several wind-turbine projects already underway in the US.
If it proves viable, the Richardson plan could mean that new wind farms - with their marching columns of steel masts and twirling giant propellers - will soon be springing up across the US, especially in blowiest states such as those of the Upper Great Plains. Today, only 0.1 per cent of the electricity consumed in the US is produced in this way.
"We're going to double US wind-energy capacity by 2005 and then double it again by 2010," Mr Richardson told the New York Times yesterday. "By 2020 it would be 5 per cent". To help ensure the goal is met, the federal government, which is the largest energy customer in the US, would pledge to buy 5 per cent of its electricity from wind generators by 2010.
"We think that wind technology has the most potential of any renewable energy technology right now," Mr Richardson said. He will be making his announcement at the annual meeting of the American Wind Energy Association in Vermont.
Other contenders for green energy production include electricity generation from biomass, from the sun and from geothermal heat and steam. The Energy Department in Washington has concluded, however, that wind energy offers the most economically viable alternative to fossil-fuel and nuclear generation. At the moment, the production of electricity in the US is the single largest source of industrial air pollution.
Such have been the advances in the technology used in the wind mills, that the cost of a single kilowatt hour from wind has dropped from 40 cents in the early Seventies to just 5 cents today. The turbines, moreover, are about 1,000 times larger than they used to be, with blades that can be longer than the wing of a Boeing 727. In areas where winds blow well, the turbines are expected to be turning fast enough to produce power about eight hours out of every 24 on average.
By the end of this year, wind farms will together produce about 2,500 megawatts of electricity in the US, up from 1,600 megawatts a year ago. That compares with the 900 megawatts put out by a medium-sized nuclear plant.
The industry has been expanding even without today's declaration of love by the federal government. Just last week, the company Green Mountain Energy announced plans to build 10 to 15 giant turbines in western Pennsylvania. The farm is to be operated by American National Wind Power, the US arm of Britain's National Wind Power. NWP currently operates wind farms in Britain that put out 140 megawatts of electricity.
Green Mountain said that one of the new turbines would displace 1,200 tons of carbon dioxide that would otherwise have been emitted in one year, "the equivalent of an automobile driving three million miles".
Growing public support for renewable power was demonstrated by the gathering of thousands at a rally in San Francisco on Saturday.