Forget Chicago. This week, Los Angeles is the Windy City.
The wind-power industry's biggest players have blown into L.A.'s downtown convention center, and their mission is not just to celebrate their soaring fortunes amid a nationwide green-energy boom.
The wind-energy business in 2006 booked its second year of record growth, and executives are pushing the industry faithful to think bigger. Much bigger. By 2030, they want wind farms to supply 20% of the nation's energy -- a huge leap from today's contribution of less than 1%.
"It's not a forecast, but it is a plausible scenario," Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Assn., told attendees at the opening session of the group's Windpower 2007 conference.
Getting there won't be easy, he cautioned. "It requires a transformation of the electric industry and a whole number of things that we don't have today."
The most crucial of those needs: an extension of the federal production tax credit that has helped make the United States the fastest-growing wind power market. The on-again, off-again credit is set to expire at the end of next year.
Other obstacles include the rising costs of wind turbines and other equipment and a shortage of electrical transmission lines to carry wind energy to the power grid. Then there's public concern about noise, the danger to wildlife and visual intrusion caused by the rows of giant, white wind turbines that typify wind farms.
In addition, a wide-ranging energy bill backed by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) requires the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to create standards for siting, building and monitoring wind projects to prevent unnecessary harm to birds and bats that can fly into the spinning blades.
Wind energy's popularity has soared anyway, and the enthusiasm for it is only slightly damped by its inability to produce power full time. Governments around the world are counting on wind energy to help cut carbon emissions, which play a major role in global warming, while still keeping the lights on in a growing economy.
"We basically have between now and 2020 to get emissions globally to peak and to start to decline or we run a serious risk of climate systems spinning out of control," said Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council, based in Belgium. "The next 15 years are critical, and wind is in the best position."
Wind farms can be built relatively quickly, have little or no harmful emissions, don't gulp down water or require mining or drilling, and, with incentives, are relatively cheap compared with other renewable power technologies. Homes and businesses in less urban areas can even do it themselves, contributing to brisk growth in the use of relatively small wind turbines.
That's been a compelling set of qualities for smog-laden states such as California, which have wind-energy potential as well as aggressive timelines for adding renewable energy.
California, which had been the nation's wind-power pioneer, has 2,376 megawatts of production capacity at wind farms in the Tehachapi region near Bakersfield, the San Gorgonio Pass west of Palm Springs and Northern California's Altamont Pass. The state last year lost its top ranking to Texas, which has 2,739 megawatts of wind-energy capacity, Energy Department statistics show.
The wind industry added 2,400 megawatts of capacity across the country last year, putting the nation's total wind-energy capacity at nearly 11,700 megawatts. Experts predict bigger increases this year, with wind farms generating 31 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity -- enough to power nearly 3 million average homes, according to the U.S. wind power trade group.
That surge is visible at this week's annual convention. Organizers said attendance jumped to a record of nearly 7,000 people this year, and companies were so eager to participate that the exhibition floor space was expanded three times leading up to the show, said Thomas Gray, deputy executive director of the American Wind Energy Assn.
Inside the trade show, which winds up today, miniaturized model turbines dotted the exhibit floor, with industry giants such as GE Energy and Vestas Wind Systems of Denmark vying for attention. The floor also was chock-full of lesser-known companies drawn in by the wind-farm construction boom and selling such things as insurance, employee training, cranes, ladders and "fall arresting systems."
During one panel discussion, industry executive Robert Lukefahr urged wind advocates to keep their enthusiasm grounded in reality.
"We have not yet made the case to the American public broadly about why this is right and why it's worth paying extra for cleaner power," said Lukefahr, president of Power Americas, a unit of oil giant BP's alternative energy business.
"It is the most cost-effective low-carbon solution we have today," he told reporters later. "It's not free, but it's affordable."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Catching an updraft
Wind power is growing . . .
Cumulative megawatts of installed capacity in U.S.
(In thousands). . .
. . . but provides only a fraction of electricity used
Estimated wind production as a percentage of electricity consumption (end of 2006)
Sources: American Wind Energy Assn., Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Los Angeles Times