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A WARMING WORLD

Power couple

Wind farms and solar energy have great potential -- but there are still clouds on the horizon.

September 17, 2007

Remember rain?

As Los Angeles creaks through its driest year on record and nervously awaits its next explosive wildfire, many wonder if global warming is already taking a toll. Nobody really knows; California has always had intermittent droughts, after all. But climate models predicted this situation. Changes in ocean temperatures and currents driven by things such as the melting of the Greenland ice shelf -- which is happening a lot faster than scientists expected -- will probably produce an even more desert-like climate in L.A.

Efforts to slow or halt that process have to include a switch to cleaner energy. Coal-burning power plants account for more than 40% of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions (the key culprit in global warming) while supplying half our electricity. California is already on the case. Last year, it passed a law that says 20% of the state's electricity must come from renewable sources by 2010, and 33% by 2020. Even the sluggish federal government is considering a crackdown, with the House energy bill requiring that 15% of U.S. power come from renewable sources by 2020.

Renewable power is fueled by clean sources such as wind, sunshine, geothermal currents and ocean tides or waves. Though its potential is vast, serious technological and policy problems must be overcome before it will play much of a part in our energy mix. Here's a look at the hopes and hurdles for the two renewable sources likely to have the biggest effect on California.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 22 Editorial_pages Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Energy sources: An editorial Monday on renewable energy said that costs for solar panels remain high because the world is running out of silicon. In fact, there is a shortage of polysilicon, a manufactured material of which silicon is the basic component. The editorial also said that a "100-square-mile" area of Nevada, if equipped with solar devices, could meet all of the United States' power needs. It should have said a "100-mile-square" area.

The answer is blowin' in the wind

Beside the 580 Freeway east of the San Francisco Bay, the hills are alive with the sound of . . . whooshing. Wind turbines cover the hills for miles around, some like giant eggbeaters but most looking like big airplane propellers on poles, spinning in the near-constant breeze through Altamont Pass. When it was built starting in 1981, this was the largest wind farm in the world, and it cemented California's place as a pioneer in alternative energy. Now it's an outdated relic, relying on old-fashioned technology that produces less power and kills more birds than modern equipment.

Altamont Pass was intended to spark a wind-power revolution in California, but it fizzled, largely because of low natural-gas prices that made renewable energy sources noncompetitive. The state has other small wind farms in Tehachapi, Solano County and San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs, but they're operating well below their potential. Although the state gets 11% of its electricity from all renewable sources -- among the best records in the country -- that percentage hasn't risen in the last four years.

Meanwhile, Texas has leapfrogged past California in wind-power generation. Texas has a number of natural advantages, such as plenty of wide-open, windy spaces, as well as some policy advantages. Ironically, the state's traditional hostility to environmental and other regulation is in this case a plus, making it easier to get government approval for wind farms. Elsewhere, they often run into flak from NIMBYs, bird lovers and environmentalists who worry about power lines cutting through environmentally sensitive areas to reach remote, windy spots. In California, proposed transmission lines from coming wind farms in Tehachapi are under fire, as are lines that would carry electricity from planned solar power plants in the Mojave Desert. To the east, wealthy homeowners in Cape Cod may succeed in blocking the Cape Wind offshore wind farm in the Nantucket Sound, a project that threatens to spoil their ocean views.

Wind turbines, especially the older devices in California, can be buzz saws for birds and bats, though newer, taller turbines seem less deadly. In any case, a study by the National Academy of Sciences found no evidence that wind farms are decreasing bird populations; global warming is a much bigger threat to birds and bats than wind blades. Renewable power is too important to allow such projects to be derailed by narrow interest groups, which is why California and other states should take steps to streamline the approval process.

The United States gets less than 1% of its power from wind, but the industry is growing at about 25% a year worldwide and, thanks mainly to Texas, the U.S. is building wind farms faster than any other country. The potential is almost limitless. A 2005 study by researchers at Stanford University found that there is enough wind worldwide to satisfy global electricity demand seven times over, even if only 20% of the power could be captured. Such theoretical figures, of course, don't address the practicalities of cost, access and variability (the wind doesn't blow all the time, so wind power has to be supplemented by other sources) that make harvesting so much wind power nearly impossible.

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