WASHINGTON -- Wind-power advocates say their technology is no longer an extravagant curiosity fit only for hermits and dreamers, but a practical and "clean" source of electricity that could help reduce air pollution and wean the U.S. from foreign oil.
Participants in a "Windpower '90" conference in Washington, sponsored by the American Wind Energy Association, were told last week that the wind is already generating enough power in California to replace a nuclear power plant the size of Baltimore Gas & Electric's Calvert Cliffs generators. And a federally funded study calculates there are enough windy spots across the country like those in California to produce as much as 25 percent of the nation's electrical needs.
If wind power remains a bit more expensive per kilowatt hour than fossil and nuclear fuels, its boosters said, it's only because the utilities and their regulators aren't figuring in the costs of fossil fuels' damage to the environment and to national security.
"There is a strategic energy reserve in this country, and it's in the wind," said Carl Weinberg, research and development manager at Pacific Gas & Electric in California. "And . . . it's filled up each year by Mother Nature."
Sen. Albert Gore Jr., D-Tenn., used this week's meeting to criticize America's leaders for allowing the U.S., despite repeated oil "shocks" from the Middle East, to become hostage again to dangerous and unstable Middle Eastern politics.
"It isn't as if we haven't been through this before," he said.
Gore said the failure of the Bush administration and others to develop an energy policy that encourages renewable energy sources like wind, Gore said, also ignores the damage that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels does to the environment.
The Department of Energy's research budget for wind power is 10 percent of what it was in 1980, the gathering was told.
Reid Detcheon, Bush's deputy assistant secretary for conservation and renewable energy, replied that the president will decide in early 1991 on options for a National Energy Strategy.
"We are working on a solution, and wind energy is clearly a part of that solution," he said. "We think we are on an upward path that will reinvigorate our stimulation of these [renewable energy] technologies."
But wind energy advocates said their industry is maturing now and ready to compete with fossil fuels if only they are allowed HHTC "level playing field."
Seattle wind energy consultant Robert Lynette, said the young industry began getting its act together in the mid-80s, after five years of disappointment and failure.
Today, improved design has brought wind turbines to 80 percent of their aerodynamic ideal -- "good enough," he said, for practical commercial production.
Scientists and engineers have also learned more about where to put the turbines, and how best to lay out a "wind farm" with hundreds of turbines, which look like giant airplane propellers atop tall towers. Stronger, lighter materials are on the way.
And while the turbines run no more than 35 percent of the time, they are running close to 90 percent of the time that there is sufficient wind -- a record that compares favorably with fossil fuel plants, Lynette said.
Already, he said, wind farms can produce power for 7 to 9 cents per kilowatt hour. "But if this technology is going to move to the next step, we're going to have to do something different," he said.
Developers will have to get the price down to 4 or 5 cents to be truly competitive, which will demand more efficient turbines, lighter weight materials, taller towers.
Even so, Lynette said, such an improvement is "quite reasonable" to expect within five to 10 years.
Carl Weinberg, manager of research and development for Pacific Gas & Electric, said California meets 1 percent, and occasionally as much as 8 percent of its electrical demand with wind power. The state's wind farms generate 1,600 megawatts, about equal to BG&E's Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, and enough to replace 3.5 million barrels of oil a year.
PG&E's goals are to get the cost of wind power down to less than 5 cents per kilowatt hour, Weinberg said.
Windy places like the Sierra foothills don't exist in every state. But 13 states are even windier, most of them on the Great Plains. North Dakota is the Saudi Arabia of U.S. wind reserves.
In theory, there are enough spots like it with "Class 5" winds (averaging 16 miles an hour or more) to supply 25 percent of the nation's electrical demand, according to a study released this week by the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest Laboratories.
Maryland is mostly unsuitable for commercial wind projects, the study found. But Class 3 and 4 winds available on ridge tops in Garrett and Allegany counties could potentially supply as much as 7.8 percent of the electricity Marylanders used in 1987. That could replace the equivalent of 5 million barrels of oil a year.
What windpower advocates say they need most is for utilities and their state regulators to consider all the costs of fossil and nuclear fuels -- including the costs of emissions controls, waste disposal, health effects and environmental damage, fuel availability and price fluctuations -- when they're searching for the least costly way to add generating capacity.