WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 (UPI) -- Skyrocketing oil prices and the need to end foreign energy dependence have some states, communities, and even homeowners turning to wind power as an alternative.
"We have definitely noticed an upswing since the price of natural gas started spiking sometime in the fall," said Tom Gray, deputy executive director of the American Wind Energy Association. "We are currently importing a lot of oil but we are also importing natural gas ... so using a domestic source helps to save natural gas."
Wind energy is the world's fastest-growing energy technology, the Department of Energy says.
Wind power also benefits the environment, Gray said.
"It doesn't use any water in generation, emits no air pollution, no water pollution, no global warming, no drilling, no waste," he said.
"The reason it hasn't caught on is because the utility industry is low risk, low return, so there is a tendency to do what you've always been doing," he said. "It's quite different from the power sources -- it's a big venture into the unknown."
California has used wind power for years, and Texas "has come along very fast in the past five years," he said.
Other states have also had success.
Susan Ennis, green power marketing director at Western Resource Advocates, a regional environmental policy group based in Colorado, said her group supports wind power as a clean energy policy.
In 2004, Colorado voters passed a statewide referendum on renewable energy that called for public utilities to get 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015.
"Wind power has such wonderful emission benefits and a good economic option in this part of the country," she said. "It's been very popular for economic development," particularly in the rural sector.
Farmers could earn up from $5,000 to $8,000 per turbine per year, said George Sterzinger, executive director, Renewable Energy Policy Project. Each turbine's "footprint is actually quite small," comparable to electrical transmission towers that crisscross many farms already.
Smaller wind turbines for home and business use are also gaining popularity, said Mike Bergey, president and chief executive officer of Bergey Windpower Co. in Norman, Okla.
"The phones have been ringing off the wall," he said.
The small wind systems work with the power grid. A home with a wind turbine would draw some power from the turbine and some from the power company, "like a big battery bank," Bergey said. When there is no wind or insufficient wind, the system draws more power from the power company.
Installation of a standard residential wind power system requires at least 1 acre of property for a 100-foot-tall tower. The turbine blades measure 22 feet in diameter and generate 10 kilowatts of electricity. Bergey said the turbines "make less noise than the average residential air conditioning unit."
Typically, Bergey said, a wind turbine saves the homeowner between $50 and $200 a month.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., has introduced the "Home and Farm Wind Energy Systems Act of 2005." The bill would provide a 30 percent tax credit for businesses and individuals who purchase small wind turbines like Bergey's.
Large, industrial wind farms already receive federal tax incentives.
Despite claims wind power could help end dependence on foreign oil and reduce environmental damage, advocates have encountered some opposition. An offshore wind farm project, developed by Massachusetts-based energy company Energy Management Inc., counts Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., among its critics.
Kennedy, a longtime Cape resident, opposes offshore wind farms like the Cape Wind project as long as there are "legitimate environmental and economic concerns," a Kennedy spokeswoman said.
Lisa Linowes, vice president and spokeswoman for National Wind Watch, a advocacy group formed last year said her organization has felt "frustrated" with all the positive publicity the wind industry has received lately.
"We have reason to believe that (birds and bats) cannot see the turbines and they cannot fly around them," she said. Turbines also affect small boat radar, water flow and could contribute to shoreline erosion.
"Wind energy is never going to replace the coal plant, the nuclear plant," she said. "Why are we distracting ourselves with wind energy when there are other things that will make a difference?"
Mark Rodgers, communications director for Cape Wind, said the wind farm will create jobs and help stabilize electricity costs in the region while providing clean energy.
"Wind farms don't have belching smokestacks, don't burn Mideast oil, don't rip off Appalachian mountain tops for coal, and you can't spill wind," he said. "And aesthetics are very personal. Some people think wind turbines are beautiful, like kinetic sculpture."
He said U.S. energy policy harms birds and the environment far more than wind farms would.
"If you look at all the human-caused bird mortality cases in the U.S., all the wind farms in the country represent a small percent of 1 percent of human-caused bird fatalities," he said.
Sterzinger and Gray said organizations will collaborate with concerned community groups to "develop guidelines that are based on sound science."
"Any project shouldn't have a harmful effect on the overall economic value of the community," Sterzinger said. "If it clearly violates a environmental assessment, the project should be moved."
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