Wind and natural gas-fired power plants often are used together because the natural gas plants can be ramped up and down quickly, allowing them to be used more when the wind is still and less when the wind is blowing.
While continuing to support renewable energy research and development, oilman T. Boone Pickens said the efforts are not commercially viable now.
It is more economical to build natural gas-fired power plants when natural gas prices are below $6 per thousand cubic feet, Pickens said.
“You can't do renewables at this price of natural gas,” said Pickens, who originally included large amounts of wind energy as part of his Pickens Plan to make the country less dependent on foreign oil. “There will be a few wind deals that will work, but you can't get serious about wind until you have $6 natural gas.”
Others, however, say the cost of not moving quickly towards renewables would be far greater.
“It would be nice and convenient if we could take a long time to get to where renewables were our main source of energy, but it's clear that the laws of physics and chemistry are not on our side,” said environmentalist author and lecturer Bill McKibben, who believes carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases are causing climate change.
The country could find an economical way to increase its use of renewables if that were a priority, he said.
“It's a matter of policy,” he said. “Places that have taken it seriously are getting there pretty fast. There were days last month when Germany generated more than half of its energy from solar panels. Munich is farther north than Montreal. If you can do that in Munich, you can do it in Tulsa.”
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How ‘green' is green?
Manufacturing and transporting wind turbines and other renewable energy sources require the use of fossil fuels. The time it takes for a power generator to produce as much energy as it uses during manufacturing and transportation is known as the “energy payback time.” The typical payback time for a large scale wind turbine is three to eight months, depending on the wind speed at the site, according to the American Wind Energy Association. A typical wind farm has an average life expectancy of about 30 years. The energy payback for solar power was three to four years in 2004, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Wind power capacity
Top states by wind power capacity as of July (in megawatts) from the American Wind Energy Association.
2. Iowa: 4,524
3. California: 4,425
4. Illinois: 3,055
5. Oregon: 2,820
6. Minnesota: 2,718
7. Washington: 2,699
8. Oklahoma 2,171
9. Colorado: 1,805
10. North Dakota: 1,469