Wind appears on the verge of becoming a power player

With every day of rising oil prices and soaring energy costs, the calls for solutions increase.

And it seems those asking for the winds of change may get just that: wind.

Wind energy is growing, not only in size, but in industry importance.

In the latest foray into the field, Duke Energy Corp. announced the purchase of Vermont-based wind company Catamount Energy Corp. on Thursday, cementing Duke's future in the industry it entered 13 months ago.

The $240 million acquisition will increase Duke's wind holdings to 500 megawatts of operating energy, the equivalent of a medium-sized power plant. The purchase also gives Duke a 50 percent stake in the Sweetwater project in Nolan County, Texas, one of the largest electricity-generating wind farms in the world, the Charlotte-based utility said.

Representatives from Duke said the purchase is not part of a state requirement for large utilities to produce 12.5 percent of their power in the state by 2021 from renewable sources, such as the sun and the wind. Instead, Duke said it's a smart investment.

“This is just the beginning,” said Wouter van Kempen, president of Duke Energy Generation Services. “All of us are very committed to making renewable energy in the years to come.”

It looks to be just the beginning for the wind industry as well. U.S. wind-power capacity has grown on average 29 percent a year since 2004, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

At the end of last year, wind-produced energy had the capability to power 4.5 million U.S. households. AWEA estimates have that number doubling in 2008.

According to reports from the U.S. Department of Energy, 20 percent of the nation's power could be produced by wind by 2030.

In 2006, wind power accounted for 3 percent of the nation's power consumption.

Renewable energy experts say wind power will play a vital part in meeting future energy demand.

“Wind energy is going to be a big part of a new renewable energy portfolio that will evolve in the future,” said Brent Summerville, a renewable energy engineer for the Energy Center at Appalachian State University.

“Right now in some places there is a lot of wind but not a lot of use,” Summerville added. “That's going to be changing.”

For energy companies, the advantages lie in the progress the wind industry has already made. David Marks, senior vice president of wind energy for Duke, said the wind industry has already handled development and financing issues that often plague industries at the start.

Van Kemper said such developments will allow Duke to hit the ground running in the wind industry.

“I think we're looking broadly at a lot of different technologies, and the advantage that wind has is that it is cheaper than a lot of the technologies; so you can build large scale, you can build them very fast and you can build them much cheaper,” said van Kemper.

North Carolina is one of the few states without major wind-farm projects, according to the AWEA.

That's in part because state law forbids wind mills along N.C. mountain ridgelines, where some of the strongest winds blow.

But North Carolina renewable-energy advocates are working to change that.

“We could be completely environmentally responsible and not change anything from where we are right now and still develop over 1,000 megawatt-hours,” said Ivan Urlaub, executive director of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Coalition, of the state's wind power prospects.

He said it is very likely that North Carolina could open its first utility-scale wind farm this year, although he could not release details on the project.

Summerville said sites off the coast and in the mountains provide the best options for wind projects in the Carolinas.

He said small, privately owned wind projects already exist in the state, but that large-scale farms will expand in North Carolina once the first project finds a location.

“The big hurdle is getting the first project in the ground because it's difficult to talk about wind in the abstract,” Summerville said.

Until that happens, Urlaub said the state is missing out on one of the most cost-effective forms of energy ever available.

“The fuel is free,” he said. “You don't have to pay for the wind to blow.”