Wind energy is on a roll in the United States, having doubled since 2008 to 50 gigawatts, enough to power 13 million homes. So why is Mitt Romney bad-mouthing it in favor of dirty, world-destroying fuel like coal? Even other Republicans are annoyed at Romney about this stance, and on Tuesday President Obama had a little fun with the former governor of Massachusetts over the issue.
Romney once said that you can’t put a windmill on top of your car.
President Obama joked that he didn’t know if Romney actually said that, but that Romney had been known to put other things on top of his car (a reference to the governor’s 1982 road trip in which he put his dog Seamus on the roof).
(Actually, as usual, Romney is wrong: you could run wind turbines and use them to generate electricity used by an electric car or plug-in hybrid. If you drive a Nissan Leaf in some parts of Iowa you are a good part of the way there).
Romney’s determination to scrap tax subsidies for wind farms has already caused investors to be cautious about putting in new installations this year, so he is slowing the green economy just by talking. This uncertainty is all the more harmful because wind is already having trouble competing with shale gas, which has become abruptly abundant and relatively inexpensive in recent years in the US, though at a high environmental cost. Even given this development, wind turbines will be competitive by 2016 (though of course they already are competitive if you count in the damaging pollution natural gas produces).
Romney for his part was defending the burning of coal, which should be a hanging offense. Besides, coal is being killed not by renewables by but cheap natural gas and by coal plants’ inability to burn cleanly enough to meet environmental regulations.
Even in this difficult competitive environment, Iowa now gets some 20% of its electricity from wind, and expects that percentage to grow. Wind energy is clean, and the fuel is free. New efficiencies in wind turbines are rapidly driving down the price of wind energy.
Oil and natural gas get billions in de facto subsidies from the US government, so we’re lucky that there are federal incentives for putting in wind turbines. But Romney wants to get rid of the latter (he wants to keep the subsidies to big Oil and Gas, of course). Since oil and gas cause climate change, which is highly destructive, they are already much more expensive than wind if you count in the environmental damage they do (you’re subsidizing oil and gas to create the drought that is causing your food prices to rise dramatically this year, so you are paying through the nose for them).
Romney’s anti-wind position has drawn sharp criticism from Iowa Republicans. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who helped author the tax breaks for wind energy, is fit to be tied with the elite East Coast guys behind Romney’s pledge to abolish the tax breaks for wind.
Iowa is a state where wind energy has forged ahead faster than almost any other state in the union. Wind energy supports over 200 other industries in the state. Abolition of the federal tax break for wind would certainly slow the industry’s development.
Obama was exploiting this divide in Republican ranks over Iowa’s wind industry, which Romney is harming. Iowa is one of the swing states important to winning the election.
Wind energy poses problems for the electricity grid, since sometimes the winds blow strong and sometimes not at all. Many engineers believe that getting more than 25% or so of one’s electricity from wind is dangerous, since its fluctuations may make the grid unstable.
But the world is gradually finding fixes for these problems, including better battery and other storage systems and sophisticated computer programs that can feed the wind energy into the grid when it is strong and then switch to other sources when it is calm. Riverbank Power is pioneering new kinds of hydropumps which pump water uphill when the wind is blowing, and allow the water to flow back down when it isn’t. (Riverbank has developed a system that will work even in flat terrain, by pumping the water down into the ground and then bringing it up again). Many nuclear plants already depend on hydropumps to smooth out interruptions. One problem is that the Federal licensing of hydropumps needs to be streamlined, though the Obama administration has acted a little more quickly than its predecessor.
For a brief moment in April, Xcel in Colorado was generating 51% of its electricity from wind. It then scaled back to 17% as demand increased. A smart grid, operated by sophisticated new computer software like that being developed by Oracle, will help make this sort of source-switching commonplace.
When today’s pre-teens hit college, they’ll look back on Romney’s bromides against renewable energy and his advocacy of coal the way people in 1916 looked back on late 19th-century naysayers who insisted automobiles were impossible and horse transport was the future.