Even with Google plan, U.S. may not meet wind energy goal

TheMorningCalllogo In this article, Paul Pierpoint discusses the power of business, communities, colleges, and people for progress in renewable wind energy.  Pierpoint cites Google's initiatives and ecoAmerica's SEED Center intiative as progress examples, and makes the case for others to follow suit.

Posted by Paul Pierpoint on The Morning Call

October 19, 2010

Few people know it, but the United States is the largest producer of wind-generated electricity in the world. Last year, the United States passed Germany to get to the top spot. However, in terms of the percentage of our electricity produced by wind, we are pretty far down the list. With less than 2 percent of our power coming from wind, we're a long way from Germany's 7 percent or Denmark's 20 percent.

Both Denmark and Germany have national energy policies that emphasize renewable green energy. The United States does not. Given the gridlock in Washington and the deterioration of the national discourse about almost any real issues, that doesn't look likely to change any time soon.

But who needs a national energy policy when you have companies like Google? On Oct. 12, Google announced it will invest close to $2 billion in creating the infrastructure that will allow wind turbine companies to substantially expand the nation's current wind-generation capacity.

Google's Atlantic Wind Connection will provide a conduit for distribution of electricity generated from thousands of giant offshore wind turbines. According to Google, "when built out, the Atlantic Wind Connection backbone will stretch 350 miles off the coast from New Jersey to Virginia and will be able to connect 6,000 [megawatts] of offshore wind turbines." Experts say those wind turbines will be able to serve approximately 1.9 million households, increasing the total amount of wind energy generated in the United States last year by 60 percent.

Without such a distribution infrastructure, offshore developers would need to build individual distribution lines requiring significantly more upfront investment and higher costs. The Atlantic Wind Connection will allow developers to concentrate their investment on the generation of electricity.

For those concerned about their ocean-side views being marred by an army of wind turbines, the shallow waters off this part of the coast will allow the generators to be located 10-15 miles offshore — well out of sight for beachgoers.

Google's commitment to the project is big news, but it is only a start. The U.S. Department of Energy has established a 20-20 goal. If 20 percent of our electricity is to be generated by wind within 20 years, we will need to add 16,000 MW of wind production every year until 2030. That equates to about 8,000 new turbines every year plus the added distribution lines to get the power to the users.

Without public incentives to encourage investment in this initiative, or without a lot of Googles out there taking the lead, the 20-20 goal will be very difficult to achieve.

Even with the economic incentive to create this green transformation of the energy industry, success will depend on the availability of a skilled workforce to build and maintain these giant turbines and to build the new smart grid to distribute the power. America's community colleges are already out front in training the nation's green workers.

The day after Google's announcement, the American Association of Community Colleges announced the new SEED Center initiative. The Sustainable Education and Economic Development Center comprises 300 community colleges from across the nation with more signing on each day. SEED is a free resource center and online sharing environment offering curriculum resources, industry and employment information, case studies and other information to help community colleges take the lead in preparing the new green workforce.

Northampton Community College is a member of SEED. It has a strong commitment to ensuring that our students and our community are prepared for the coming green jobs. The college was one of the first in the nation to offer solar photovoltaic installation training and certification. It is now researching the potential regional demand for wind technicians.

The large-scale deployment of wind technology is still in its infancy in the Northeast. But Google's proposal, along with the explosive growth of wind turbines in the middle and western parts of the country, tells us that we will see a very different energy industry in the near future. One might even say that change is in the wind. America's community colleges are helping the nation to be ready for the change.

Paul Pierpoint of Bethlehem Township is vice president of community education and dean of the South Side Bethlehem center of Northampton Community College.

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