Wind power is just a bunch of hot air
New Interior Secretary Ken Salazar went overboard when he said recently that windmills off the East Coast could generate enough electricity to replace most, if not all, of the coal-fired power plants in the country.
"The idea that wind energy has the potential to replace most of our coal-burning power today is a very real possibility," he said during a public hearing in Atlantic City, N.J., on how the nation's offshore areas can be tapped to meet America's energy needs.
It's true that there's immense potential for wind power development onshore and offshore in the United States.
But it's impractical to think that the coal fired power industry which supplies about half of the nation's electricity could be displaced by wind turbines. And Salazar, from Colorado, should have known that such a statement would create some anxiety here in coal country, even though he said this at the same event: "We need to look at all forms of energy as we move forward into a new energy frontier."
We've said it before, and we say it again: If America wants to become more energy independent, coal must be part of the nation's energy mix.
And the technology exists to use coal in ways that are less harmful to the environment.
Placed in context with statements made by President Barack Obama and others in his administration, Salazar's comment is a little less jolting.
It is clear that the new administration is changing the nation's energy policy, putting more focus on renewables and clean energy. But coal has clearly not been taken out of the equation, even though we're not likely to see construction of many more traditional coal fired power plants.
Obama himself said last year, "This notion of no coal, I think, is an illusion, because the fact of the matter is that right now we are getting a lot of energy from coal, and China is building a coal powered plant once a week. So what we have to do, then, is we have to figure out, 'How can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gases?'"
The administration backed up that talk by including billions of dollars for clean coal research in its economic stimulus package. And it should be noted that Monday's hearing was just the first of four Salazar will hold around the country to discuss how energy resources including oil, gas and wind should be utilized.
But Salazar must be realistic in his assessment of the role wind power can play.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy projected that wind could provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030, but that will require construction of 100,000 turbines and a vast new transmission system.
As it stands now, wind generates about 1 percent of the nation's electricity.
On Monday, Salazar said ocean winds along the East Coast can generate 1 million megawatts of power, roughly the equivalent of 3,000 medium-sized coal-fired power plants, or nearly five times the number of coal plants now operating in the nation.
One wind power company official estimated it would take hundreds of thousands of windmills to harness that volume of energy.
Considering the opposition to a relatively small wind farm off Cape Cod, Mass., the chances of hundreds of thousands of turbines being installed off the East Coast seem remote.
And it's important to note that wind power isn't nearly as reliable as coal-fired power.
Comparing the energy-generating potential of coastal wind to the nation's coal-fired power industry might be useful in illustrating the resource that's available, but it's not particularly helpful in promoting the diverse energy portfolio the country needs.