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Prevailing Winds

Last month�s artwork in this column in the print magazine showed a row of wilted windmills, as a warning about relying on a source of energy not available everywhere or all the time.

This month�s photo shows a line of wind turbines sitting on straight and tall poles, a sign of success at how wind can win against the unique problems it faces.

The Future of Electricity this month describes how inventors might take advantage of wind�s distinctive traits. A variety of new wind turbine designs recognize that occasional, light winds could supplement electricity for a house or office building. Other designs tackle the needs of large wind farms hooked into the electric transmission grid, supplying electricity over wide areas.

Another tough question about wind�s future, and some answers, just came across my desk by way of Wall Street.

Standard & Poor�s, one of the country�s top financial rating firms, issued a report analyzing one aspect of wind power�s potential.

�Places where the wind blows hardest and the sun shines brightest aren�t necessarily near any electricity transmission lines,� says the S&P report. It continues, �The need to connect new renewable electricity resources such as wind farms and solar arrays to aesthetically pleasing transmission lines will lead to billions of dollars in outlays for utilities and higher bills for ratepayers.�

Uh-oh. That doesn�t sound good.

But the S&P report goes on to list several ways to control the costs of making renewable energy a larger part of the mix of fuels that supply our electricity. Those include running transmission lines underwater to avoid costly battles over land use, consolidating construction work into a single contract, and, especially, preapproval of regulatory requirements.

The report contends that if regulatory agencies would preapprove costs and rules for construction projects, utilities would have �the opportunity for higher and more stable cash flows during construction. This should also reduce the size of rate increases for customers once a renewable-related transmission line is built.�

As wind power picks up popularity, experts from bankers to engineers are starting to see the difficulties of significantly increasing the use of renewable energy not as an impossible dead end, but as a problem to be solved.

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