There's an old joke in Brazil that it is the nation of the future--and always will be. For decades the same has been said of the renewable-energy industry. Someday soon, its promoters kept promising, solar cells and wind turbines would produce electricity more cheaply than would traditional plants burning coal and oil and natural gas. There have been many false dawns, as fossil-fuel prices soared and then swooned. But the promised day appears finally to have arrived at, among other places, windswept hilltops in Texas and Colorado. On King Mountain, near McCamey, Texas, Renewable Energy Systems has teamed with Cielo Wind Power to build one of the world's largest wind-powered generating facilities, with a capacity to light as many as 139,000 homes. This was no feel-good exercise. Wind power was chosen according to the cold calculus of business. It will produce electricity over the 20-year life of the facility for an estimated 3[cents] to 6[cents] a kilowatt-hour (kw-h). That compares with a recent average of 7.6[cents] a kw-h charged by Texas utilities. Using a similar calculation in late March of this year, the Public Utility Commission in Colorado chose wind over gas to power a new generating station built by Excel in Lamar. Brian Evans of Renewable Energy Systems expects that wind power could explode to supply 20% of America's electricity within 20 years. Exults Hal Harvey, president of the Energy Foundation, based in San Francisco: "We've found the holy grail: wind is now cheaper than any fossil fuel-based power source."
Since 1998, wind power has been the fastest-growing new source of electricity in the world, expanding an average of 30% a year. Sales of photovoltaic panels (also known as solar cells), which convert the sun's energy directly into electricity, grew by 37% last year. At high-tech companies and hospitals, executives with a special concern about power disruptions are looking at fuel cells to supply clean and reliable power on site (albeit at prices that currently remain higher on average than those charged by the big utilities).
The value of the world's electrical power generated from renewable sources such as wind and solar is about $7 billion--up from less than $1 billion a decade ago, but still a tiny fraction of the total electricity market, according to a study by green-technology consultants Clean Edge, of Oakland, Calif. That study projects the renewable market to reach $82 billion by 2010, as technological advances lower the price and make renewables easier to use. And governments around the world are pushing power producers to reduce emissions that contribute to air pollution and global warming. Joel Makower, co-founder of Clean Edge, calls this moment "a unique historical opportunity" for companies that produce renewable energy.