Interior secretary: Wind could replace coal power

Windmills on the East Coast alone could generate enough electricity to replace all U.S. coal-fired power plants, says Ken Salazar, who catches heat from the coal lobby.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is optimistic about the potential of wind power to help wean the U.S. from dependence on foreign oil.

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"The idea that wind energy has the potential to replace most of our coal-burning power today is a very real possibility," he said. "It is not technology that is pie-in-the-sky; it is here and now," Salazar said, according to an AP report, at a meeting in Atlantic City, N.J., Monday.

Salazar is hosting four regional public meetings in April to discuss the future of offshore energy development on the nation's Outer Continental Shelf on the East Coast.

At the Atlantic City forum, he presented (PDF) estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that said wind has a gross resource of 463 gigawatts of power in the mid-Atlantic area alone. The current U.S. total production of electricity from coal is 366 gigawatts, according to the Energy Information Administration.

However, a large portion of the potential wind power is located out in deep waters. The laboratory assumes that about 40 percent of wind potential could actually be developed, totaling 185 gigawatts, or enough to power about 53.3 million average U.S. homes.

European countries, including Denmark and the U.K., have installed offshore wind parks. But so far not one offshore wind park has been built in the United States. Cape Wind in the Nantucket Sound hopes to be the first, but it is still fighting for approval .

A member of the American Coal Council, for example, told the Associated Press he thinks Salazar is too optimistic with his offshore wind estimates, and questions what will happen on days the wind is not strong enough.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar U.S. Department of the Interior

The offshore energy development on the Outer Continental Shelf could also include controversial offshore oil drilling, a popular topic last year when gas prices hovered around $4 per gallon. A moratorium on offshore oil drilling has expired and Salazar also presented a potential for new energy there.

After more than 50 years of exploration and development, 70 percent of total resources are yet to be discovered, he estimates. More than half of this potential exists in areas of the Outer Continental Shelf outside the central and western Gulf of Mexico.

But the seismic data, upon which these estimates are based, is often more than 25 years old, and Salazar said in a press release that department scientists discovered huge information gaps about the location and extent of offshore oil and gas resources.

President Barack Obama and Congress must now decide whether to allow drilling off the East Coast.

Salazar continued his tour with a similar forum Wednesday in New Orleans, where oil and gas industry representatives expressed concern about the Obama Administration promotion of renewables. They claim that green energy cannot possibly provide all U.S. energy needs in the coming years--if ever. Offshore oil drilling is a must, they maintain.

"All areas of the Outer Continental Shelf should be open without delay for oil and natural gas development," Sara Banaszak, senior economist at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a press statement.

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    Erik Palm, a business reporter for Swedish national television, is joining CNET News as a spring 2009 fellow with Stanford University's Innovation Journalism program. When he's not working, he enjoys kayaking and exploring California's hiking trails. E-mail Erik.

     

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