By Gary Nurenberg
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- You don't have to be in the path of a hurricane to understand the power of wind.
While such storms can cause death and destruction, there is a growing conviction that wind can help fill the country's energy needs.
Wind advocates see modern turbines and wind farms as the metaphorical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
"I recognize the importance of wind power," President Bush said in February. "It's possible we could generate up to 20 percent of our electricity needs through wind."
That would be a huge jump from the 1 percent of power wind generates this year, according to figures from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).
"There's as much energy within our wind resource as there is in a Saudi oil reserve, and the wind resource is not depleted over time," says AWEA executive director Randall Swisher.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. wind energy consumption more than doubled between 2000 and 2004, from 57 trillion Btus to 143 trillion.
The amount of total installed wind capacity also grew, from 10 megawatts in 1981 to more than 10,000 by August 2006 -- enough to power more than 2.5 million homes on a typical day, according to AWEA.
As advocates urge the rapid construction of new wind farms, skeptics want a more cautious approach.
"We don't know enough at this point, nor do we have enough unbiased studies out there to evaluate what the impacts are," says Lisa Linowes of the Industrial Wind Action Group.
Plans to build a wind farm off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, have met with strong opposition from critics, who say the big wind turbines are ugly, kill birds and bats and damage property values.
"It's the proper siting and the proper review of these facilities," Linowes said. "And if we can see to it that that's happening, I think you would see opposition to wind drop off."
Wind has become an additional crop for Midwestern farmers who put turbines on their land and sell electricity to power companies.
My Organic Market -- MOM's -- in suburban Washington, D.C., is one of a growing number of businesses that get electricity from wind -- and approval from customers.
Using wind, MOM's may pay 2 or 3 percent more for electricity now, but in a typical contract the price is fixed -- which customers say saves them money in the long run against fluctuating energy costs.
Similarly, Whole Foods Market decided in January to use wind for all of its power -- making the Austin, Texas-based supermarket chain the largest buyer of wind energy in the nation, according to Time magazine.
The second largest is Vail Resorts Inc., a Colorado ski and recreation company that recently said it would also buy all of its power from wind farms.
To do so, the companies buy "wind power credits" from Boulder, Colorado-based Renewable Choice Energy, which in turn pays wind farms across the country to produce electricity.
The credits and wind power created offset the actual energy the companies use. Individuals can sign up for similar plans.
While wind credits are becoming popular, the question now is whether the industry can sell itself as a viable alternative to more conventional means of power generation over the long term.
"This industry has gone from a science project to something that is viable, on a utility scale, in the past five or 10 years," Steve Zwolinski, president of GE Wind Energy, told Fortune magazine last year.
"Will it get to 50 percent (of total energy use) in the U.S.? Probably not," Zwolinski said. "But will it get to 10 percent, 15 percent long-term, maybe a little more in the Midwestern states that are wind rich? Yes, I think it can."
Wind energy consumption more than doubled in the U.S. from 2000 to 2004.
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