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[ A silver lining in a nightmare cloud ]

When Superstorm Sandy plowed through the Northeast in October leaving behind a battered electrical grid that left millions without light or heat for weeks, there were no thoughts of silver linings.

But as in most nightmares, Sandy also offered up a potentially positive lesson, this one about the resilience of clean energy. Turns out wind farms from Cuba to New Jersey survived more or less intact, and were up and running shortly after the storm.

It’s hard to deny the obvious potential of renewable energy to avert mass blackouts in the future.

Our current electricity grid relies on large power plants delivering power to a large geographical area. Fuel deliveries to large plants get interrupted and floods and storms can take these power plants down for days at a time. And in widespread disasters like Sandy, there simply isn’t enough backup power to pick up the slack. Not so wind turbines, which are constructed to withstand hurricane-force winds (120-135 mph and sometimes higher). Most shut down automatically when gales reach certain speeds, and the blades are tilted (feathered) so wind can pass through instead of engaging them. In other words, the very systems designed to harness wind are also built to withstand it.

And so in the uneasy pre-Sandy hours, wind farm operators up and down the East Coast switched their turbines into “hurricane mode” and hoped for the best. It worked. If more electricity had come from wind power in Sandy-ravaged states (currently at only 3,700 megawatts), chances are far fewer communities would have gone dark, or been back in business sooner.

There’s another thing to consider. Most climate scientists agree that the increasingly destructive force of storms like Sandy is linked to climate change, which is largely driven by rising heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels. Our warming world means rising sea levels and more coastal flooding. It also means more water vapor in the atmosphere, higher precipitation, and probably greater storm intensity. In other words, Sandy is likely a harbinger of more extreme weather to come — if we don’t take steps to stop it.

Ironically, the biggest stationary source of heat-trapping gases is coal-fired power plants, which account for an astonishing 40 percent of total U.S. global warming pollution. But wind energy has no such problem — the source of power is unlimited and pollution-free. More wind power means less warming, not to mention more great jobs and less dependence on foreign energy.

The good news is wind power is growing in the U.S. It now totals 51,630 megawatts (enough to power 13 million homes and businesses) and accounts for more than 35 percent of all new generating capacity since 2007.

But there are challenges. If Congress doesn’t renew the wind Production Tax Credit that is due to expire this year, all that growth in wind power will come to a screeching halt.

Sandy was a blunt-force wakeup call. A choice. We can continue as we’ve done for more than a century, or embrace a clean and secure energy future with wind power.

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