Three ways to cash in on the wind energy boom

Oil billionaire T Boone Pickens has decided that wind power is the future of energy – he’s investing $2bn in turbines. Here are three ways for investors to profit by following him into this growing industry.

What colour shall I wear today? A striking red? A classy blue? A summery yellow?

If you're the Federal Reserve, you slap on a lovely shade of beige - the perfect complement to the gloomy news you're releasing.

The bankers' latest Beige Book Report paints a dim picture of the US economy, with "weak, soft, or subdued" growth across most of the 12 regions that the Fed covers.

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Against that, costs are rising ("stagflation" anyone? Former Fed economist John Ryding thinks so), with many businesses bemoaning high raw materials prices. Car sales at General Motors (NYSE:GM), Ford (NYSE:F) and Chrysler all slumped by double-digits.

Overall, while fears about a full-blown recession have eased (according to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke anyway), the next two quarters could see "anaemic growth," according to Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher - especially with consumer costs rising 5.6% in the year to July, home prices dropping at a 15% annual rate, and half a million job losses this year.

But there is growth in one area

Windy picks up as oil prices go down

He's not just an oilman any more. Renowned oil investor T. Boone Pickens has shifted his attention to a renewable energy resource - and is pumping a ton of money into it.

You may have seen the old fella championing the cause in television commercials recently, and across America, some ordinary citizens are jumping on board, too.

I'm talking about wind power. With oil prices still in triple-digit territory and many renewable resources (including wind power) still in their infancy, power generation isn't coming cheap these days.

Those Americans willing to shell out $5,000 for a 300lb, home-based wind turbine shouldn't expect much return on their investment anytime soon. Because they're so small, they don't generate that much electricity. But if energy prices continue to rise (as seems likely), it could pay off over time, as technology advances.

The trend is catching on, too. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has thrown his weight behind home and office-based wind power with a bold proposal to spread turbines across the city. Other cities such as Boston (with 20 turbines at Logan Airport) and San Francisco have also shown their support for the efforts - and San Francisco's government is pondering whether to offer wind power incentives.

In addition, Pickens has placed a $2 billion order with General Electric (NYSE:GE) for 667 of its wind turbines that can produce 1.5 megawatts of electricity - part of the $10 billion "Pickens Plan" for alternative energy and for wind power to make up 20% of US energy needs. Eventually, that will rise to 1,000 megawatts - enough to power 300,000 homes. And Pickens plans to pump another $6 billion into GE's coffers for turbines that will power the 4,000-megawatt Pampa Project.

As he recently stated: "We're paying $700 billion a year for foreign oil. It's breaking us as a nation, and I want to elevate that question to the presidential debate, to make it the No. 1 issue of the campaign this year."

He continues "Neither presidential candidate is talking about solving the oil problem. So we're going to make 'em talk about it. Where do you think we're going to be in 10 years when our economy is busted and we're importing 80% of our oil?"

He's got a point. Previous presidents have boldly declared their intent to free America from the shackles of foreign oil, but it's never happened. Pickens believes that wind power can compete favorably with electricity produced from natural gas.

And General Electric is on the case

Alternative energy source is boosted by General Electric

In addition to providing alternative energy sources like wind turbines, GE is also a major player in boosting America's wind power capabilities. The company will invest in 76 wind farms, which should pump out more than 4,000 megawatts of power.

Its GE Financial Services unit also recently announced that it will splash out $100 million on three wind farms in upstate New York. The farms are due to be completed during the fourth quarter and will take the state's wind-producing capacity to 47% and generate enough power (330 megawatts) for 110,000 homes.

But in terms of home and office-based wind power generation, it's a movement that is steadily gathering support - support that could grow further as technology improves and prices come down. Having a big dog like Pickens on board can only help.

Tiny turbines from the 'Aero' guys

One company leading the way in this area is AeroVironment (Nasdaq:AVAV), which sells its turbines for $6,500. Demand is high and the firm is already responsible for the turbines at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Logan Airport in Boston. It says that areas where electricity prices are high could benefit from these turbines, which could pay for themselves in four to eight years, according to an article in the New York Times.

But if you want to go with a safer, more diversified pick in this still young industry, consider GE and Siemens AG (NYSE:SI). The latter is supplying the turbines for a 500-megawatt wind farm in my British homeland.

This article was written by Martin Denholm for the Smart Profits Report.