When Barack Obama ran for President back in 2008, one of the ‘changes’ that he set forth was a New Energy Plan for America, which included a requirement that by 2012, 10% of US electricity would come from renewable resources. The good news is that goal was met in 2009 and today, nearly 13% of US electrical generation is from renewable sources. The one renewable energy that President Obama targeted as “the future of American energy” was wind power, even before it was dubbed the most promising renewable energy in a study published in Energy and Environmental Science in 2009.
In anticipation of the election cycle now underway, which ultimately will see energy policy kicked around by candidates, what is the state of wind power in the US? The simple answer: wind power is on the rise. For the first nine months of 2011, wind accounted for 1.45% of domestic energy production. That’s 121% higher than for the same period in 2008.
Wind energy is often touted “clean” energy as it doesn’t require fuel or water to operate and doesn’t pollute the air or water. It also doesn’t experience the price fluctuations that fossil fuels do. As more research is pouring into the industry, improvements in turbine technology are reducing costs. Because Americans make the environment a secondary priority when energy costs are high and the economy goes south, wind power offers one of the best and cheapest solutions to the long-term energy production vs. environment protection debate.
At the same time, wind energy has made such great strides because of the government. In fact, the government subsidized wind power to the tune of $5 billion in 2010, and state and local government contributed as well. At the same time, companies are investing in wind power, such as BP and Sempra recently announcing a $1 billion investment in US wind farms. Wind power is also helping to create jobs as foreign companies build turbine manufacturing plants in places desperate for recovery, such as Louisiana. Offshore wind farms are in the planning stages but will likely require years to be in production, and advocates say that offshore wind needs more government help to work, even as millions of dollars are already flowing its way.
But it seems wind power cannot blow its problems away. Wind energy suffers inherently from stable supply, because the intermittent generation from wind within a given day, from one week to the next, and month-to-month with seasonal changes make it difficult to stabilize electricity output. And massive surges to the grid can be just as bad as dead air. Another issue for the US is that the best locations for wind farms are in the middle of the country, as can be seen in a map of the mean annual wind speeds at turbine heights, but the greatest demand for electricity is on the coasts, whose best bet is offshore wind farms in certain locations. Transport of wind-generated electricity to those areas is not currently possible (though research is underway), which basically makes dependence on other energy sources mandatory for those periods when the wind dies down. Finally, the introduction of wind turbines has received mixed response from the public, with some people (often from the not-in-my-back-yard sector) complaining about the noise, health concerns, property values, and the impact on aesthetics, which have been mostly nixed.
So, how will wind power do in 2012? It ought to be a huge year. With the expectation that the government’s Production Tax Credit will expire at the end of this year, projects are scrambling to get orders in. The potential for growth is even higher as a new study shows that extension of the tax credit could create 100,000 jobs in the US in the next 4 years. At the same time, if the tax credit expires, it is believed that 37,000 American jobs could be lost and research in wind would drop incredibly. It seems then that all eyes will be on H.R. 3307 for the make-or-break extension of the credit before year’s end, which could very well come down to the wire as it is pushed until after the election in November.
In the long term, the US Energy Information Administration in its Annual Energy Outlook for 2011 projected that non-hydropower-based renewable energy will increase over the next 25 years with wind power doubling its contribution to total renewable energy. Growth in wind power is projected to flatten out if the tax credit is not extended meaning only one third of the growth in wind power seen between 2009 and 2012 is expected from 2012 to 2035.
Around the world, wind power added the most new capacity among renewable energy last year with China leading the world in turbine installations. We’ve recently covered the growth of offshore wind facilities in the EU. However, BP recently stated that while renewable energy in general will grow globally over the next few decades, it’s total contribution will only be around 5% to total energy production, with China and the US being the biggest producers for growth. So, it seems that the recent success of US wind power may very well turn out to be merely a correction to America’s overdependence on oil, rather than the solution to the country’s energy problems as claimed by President Obama and others.
Still, things change. For instance, nuclear power was once “the energy solution.” But last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan led to a nuclear disaster and caused nations around the world to curb their plans for nuclear power amid radiation fears. Renewable energy reached an important milestone when domestic production surpassed that of nuclear power and is now producing more than 18% of nuclear power. Odds are that as the brake will be put on nuclear energy, the potential for wind power will look brighter and brighter.
US energy policy is complicated but wind power is increasingly seen as part of the equation, unlike solar energy. The steps that the Obama administration have taken toward making wind power part of America’s energy future have been good, but whether they will be successful depends on too many factors at this point to know for certain.
To get just a brief sense of what is at stake this year, check out this video from the American Wind Energy Association discussing the jobs on the line: