DOE says wind could supply 35% of nation’s power by midcentury 

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2015

After three years of policy battles that left it bruised and cut off from taxpayer support, the U.S wind energy sector received a strong boost last week as the Energy Department reiterated its view that wind energy can become a leading source of U.S. domestic power over the next 35 years.

The relief came in the form of DOE’s latest prognosis for wind energy, called “Wind Vision,” which holds that U.S. turbines could meet 35 percent of the nation’s electricity demand by 2050, with near-term goals of 10 percent by 2020 and 20 percent by 2030.

“Wind power systems are now seen as a viable and competitive source of electricity across the nation,” José Zayas, director of DOE’s Wind and Water Power Technologies Office, wrote in an introduction to the nearly 300-page document. “Wind power’s emerging role is an important option in a portfolio of new energy solutions for future generations.”

Under its latest study scenario, DOE sees wind turbines operating in all 50 states, powering tens of millions of homes and businesses with clean energy while also providing “related economic and other societal benefits.” A more modest forecast — called the “business as usual” scenario — suggests wind power will account for 10 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030 and 25 percent by midcentury.

Whether large or small, such gains will depend on the wind energy sector keeping its costs low to compete with alternative energy sources. At the same time, it must secure favorable policies at both the federal and state levels, including the restoration of the recently expired production tax credit (PTC) and maintenance of state-based renewable energy standards.

Zayas noted that the industry in early 2015 finds itself at “a crossroads between the opportunities of higher energy penetration and the challenges of increased competition, policy uncertainty, access to transmission and lower energy demand.”

New numbers provide lobbying points

Experts have cautioned that markets for renewable energy, including wind and solar power, are strongly affected by the price and availability of competing lower-carbon fuels, especially natural gas. Wind energy has also historically been hamstrung by insufficient transmission infrastructure, especially lines that can carry large amounts of power from rural wind power-producing regions to major demand centers.

Perhaps most important in the near term, the industry faces an uphill climb in its efforts to restore the 2.3-cent-per-kilowatt tax credit that expired at the end of 2014 and shows little sign of being revived by a Republican-controlled Congress.

Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, said in a telephone interview that the industry will use DOE’s updated projections for wind energy as a focal point in its PTC lobbying efforts with Democrats and Republicans alike.

“We’re looking for a multi-year extension for as long as possible with the PTC,” he said. “As has occurred in the past, when there was uncertainty with the PTC, the industry has fallen off an economic cliff. We’re looking to avoid that.”

For now, the industry is touting its track record on both cost and reliability, measures that have gone in opposite directions since 2008 as project costs have dropped sharply and reliability has increased.

With nearly 66,000 megawatts of installed capacity, wind power currently accounts for 4.5 percent of the nation’s power supply, making it the fifth-largest source of electricity, according to Energy Department estimates.

DOE: Turbines may ease water constraints

The industry is riding a wave of development that began in 2014 and should continue for the next several years, with more than 13,000 MW of new capacity expected to come online by 2017. That momentum, coupled with falling development costs and key policy levers to encourage the adoption of emissions-free energy, is building high expectations behind the “Wind Vision” projections.

“This report documents how wind energy already provides major economic and environmental benefits to America, including protecting consumers against energy price spikes, and making deep cuts in pollution and water use,” John Kostyack, executive director of the Wind Energy Foundation, said in a statement. “As wind becomes one of the country’s top sources of electricity, Wind Vision promises even bigger benefits for decades to come.”

Those benefits include what DOE projects will be a 2 percent savings in electricity costs by 2050, an estimated $400 billion in avoided damages from a steep reduction in greenhouse gases, and an additional $108 billion in avoided costs related to emissions of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide from conventional power plants.

DOE also predicts that a large-scale build-out of wind energy will allow for a 23 percent reduction in water consumed by electric utilities in 2050, “with significant value in locations with constrained water availability,” like California and parts of the interior West.

AWEA’s Kiernan said these findings should help grow support within the Obama administration as well as Congress and the public for expanding wind energy across the United States.

“We’re very excited by all of the time and energy and resources that DOE has put into this analysis,” he said. “It lays out a compelling vision for how the wind industry can get to 35 percent [penetration] by 2050. We think the goals are doable, and we stand ready to achieve them.”