The U.S. wind energy boom couldn’t be coming at a better time

Source: By Chris Mooney, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Wind energy provides roughly 5 percent of U.S. demand. (Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg)

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, released last week, requires the country to use a lot more renewable energy by the year 2030 — and a lot less coal. And right on time, two new reports published Monday by the Department of Energy find that one key renewable sector — wind — is booming, a development that can only help matters when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.

The reports being released  — including the 2014 Wind Technologies Market Report, published by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — suggest that wind is being installed at a rapid rate, that its costs are plummeting, that its technologies are advancing, and that it is creating a growing number of jobs to boot.

Wind energy in the U.S. is now at 66 gigawatts of installed capacity, according to the report — providing roughly 5 percent of total U.S. electricity demand. 66 gigawatts is enough electricity to  power 17.5 million homes (a gigawatt is a billion watts). And, says Jose Zayas, who heads the wind and water power technologies office at the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, 13 more gigawatts are now “in the construction phase” and set to come online by 2016.

For reference, in 2012, the U.S. had 1063 gigawatts of total installed electricity capacity, according to the Energy Information Administration.

“It really dispels some of the past myths that you cannot have significant amounts of wind energy in the system — a variable source in the system — without really affecting the overall efficiency,” says Zayas.

In the meantime, wind now provides 73,000 jobs, the new report finds. And most striking, it found that the wholesale cost of wind energy — bought under a “power purchasing agreement,” or PPA, in which a utility or company buys power from a wind farm under a long term contract — is now just 2.35 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s the lowest it has ever been.

“At 2.35 cents per kilowatt hour, wind is cheaper than the average price of wholesale electricity in many parts of the country,” says Ryan Wiser of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a lead author of the new report.

Granted, it’s important to note that costs would not be so low without the wind production tax credit, or PTC, which covers wind projects that began by the close of 2014. Still, it’s impressive.

This may help explain why of late, companies ranging from Google to Yahoo to Microsoft have been entering into power purchase agreements with wind farms to help power their energy hungry data centers.

And even as costs decline, a key technology trend is helping further advance the sector. Simply put, wind turbines are getting taller, as well as bigger overall.

So-called “hub heights” — the level of the turbine’s central rotor hub above the ground — have increased to an average of 82.7 meters for new turbine installations, which is nearly 50 percent higher than in 1998-1999. Meanwhile, the diameter of wind rotors has increased dramatically too — newly installed turbines averaged a rotor diameter of 99.4 meters in 2014, an over 100 percent increase in size since 1998-1999.

Both of these trends increase the amount of electricity that can be generated from a given wind turbine, since there is more energy to be captured higher in the air (due to higher wind speeds), and since bigger rotors can also generate “more power at lower wind speeds,” as DOE explains.

“We want the largest rotor possible on the machine, and eventually, we want to go to higher elevation,” says the Energy Department’s Jose Zayas. Ultimately, wind turbines with hub heights as high as 140 meters could open up the possibility of wind energy in across the 50 United States, DOE has previously reported.

It’s all part of a bigger picture in which since 2007, a third of new electricity generating capacity in the U.S. has been from wind. The DOE has envisioned the possibility of getting fully 20 percent of the U.S.’s electricity from wind by 2030.

second Energy Department report being released Monday, by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, focuses on the distributed wind energy market — which, the report says, has now nearly reached a single gigawatt of installed capacity.

Distributed wind, like distributed solar, refers to wind energy — typically just one or two turbines — installed by private individuals or companies to allow them to generate a portion of the electricity they need onsite, rather than having to buy it from a utility company. Anheuser-Busch, for instance, has now installed two wind turbines at its Northern California Fairfield brewery.

Wind isn’t the only renewable sector booming — at least for rate of growth lately, solar greatly surpasses it, with the electricity generated from solar in the U.S. doubling between 2013 and 2014. However, thus far, wind contributes a larger percentage of our total electricity than does solar.

In fact, the Energy Department report notes, wind now generates over 20 percent of electricity used in three states — Iowa, South Dakota, and Kansas — and in Iowa, it generated an impressive 28.5 percent in 2014.

There is one potential downside in this story. With the wind production tax credit expired, beyond 2016 there may be less wind growth. However, the report notes, with the Clean Power Plan coming online that provides an additional incentive for states to install wind energy.

“Technological advancements, coupled with decreased energy consumption, have already placed the United States ahead of the Energy Department’s original 20% wind by 2030 milestones,” says Zayas. “With the manufacturing capacity to produce more than 9 GW of new wind turbine components annually, the United States is poised to remain one of the world’s top producers of wind energy.”