Wind industry blows past records, but trouble looms

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The U.S. wind industry surged to multiple records last year, despite efforts to slash development funding and federal incentives, according to a report today from the American Wind Energy Association.

The trade group said in its annual market study that wind generated a record 6.3 percent of U.S. electricity last year and employed a record 105,000 people across all 50 states. That’s a doubling of jobs from 2013.

The industry installed 7,017 megawatts of new capacity, a 9 percent jump from the previous year. Wind now supplies 30 percent of electricity in four states — Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota — the report said.

“States are where the action is happening for wind, with our federal tax credit on an orderly path to phase out by 2019,” said AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan.

“Individual states’ policy choices and the strength of their infrastructure will play a big role in determining where wind power’s future growth is channeled,” he said.

The growth was in part because of Facebook, which worked with PNM Resources to develop a green tariff in New Mexico that enabled two large wind farms, AWEA said.

Kiernan released the report in New Mexico, which added 570 MW of wind, a 51 percent increase for the state. Wind is expected to double there “in the near term,” AWEA said.

Facebook targeted the state in an effort to triple the size of a New Mexico data center with a $1 billion investment.

“To protect the environment, all new data centers we build are powered by 100 percent renewable energy,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last year.

Zuckerberg also traveled last year to an Oklahoma wind farm, where he said wind jobs were more “sustainable” than oil jobs.

The report comes as the wind industry faces an uncertain future. Last August, the Department of Energy released three national lab reports saying future wind growth was unpredictable because of tax policy and natural gas prices (Greenwire, Aug. 8, 2017). Forecasts after 2021 show a downturn because of the phaseout of the production tax credit, low natural gas prices, modest electricity demand growth and less of a push from state renewable portfolio standards, DOE said.

The Trump administration also is proposing a cut to wind research at DOE for fiscal 2019, although similar proposed cuts did not make it through Congress last year. Steel and aluminium tariffs could further hit the wind manufacturing industry, according to Kiernan.

In 2015, Congress extended the production tax credit for wind through 2019, and so far, lawmakers have stifled attempts to curtail those incentives. The industry points to multiple trends that will push wind forward into the 2020s, including improved technology and growth in offshore wind.

Other findings from the report:

  • About 54,000 wind turbines are operating in 41 states, Guam and Puerto Rico. Wind energy generation grew 12 percent in 2017, delivering 254 million megawatt-hours of electricity to U.S. customers.
  • Wind turbine technician is one of the country’s fastest-growing jobs, along with solar installer.
  • The Alta Wind project in California continues to be the largest wind project in the United States, with 386 wind turbines.
  • The Southeast installed its first utility-scale wind project in more than a decade at the Amazon Wind Farm U.S. East in North Carolina.
  • Ninety-nine percent of wind projects are installed on private land, with the remainder largely installed on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
  • The manufacturing market is consolidating, particularly as a result of the finalized merger between Siemens Wind Power and Gamesa last year.