Wind jobs growing with passage of tax credit, industry says

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Colorado turbine factory owned by Danish energy giant Vestas Wind Systems A/S was the backdrop for the U.S. wind energy sector’s annual report for 2015, a year marked by a 20 percent increase in wind energy employment.

American wind power supported a record 88,000 jobs at the beginning of 2016, with major firms like Vestas, General Electric Co. and Siemens AG at the core of a U.S. supply chain that now extends across all 50 states and has helped revive rural economies from Texas to Maine.

“Wind power benefits more American families than ever before,” Tom Kiernan, the American Wind Energy Association’s chief executive, said in a statement. “We’re helping young people in rural America find a job close to home. Others are getting a fresh chance to rebuild their careers by landing a job in the booming clean energy sector.”

Kiernan predicted that with the recent extension of the federal production tax credit (PTC), “our workforce should be able to grow to 380,000 jobs by 2030,” more than four times current employment levels.

The PTC, renewed for an additional five years by Congress as part of a compromise omnibus bill hammered out last December, pays 2.3 cents for every kilowatt-hour of wind energy produced by eligible projects for the first 10 years of a wind farm’s life. Under current law, the PTC will remain at 2.3 cents for the next two years before seeing a stepped-down reduction in value and phaseout at the end of 2019.

But for 2016 and 2017, while the PTC remains at full strength, developers are rushing to put more wind turbines in the ground, according to AWEA.

Installations shot up in the last quarter of 2015, resulting in nearly 8,600 megawatts of new capacity coming online in the last year. An additional 9,400 MW of wind energy capacity was under construction at the start of 2016, with another 4,900 MW in advanced stages of development, according to industry figures.

Cumulative wind energy capacity nationwide was just under 74,000 MW at year’s end, according to AWEA, and U.S. wind farms accounted for more than 191 million megawatt-hours of electricity produced in 2015, enough to power 17.5 million American homes.

The surge in wind power demand has been a boon to companies like Vestas, which operates four manufacturing facilities in Colorado and employs nearly 4,000 people there. The company also maintains a North American office in Portland, Ore., where it provides sales and service support to the U.S. and Canadian markets.

Colo. to get large wind facility

Chris Brown, president of Vestas Americas and AWEA’s incoming board chairman, said at a press conference at the company’s Brighton, Colo., nacelle plant that advances in turbine technology have allowed for a 66 percent reduction in installed wind energy costs over the last six years.

“Our job growth and cost-cutting is showing state policymakers and utilities how zero-emissions wind turbines are the economical and environmental solution for cutting carbon pollution cost-effectively,” he said.

Vestas also used the occasion to announce an agreement with Xcel Energy Inc., the nation’s No. 1 utility provider of wind power, to build a 600 MW wind farm in eastern Colorado that will rank among the nation’s largest wind power facilities. Xcel will submit the wind farm proposal to the state Public Utilities Commission in May as part of a broader proposal to add 1,000 MW of carbon-free energy to its Colorado generation mix.

Ben Fowke, the Minneapolis-based utility’s chairman, president and CEO, said in a statement that Xcel’s wind power investment, both in Colorado and across its Upper Midwest service territory, “reflects our company’s commitment to clean energy and the environment, while providing customers with the renewable energy options they want.”

Increasing demand for wind power — both from electric utilities like Xcel and from non-utility buyers like Google Inc., General Motors Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. — also helped the industry rebound from what had been a difficult stretch in 2013. That’s when the industry saw its development pipeline empty and investment plummet after Congress allowed the PTC to briefly expire before renewing it temporarily in early 2014.

Transmission capacity for wind grows

December’s five-year extension of the tax credit has infused a renewed sense of optimism within the industry. Officials point to the sector’s significant expansion in the Great Plains and Midwest as evidence that wind energy has become a viable low-cost alternative to other forms of electricity, including coal- and gas-fired power.

Texas remains the nation’s leader in wind energy production, with more than 17,700 MW of installed capacity, followed by Iowa (6,200 MW), California (5,660 MW), Oklahoma (5,184 MW) and Illinois (3,840 MW). An additional 12 states, from the Pacific Northwest to New York and Pennsylvania, produce at least 1,000 MW of wind energy, according to AWEA.

The industry is also encouraged by what it sees as critical progress in adding transmission capacity necessary to bring wind power from production sites in rural sections of the country to power markets in more densely populated Southeastern and East and West Coast states.

Transmission enabling more than 6,000 MW of wind power was completed in 2015 by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) and the Bonneville Power Administration, AWEA said, while other near-term projects could deliver more than 50,000 MW of wind energy to growing markets in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

Developers also broke ground last year on the United States’ first offshore wind farm at Block Island, roughly 3 miles off the Rhode Island coast. That project is expected to begin delivering energy to New England’s power grid by the end of 2016. An additional 13 offshore wind power projects are in the early- to mid-development stages, accounting for an additional 6,000 MW of capacity, AWEA noted.

“Made-in-the-USA wind power will help keep our economy competitive and our air clean for generations,” Kiernan said. “Our wind energy will never run out.”