Wind power sees itself on fast track to benefit from new EPA rules

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Some of the nation’s top greenhouse gas-emitting states — including Texas, Illinois and California — are better positioned to meet new U.S. EPA regulations targeting utility-sector carbon dioxide emissions because they are early and aggressive adopters of wind power, according to a new analysis by the American Wind Energy Association.

In a white paper released this morning, AWEA notes that wind energy produced in the United States in 2013 resulted in a reduction of nearly 127 million tons of carbon dioxide, or roughly the equivalent of taking 20 million cars off the road, according to the Washington, D.C.-based trade group.The findings also come less than a week before the Obama administration is set to release its much anticipated draft regulation targeting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. The rules, authorized under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, are expected to place significant new pressure on electric utilities to shift their generation portfolios away from carbon-intensive fuels like coal, oil and gas in favor of nuclear energy and renewable resources like wind, solar, hydro and geothermal power.Although wind is an intermittent and sometimes unpredictable source of power, the U.S. wind energy sector believes it provides one of the most attractive pathways to lower-carbon electricity.

“Wind energy is one of the biggest, fastest, cheapest ways states can comply with the forthcoming EPA rule limiting carbon pollution from existing power plants,” AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan said in a statement. “And the best part is that many of these states and their utilities are already familiar with the affordable, reliable product that wind energy provides.”

Costs steadily declining

Nationally, wind energy accounts for 61.1 gigawatts of electric generation capacity across 39 states and Puerto Rico, with the highest concentrations of wind turbines in Texas, the Great Plains, the Midwest and the West Coast, according to AWEA data.

As a result, states in those regions are already leading the country in energy-sector carbon reductions as regional utilities take advantage of competitively priced wind energy, either by building wind farms themselves or by purchasing wind energy on long-term power purchase contracts.

The current U.S. wind turbine fleet — about 46,000 turbines — provides roughly the electrical output equivalent to 53 average coal plants or 14 average nuclear plants, according to the analysis, though wind power has traditionally not been considered a source of baseload power like coal and nuclear due to concerns about its intermittency and the challenge of cycling other power plants up or down to accommodate wind’s on-and-off nature.

But as energy storage technologies advance and transmission grids become more tailored to carry wind and solar power, renewables advocates say that the wind power “can play an even greater role in emissions reductions going forward,” according to the analysis. At the same time, costs for wind energy have been steadily declining, by 43 percent since 2009 alone, according to AWEA.

In addition to the CO2 reductions, states with large amounts of wind energy are also seeing significant declines in other traditional power sector air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, according to data compiled by AWEA using U.S. EPA’s recently developed Avoided Emissions and Generation Tool (AVERT).

Solar predicts a buildout, too

According to EPA modeling, 1 megawatt-hour of wind energy avoids 0.75 ton, or 1,500 pounds, of CO2 emissions on average, according to the white paper. That means a typical 2-megawatt wind turbine avoids between 4,000 and 4,500 tons of carbon emissions annually, equivalent to the carbon emissions of more than 700 cars.

Based on those estimates, AWEA found that 10 states have been able to reduce carbon emissions by 10 percent or more via adoption of wind energy: California, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington.

States benefiting the least from wind energy in terms of cutting the energy sector’s CO2 emissions are mostly in the Southeast and Southwest, according to the analysis. They include Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico and Virginia.

AWEA’s white paper is one of a number of industry-sponsored analyses published over the past few weeks as the June 2 deadline approaches for EPA to issue its draft greenhouse gas rule for existing power plants. Last week, the Solar Energy Industries Association sponsored a Web-based seminar in which experts predicted that a major buildout of solar power could help offset as much as 340 million tons of energy-sector CO2 emissions by the early 2020s (ClimateWire, May 21).

But a utility-sector study sponsored by the American Public Power Association raised concerns about the high costs and difficult state-by-state implementation of the new carbon regulations. Among other things, APPA said that the patchwork of state policies governing electricity markets, combined with the multi-state overlap of transmission territories and the existence of carbon markets in some states but not others, will create a highly confusing scenario for many utilities and power producers trying to comply with the rules (ClimateWire, May 21).