Wind farm at Palm Springs, CA. Photo: Bonita de Boer via Flickr (CC-BY 2.0).
Wind turbines generating 4.5% of US electricity
20th March 2015
Wind generates almost a twentieth of America's power, writes Kieran Cooke - and that's set to double in five years, despite the phase-out of tax credits. Now the main constraint to future expansion is power line capacity.
The elimination of tax breaks initially slowed growth in the construction of wind energy facilities, but the industry remains upbeat and says investors are still putting money into projects.
The wind turbines are turning across America, and a major report by the US Department of Energy (DOE) says the wind energy sector now supplies 4.5% of the nation's electricity.
Given the right energy policies and investment in infrastructure, that figure could increase to 10% by 2020 and to 35% by 2050, the DOE predicts.
That will benefit tens of thousands of workers who will be employed in one of the US's fastest-growing industries. It's also excellent news for those who suffer the toxic impacts of coal mining, and power station fumes - and for the climate.
It will moreover, will help preserve supplies of increasingly precious water, used in huge volumes by thermal power plants. Many parts of the western US, notably California, are in the grip of a severe long term drought.
"Deployment of wind technology for US electricity generation provides a domestic, sustainable and essentially zero carbon, zero pollution and zero water-use US electricity resource", the DOE says.
The rate of growth of wind power in the US has been impressive. In 2011 alone, nearly 3,500 turbines went up across the country. And the Natural Resources Defence Council says that a typical 250 MW (megawatt) wind farm - around 100 turbines - will create 1,073 jobs over the lifetime of the project.
The DOE says costs of wind power are dropping, while reliability and other issues are being sorted out. "Wind generation variability has a minimal and manageable impact on grid reliability and costs", the report says.
Texas is the top wind power state, followed by Iowa, California and Oklahoma. At the end of 2013, the US had 61 GW (gigawatts = 1,000 MW) installed - up from 25 GW in 2009.
The aim is to increase those figures to 113 GW by 2020, to 224 GW by 2030, and to more than 400 GW by 2050.
The DOE says that if these plans are realised, the emission into the atmosphere of more than 12 gigatonnes of climate changing greenhouse gases (GHG) will be avoided.
"Wind deployment can provide US jobs, US manufacturing and lease and tax revenues in local communities to strengthen and support a transition towards a low-carbon US economy", the report says.
The trouble is that there is considerable resistance to wind power in parts of the political establishment. The DOE report - while not directly accusing Washington of standing in the way of progress on wind - does say that "new tools, priorities and emphases" need to be set in place in order to achieve wind energy targets.
Driven by tax-breaks - now can it keep on growing without?
Policies to encourage wind development are also required. A special Wind Production Tax Credit (PTC), which effectively gave subsidies to the wind industry of about $13 billion a year, was introduced in 1992.
But when the tax credit came up for renewal in 2012, it was not retained in the tax code, and finally lapsed at the end of 2013, although the oil, gas, fracking and coal industries - all major GHG emitters - have continued to receive subsidies.
Political analysts say there is little likelihood that the PTC will be renewed by a legislature controlled by the Republican party - large parts of which are viscerally opposed to giving financial incentives to the renewable energy sector.
The elimination of tax breaks initially slowed growth in the construction of wind energy facilities, but the industry remains upbeat and says investors are still putting money into projects. Indeed the US wind industry may now have reached a level - in terms of scale, cost and proven performance - where it can keep on growing even without the tax breaks.
Rather more critical may be the urgent need to build new transmission lines to carry the power from wind farms to where it's needed. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), which represents the industry, calculates that about 900 miles of transmission lines need to be put in place each year up to 2050 if the DOE is to achieve its wind power goals.
"The US is blessed with an abundant supply of wind energy", the AWEA says. "Pairing this homegrown resource with continued technology innovation has made the US the home of the most productive wind turbines in the world."
Kieran Cooke writes for Climate News Network.
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