Wind energy association's first-quarter report offers reasons for optimism

Daily Kos | April 30, 2015 | Diary by Meteor Blades

The American Wind Energy Association has released its report for the first quarter of 2015, and it's quite encouraging. Indeed, for those of us who have followed renewable energy for several frustrating decades, it's fantastic. The nation's 48,000 wind turbines now provide enough electricity to power the equivalent of 16.7 million homes. And the report gives us hard statistics that make believable the Department of Energy's new Wind Vision study. That document says today’s wind-generated electricity could more than double to 10 percent by 2020, double again to 20 percent by 2030 and reach 35 percent by 2050.

attribution: Marco Förster

That's not actually enough or soon enough. But with more aggressive government policies at the state and federal level, the 2030 and 2050 Wind Vision scenarios, which would have seemed laughable at the turn of the 21st Century, can be surpassed and their timetables beaten. The same policies, plus others, can make for similar gains in solar. Getting those policies in place, however, will require beating the fossil fuel marionettes in Congress.

Across the country, new construction for some 1.2 gigawatts of new wind power has broken ground since January 1. All told there are 13.6 gigawatts under construction at 100 projects in 23 states. Total U.S. installed capacity is now 66.008 gigawatts.

That is still just 6 percent of the nation's total of nearly 1,100 gigawatts of installed capacity from all sources of power. Coal-fired power plants generated 39 percent of total U.S. electricity in 2014 while wind generated just 4.6 percent. But while coal generation is falling, wind is soaring. In fact, wind power was the leading source of of new electricity generation last year.

By the end of 2015, according to a white paper from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, there will be 18.3 additional gigawatts of installed renewables capacity—9.1 gigawatts of solar and 8.9 gigawatts of wind. The U.S. Energy Information Administration puts the wind component a bit higher and the solar component far lower, but its methodology has given it a poor record of predictions when it comes to renewables. In 2005, for instance, it predicted wind power capacity would reach only 63 gigawatts by 2030. By the end of 2012, there were already 60 gigawatts.

At the beginning of 2015, there were 50,000 construction and 23,000 manufacturing jobs in U.S. wind energy, with more than 20,000 added in 2014 alone. Michelle Froese reports:

“These latest numbers confirm that the immediate future for the wind industry is bright, as we’re seeing the second highest construction levels in U.S. history for new wind projects,” said Hannah Hunt, Research Analyst for AWEA and author of AWEA’s first quarter market report.  [...]

The top state with the most under construction is Texas, where a “wind rush” is underway with more than 7,800 [megawatts] being built, most of it connected to the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) transmission lines in West Texas. Rounding out the top five are Oklahoma with over 890 MW under construction, Kansas with more than 870 MW, New Mexico with 680 MW, and North Dakota with over 530 MW.

The U.S. now generates more electricity from wind than any other nation. Iowa is the No. 1 state in this regard. In 2014, it produced 28.5 percent of its electricity from wind power. But it wasn't just electricity the wind industry brought to the Hawkeye State. There was $10 billion in capital investment, 4,000 jobs and more than $15 million a year in payments to land-owners. Iowa has bipartisan support for policies at the state and federal level to keep this success story going.

The key policy: the production tax credit that provides subsidies for solar, wind and geothermal sources:

“The strong activity we’re seeing in Texas right now can be traced back to a strong, successful policy—namely the PTC,” said Steve Irvin, Executive Vice President of EDP Renewables North America, whose company has operating wind farms in Texas, and is slated to begin construction on more in the state. EDP Renewables ranks amongst the top five owners of wind farms in the U.S. “Extending the tax credit is critical for us to have the stability we need to plan our business and do our part to help grow this homegrown industry.”

"Texas is enjoying a rural economic development boom thanks to wind energy investments in our state," said Jeff Clark, Executive Director of the Texas-based Wind Coalition. "Wind energy projects are putting Texans to work, lowering energy prices for consumers, and bringing dramatic increases to local tax bases. Texas policies are succeeding. With the legislature meeting in Austin, we urge Texas lawmakers to stay the course on renewable energy and continue to invite energy investment in our growing state."

All these gigawatts of new wind power (as well as natural gas turbines) have been accompanied by another extremely positive development, the shutdown of coal-fired power plants and elimination of their heavy contribution of carbon dioxide to our already-overburdened atmosphere.

The EIA reports that "Nearly 16 GW of generating capacity is expected to retire in 2015, 81% of which (12.9 gigawatts) is coal-fired generation." By 2020, 30 to 49 more gigawatts of coal-fired capacity could be retired, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, as consequence of its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule and the rules curtailing carbon dioxide emissions on power plants. But power plant rules are currently being litigated, primarily by states who don't want to comply.

Over the long haul, and that should mean 25 years not twice as many as many analysts propose, we need to replace all those plants fired by coal, natural gas and uranium with renewables. One of the key aspects of that is a full-fledged government-funded program for building green infrastructure, including smart grids, to lubricate the path toward this goal.

Right now, we have a retrograde Congress that isn't amenable to such a project. While some of the goals can be achieved via state government policies, a federal hand is needed as well. Which means booting enough senators and representatives who continue to pretend that global warming is a hoax.

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.