When Bob Dylan famously sang, “the answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,” he wasn’t referring to the question of where we should get our electricity from. But, perhaps like the ancient bards of old, he caught a glimpse of the future in his nets of rhyme.
Be that as it may, the performance of the wind energy industry last year certainly gave its supporters something to sing about. In 2011, 32 percent of all electric generation capacity added to the grid came from wind. That 6,800 megawatts (MW) of new capacity, represents a 31 percent increase over the previous year and lifts the U.S. total over 50 gigawatts, equivalent to 44 coal plants, enough to power 13 million homes. That’s also close to a $14 billion investment. It’s worth noting that roughly 70 percent of the equipment was produced in the U.S.
However, much of that growth benefited from the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC), a 2.2 cent per kilowatt-hour tax credit for wind power, which helped to stimulate all that investment. The credit is scheduled to expire at the end of 2012 unless it is renewed. This has become a major campaign issue. President Obama supports extending the credit four more years, at which point wind power is expected to be at parity, meaning that it can compete with other forms of energy on a cost basis without a tax credit, and without a carbon tax. You can probably guess what the Republicans want to do. After all, they don’t seem to have any problem burning coal. Meanwhile, in what might be the final year for the PTC, another 11,800 MW are expected to be added, almost twice last year’s total.
Without the PTC, the wind boom is likely to fizzle out. Industry estimates show that production in 2013 will only be 1500 MW, or 13 percent of this year’s total. A number of wind companies have already begun announcing layoffs. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the wind industry employs around 75,000 people. Close to half that number is expected to be cut, if the PTC is allowed to expire. On the other hand, if the PTC is extended for four more years, that incentive and the stability going forward will create an even stronger boom that will add an additional 54,000 jobs to the workforce while adding enormous additional wind capacity to the grid. So, let’s see, that’s a gain of 54,000 vs. a loss of 37,000 or a total swing of 91,000 jobs.
Meanwhile, solar energy, while not adding as many MW, is adding more jobs and growing faster. As of one year ago, there were over 100,000 people employed in the solar industry, located in over 6,500 locations, some in every state. A total of 506 MW was installed in the first quarter of this year, divided among residential, commercial, and utility scale installations. That was an 85 percent increase over the previous year. Solar also has a PTC, but it is only half as much as wind gets (and does not expire this year). Still, most of this growth has been driven by panel prices which have fallen by 47 percent in the past year. This has been great news for installers and for consumers, but not so good for manufacturers, a number of whom went out of business, unable to compete with low cost panels coming in from China.
All across the country, clean energy is putting people to work. Take Illinois, for example. Last year more than 700 GW of new wind power was installed. Wind has generated tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues and created nearly 20,000 jobs. Community colleges and trade unions are now offering solar and wind programs to help fill these jobs, while creating new jobs themselves in the process.
Green energy has been a tremendous economic success story in this country, despite what the people on the right say, as they continue to harp on the Solyndra story, without even really understanding what happened there. We need to keep pushing forward for all the reasons mentioned above and many more. We can start by renewing the PTC, and, oh yes, of course, voting in November. Otherwise, this wind power boom might just have to start singing the “Tombstone Blues.”
[Image credit: WAStateDNR: Flicker Creative Commons]
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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