Tar sands oil, natural gas fracking and other notorious fossil fuel issues have been grabbing the headlines these days, but in the meantime a wind power revolution in the U.S. has been quietly bubbling up under the radar. To call attention to that fact, the Department of Energy has just issued two new reports that highlight how quickly the domestic wind market is developing into a major force for clean energy and job creation.
Helping that trend along are consumer surveys, which are beginning to reveal a preference for products made with renewable energy in general and wind energy in particular. That’s a great motivator for U.S. manufacturers to nudge their electricity provider to include more wind energy in the local grid mix, in addition to businesses that have property available for their own on site wind turbines.
All in all, DOE paints a rosy picture for businesses that are looking to attract and keep customers through the allure of wind power. However, companies looking to build their business on wind power should also be aware of two parallel developments that could throw a monkey wrench into the action.
US Wind Industry Growing Fast
On the plus side, the two reports hammer home the fact that wind energy accounted for an astonishing 43 percent of all new generating additions to the U.S. electricity grid last year, making it the single largest source of new electrical power. That’s especially impressive considering that the domestic natural gas sector has been surging, as coal fired power plants have been switching to gas.
The new wind power additions totaled up to more than 13 gigawatts last year. On top of the current wind generating capacity in the U.S. that makes for a grand total of 60 gigawatts. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s enough to power about 15 million typical homes, so although wind still accounts for a small fraction of the overall energy sector, it has become a significant one.
That’s particularly true in windy states like Iowa, South Dakota and Kansas, which now get more than 20 percent of their electricity consumption from wind.
Now consider that all of this new capacity is coming from onshore wind turbines, as the U.S. has been slow to develop its considerable offshore wind resources. That is beginning to change under the Obama Administration with the establishment of new initiatives like the Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium, helped along by new wind energy research initiatives.
Once the U.S. gets its offshore wind production up and running alongside the onshore sector, the payoff will be huge. According to the Energy Information Agency, potential offshore wind capacity alone is estimated at about 4,150 gigawatts, far outstripping the country’s existing generating capacity of 1,025 gigawatts from all sources combined.
The two reports are available from DOE at energy.gov/windreport.
A Big Payoff For Wind Power
All of this activity has translated into $25 billion in domestic investment, with DOE citing wind industry estimates of 80,000 new green jobs. A notable number of those jobs have been going to military veterans, whose diverse skill set is well suited to wind industry careers ranging from engineering and design to the physically demanding “turbine cowboy” track.
DOE also reports that more wind turbine components are being manufactured in the U.S. About 72 percent of turbine equipment installed in 2012 was manufactured domestically, compared to only 25 percent in 2006. The cost of those components has also been steadily dropping, as have maintenance costs, to the point where wind power is competitive with a range of conventional electricity prices.
A Monkey Wrench For Wind Power
Not to go all Debbie Downer on this scenario, but one of the two aforementioned glitches is the willful refusal of (sorry, there’s no politically neutral way to say this) Republican representatives in Congress to accord the renewable energy sector the same reliable taxpayer support that the fossil fuel sector has historically enjoyed.
The clearest example of this is the Production Tax Credit for wind power, which enjoyed steady bipartisan support for years until President Obama won his first election in 2008. Since then, Republican legislators have done their best to stymie renewal of the tax credit. The burden of uncertainty has put a crimp in new wind power investment, which makes the industry’s current achievements all the more impressive.
The second glitch is more of a global fuel market concern. As the US develops its vast renewable energy resources, and US consumers demand more renewables in their grid mix, the domestic demand for fossil fuels will continue to fall.
That leads to a scenario in which, rather than diminishing its exploitation of domestic oil, gas and coal resources, the US continues to accelerate that exploitation in order to serve the growing overseas market for fossil fuels, with consequent long term, negative impacts on local communities.
That scenario also ripples out to affect Canada, as the US serves as handy export points for Canadian fossil fuels, most notably through the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.
Bottom line: we’re all for growing the wind industry, but until there is a globally coordinated campaign to transition out of fossil fuels, local communities in the US will continue to be reduced to third-world status, exploited for their proximity to raw materials while suffering impacts related to natural gas fracking, mountaintop coal mining, and tar sands oil transportation among many others.
[Image: Wind turbine by pkorsmok]