Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

U.S. Energy Department Promotes Wind Energy Over Coal

By Tina Casey

The Department of Energy (DOE) has just released three major reports charting the rapid growth of the of U.S. wind energy industry. They paint a rosy outlook for future growth, too. That's interesting enough, but the timing is even more interesting. The reports were released on August 23, just two days after the Trump Administration proposed new EPA rules that would enable older, dirtier coal power plants to continue operating.

The new EPA rules are aimed at fulfilling Trump's campaign promise to save coal jobs. Nevertheless, the new wind reports indicate that U.S. coal industry will inevitably shrink, no matter what the White House does. So, which is it?

Talking up the good news about wind energy

Despite the President's affinity for coal and coal miners, the Department of Energy has been pursuing its renewable energy mission with vigor. With that in mind, the agency's choice of publicity for the three new reports is of particular interest.

DOE could have handed off the publicity chores to one of its subdivisions. That's standard for the sprawling agency, which consists of 28 separate offices and laboratories along with scores of private and academic partnerships, each of which has its own web page and social media.

Instead, DOE chose to highlight the news on its main home page, with a headline that just about guarantees sleepless nights for the U.S. coal industry:

DOE 2017 Wind Market Reports Indicate Strong Wind Power Installation Trends and Falling Prices.

DOE also promoted the three reports on Twitter, through its main @ENERGY account...
FACT: Last year, America's wind industry supported more than 105,000 jobs and saw $11 billion invested in new wind plants. More from the 2017 Wind Market Reports http://energy.gov/windreport  #NewEnergyRealism

...and through its main Facebook page:
August 23 at 11:36 AM ·
🙌 The 2017 Wind Market Reports are out! Key findings:

💨Utility-scale wind capacity is ~89 GW
🏆Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa lead the nation
⚡14 states generated more than 10% of their electricity from wind
🔻Cost of wind projects are down 33% since 2009
👷‍♀️Wind supports more than 105,000 jobs

👉 MORE: https://www.energy.gov/windreport #NewEnergyRealism

Wind energy costs are dropping

As for the reports themselves, the most dispiriting one for coal is the 2017 Wind Technologies Market Report, a product of the Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

The report totals up almost 89 gigawatts of utility scale installed wind capacity in the U.S. as of 2017, and it underscores the importance of the wind power industry to the U.S. economy.

The report found that utility scale wind projects were operating in 41 states, and wind energy contributed more than 10 percent of the electricity generation in 14 states. In four of those 14 (Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota), wind contributed more than 30 percent.

Overall, wind energy accounted for 6.3 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. That's not too impressive compared to coal, which is still hovering around the 30% mark. However, coal was at 50% just a few years ago, and the new report paints a gloomy picture for any hope of recovering to those levels.

Improvements in wind technology have already contributed to a steep drop in the cost of utility scale wind energy, and more progress is in sight:

  • Bigger turbines with longer blades are enhancing wind plant performance. Wind projects built in the past few years have seen capacity factors increase by 79 percent compared to projects installed from 1998 to 2001.

  • Wind turbine equipment prices have fallen from their highs in 2008 to $800–$950/kilowatt (kW), and these declines are pushing down project-level costs. The average installed cost of wind projects in 2017 was $1,611 per kilowatt (kW), down 33% from the peak in 2009-2010.

  • After topping out at 7¢/kWh in 2009, the average levelized long-term price from wind power sales agreements has dropped to around 2¢/kWh—though this nationwide average is dominated by projects that hail from the lowest-priced region, in the central United States.

More trouble ahead for U.S. coal

Utility scale projects are only part of the U.S. wind energy story. Of the two other reports released last week, one is the 2017 Distributed Wind Market Report from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Distributed wind energy refers to small wind turbines installed for homes, agricultural operations and other on-site applications. In terms of raw wattage, so far that market sector is no more than a flyspeck. The report lists a total installed capacity of just 1,076 megawatts overall, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam along with the 50 states.

Nevertheless, as part of the nation's move toward distributed power generation, the growth of the small-scale wind energy sector will put more pressure on utilities to shake off their dependency on large, centralized coal power plants.

The Pacific Lab explains:

Distributed wind supports our nation's goal to develop a more resilient power system, mitigate energy security concerns and power-quality issues, and deliver cleaner energy to its citizens.

As with the Wind Technologies report, the Distributed Wind report also takes note of economic benefits. According to the lab, in 2017 a total of 27 states were home to manufacturers of small wind turbines and other wind supply chain businesses.

In addition, over the past two years small wind turbine manufacturers based in the U.S. realized more than $226 million in export sales.

The U.S. offshore wind energy beast is stirring

Completing the trio is the 2017 Offshore Wind Technologies Market Update. If the first report is a buzzkill, this one is a living nightmare.

So far the U.S. offshore wind energy sector is even less developed than distributed wind. The grand total of installed offshore capacity is a mere 30 megawatts, all due to the new Block Island wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island.

According to DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, though, the genie is finally out of the bottle. The lab lists these recent developments:

  • The U.S. offshore wind industry recently took a leap forward as commercial-scale projects were competitively selected in Massachusetts (800 MW), Rhode Island (400 MW), and Connecticut (200 MW).

  • New York, New Jersey, and Maryland also have offshore wind projects in the development pipeline.

  • The U.S. offshore wind project pipeline has reached a total of 25,464 MW of capacity across 13 states, including the 30 MW Block Island Wind Farm commissioned in 2016.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of offshore wind development on coal power, and on the U.S. energy profile overall.

DOE estimates the total offshore wind energy potential of the U.S. at 10,800 gigawatts of capacity. By way of comparison, the single largest coal power plant in the U.S. is the Robert W. Scherer power plant in Georgia, which clocks in at 3.52 gigawatts. In other words, there is ample opportunity for offshore growth.

The falling cost of offshore wind globally will help accelerate the U.S. market. In Scotland, for example, a new R&D center is expected to keep the offshore industry on track for lower costs. NREL explains:

Globally, wind turbines continue to grow in capacity, hub height, and rotor diameter, which decreases overall project costs. New offshore wind turbines are being developed with 10–12 megawatts of capacity (compared to an average capacity of 2.3 MW for land-based turbines and 5.3 MW for offshore wind turbines installed in 2017).

Energy observers were highly skeptical of Trump's campaign promises, and so far his tenure in the White House has not changed the direction of the U.S. coal industry. The outlook for 2019 is a double whammy: the U.S. Energy Information Agency forecasts a continued drop in domestic consumption and decreasing demand for exports, too.

The nation has been losing coal mining jobs for generations, as ever-larger machines and explosives have taken the place of hand labor. Wind energy is just the latest twist in a much broader trend.

Photo: U.S. DOE.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey