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Tina Casey headshot

In Midst of the Pandemic, U.S. Wind Power Industry Scores Record-Breaking Year

The U.S. wind power industry set another record for turbine installation despite the pandemic, and the numbers indicate that further growth is in store.
By Tina Casey
wind power

Between supply chain disruptions and labor shortages, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with various sectors in the construction industry. However, the increasing demand for wind power in the U.S. has outweighed other factors. Last year the domestic wind industry set another record for turbine installation, and the numbers indicate that further growth is in store.

Wind power in the U.S. is a bipartisan issue, sometimes

The U.S. has a vast amount of untapped wind potential located in waters offshore, due to its long coastlines. Unfortunately, technological and political obstacles have often blocked the construction of large offshore wind farms in U.S. waters to date.

The political obstacles to the offshore wind industry have been coming mainly from the Republican side of the aisle, but the situation is different on land. The technology for land-based wind turbine projects is well in hand, and state lawmakers have the ability to make or break wind power development on their turf. While some Republican officials have thrown up wind farm roadblocks in some states, others have run with the wind power ball.

For example, the red state of Texas has been a pacesetter for the U.S. wind industry, a status that arose during the long tenure of former Governor Rick Perry. Oklahoma is another state that has built a strong wind energy profile under Republican governorship. Similarly, Iowa has been a wind energy frontrunner, thanks partly to longstanding support from Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley.

U.S. wind power by the numbers

Despite the state-by-state, patchwork pace of wind power development in the U.S., the industry as a whole has enjoyed vigorous growth, as outlined in the new Land-Based Wind Market Report issued by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

More wind energy was installed in 2020 than any other energy source, accounting for 42 percent of new U.S. capacity,” the Energy Department observed.

According to the new report, the U.S. added a record-setting 16,836 megawatts in new utility-scale wind power capacity in 2020, even as the nation was — and still is — in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Berkeley Lab also singled out a group of Republican-governed states for special attention.

“Most notably, wind power provided 57 percent of Iowas in-state electricity generation, while wind provided more than 30 percent of electricity in Kansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota and North Dakota,” the lab reported, adding that “Texas installed the most capacity with 4,137 MW.”

Other epicenters of wind power development in 2020 cited by Berkeley Lab included the Republican-governed states of Iowa, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Missouri along with Illinois, one of the few currently Democratic-governed states to top the list.

Wind power: smaller is okay, too

The Energy Department has also taken a look at small-scale wind power development through the 2021 edition of the Distributed Wind Market Report, produced by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The distributed wind sector can refer to wind turbines of practically any size, not just small ones. The deciding factor is the use of wind turbines to provide electricity to the site where they are located, or to nearby distribution grids.

In 2020, the distributed wind sector added 14.7 megawatts in capacity. That pales beside the number racked up by the utility-scale wind power sector. However, the impact on local economic development is significant, especially in rural areas. The report notes that agriculture accounted for 36 percent of distributed wind projects in 2020, and industrial customers accounted for 37 percent. Utilities and residential customers filled in the remainder.

In one especially interesting trend, early adopters of small wind turbines in raw distributed wind sector have been taking advantage of new, more efficient turbine technology.

“Small wind retrofits — new turbines installed on existing towers and foundations — have become more common, accounting for 80 percent of small wind capacity installed in 2020,” the report noted.

The interest in retrofits is also occurring in the utility-scale end of the wind power industry, where the first generation of wind farms is approaching 20 years of age or more. Having made the investment in turbine towers, land and transmission lines, developers can realize more capacity from the same wind farm by “repowering” old wind turbine towers with new technology.

What about offshore wind power?

The sorry state of the U.S. offshore wind industry stands in sharp contrast to the situation on land. A grand total of just 42 megawatts in capacity is currently located off the Atlantic coast, consisting of Rhode Island’s five-turbine, 30-megawatt Block Island wind farm and the first two turbines of the planned Skipjack wind farm off the coast of Virginia.

Nevertheless, the 2021 Offshore Wind Market Report, produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), provides a glimpse into the potential for enormous growth in job creation if political roadblocks can be overcome.

NREL counts a total of 35,324 megawatts worth of new offshore wind power in the pipeline for 2020, representing a 24 percent increase over 2019.

Unfortunately, the political roadblocks working against offshore wind power have taken a legal turn, in which the conservative “bill mill” organization ALEC reportedly has a hand.

Business leaders who see a future in wind power could help the offshore wind industry catch up to land-based development, by cutting off the money spigot that keeps ALEC and its allies alive.

Image credit: Cameron Venti/Unsplash

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