The U.S. is finally beginning to tap into its offshore wind power resources, and that is good news for renewable energy advocates. However, the onshore wind industry still has plenty of room to grow. Onshore activity will continue to play a significant role in the nation’s ability to transition rapidly out of carbon intensive fuels, and into a more healthful and sustainable future.
With that in mind, here are five wind power trends to watch, from small to large.
Vertical axis wind turbines earn their name because their blades spin around the length of a central axis, instead of sweeping the air in front of a tower. Because vertical axis wind turbines take up a relatively small amount of space, they can be placed in many locations that are too small for conventional wind turbines.
Vertical axis wind turbines were all the rage around the turn of the 21st century, but earlier iterations of the technology did not live up to the promise. Today’s new breed of vertical axis wind turbines is vastly improved.
As just one indication that the technology has advanced, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory selected vertical axis technology for inclusion in its new Expeditionary Energy innovation initiative. The program aims at fostering “needle-moving” enhancements in Air Force operations on-the-go. The vertical axis company IceWind was among just eight participants included in the campaign launch.
Vertical axis wind turbines fit the model for distributed wind power, which refers to the deployment of wind turbines for on-site energy use. Corporate campuses, industrial facilities and farms are among the potential use cases. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) also includes wind turbines that feed directly into a local grid in this category. Turbines of any size can be used in a distributed wind power project.
So far the distributed wind market has been a tough nut to crack. The DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) ran the numbers for 2017 and found a total of just 1,076 megawatts in installed distributed wind capacity, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam, plus all 50 states.
In contrast, the overall wind power industry added 7,017 MW of new capacity in 2017 alone, for a total of 88,973 megawatts.
PNNL issued an update last summer, and it appears that the distributed wind market has barely moved. However, all is not lost. Last April PNNL came up with a formula for valuing distributed wind, which could help stimulate more interest. The emerging green ammonia trend could also help.
Rural electric cooperatives represent another potential avenue for growth. Last spring, the DOE described a distributed wind partnership with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Included in the rundown is a case study featuring two 10.5-megawatt wind power projects hosted by the Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative. Iowa Lakes estimates that the two projects will earn more than $300,000 per year for 20 years.
Despite concerns over reliance on imported wind turbine components, the domestic wind manufacturing sector has been growing, partly due to the anticipation of offshore activity along the Atlantic coast.
One example is provided by New Jersey. The state is leveraging its Atlantic coast and Delaware River borders to establish a new offshore wind manufacturing hub at an existing port. The forthcoming “New Jersey Wind Port” will initially focus on manufacturing monopiles, which fix conventional offshore wind turbines in the floor of the ocean.
Thousands of offshore wind turbines are anticipated for the Atlantic coast in the coming years, which will keep the new facility hopping.
Other offshore wind facilities are also in the works for other Atlantic coast states. That includes Virginia, where Siemens Gamesa plans to construct a new wind turbine blade manufacturing facility at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal.
Because wind turbine technology has become more efficient and less costly in recent years, developers now have a rolling series of opportunities to upgrade older wind farms.
In a June 2021 report on wind farm re-powering, the DOE’s Wind Energy Technologies Office describes a number of advantages. Chief among them is the ability to produce more electricity from the same footprint. Re-powering can also provide developers with opportunities to mitigate environmental and aesthetic concerns, by producing the same output with fewer wind turbines.
Re-powering also has the advantage of re-using sites that have already undergone environmental review and other steps in the permitting process. The use of existing transmission infrastructure and grid connections is another benefit.
“By modernizing the existing wind fleet, re-powering sets the stage for future wind industry investments and helps maximize wind energy use in the coming energy transition,” WETO notes.
WETO took a cue from re-powering activity in the mature wind industry of Denmark, where land for new wind farms is scarce. In 2019, re-powering accounted for 87 percent of newly installed wind turbines in Denmark, indicating that it is a “major future investment activity.”
Unlike Denmark, the U.S. still has room for new wind farms of significant size – and they keep getting bigger. Earlier this month, commercial operations commenced at the 1,050-megawatt Western Spirit Wind project, which sprawls over four counties in New Mexico. According to its developer, Pattern Energy, Western Spirit is currently the largest renewable energy project ever constructed in one phase in the U.S.
That title may not last long. Last week, the company MidAmerican Energy announced a proposal for its latest renewable energy venture in Iowa, a $3.9 billion project called Wind PRIME project also proposed by the company. If approved, it will add 2,042 megawatts of wind power to the state’s energy profile, along with 50 megawatts of solar power.
Many U.S. states have yet to take full advantage of their wind resources. As costs continue to plummet, political obstacles will carry less force, and states that have been lagging behind will still have many opportunities to catch up.
Image credit: Markus Distelrath via Pixabay
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. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.