An introduction to the state of wind power in the U.S.

Yale Climate Connections

Rural and often conservative states are leading the way in harnessing the wind.

By Philip Warburg; Monday, October 7, 2019
Farm and wind turbine
The Meadow Lake Wind Farm, northwest of Indianapolis, generates enough power for 220,000 average Indiana homes. (Photo credit: Philip Warburg)

Advances in technology, improved economics, and broad political support are making wind power a formidable twenty-first century energy resource. Top-ranking Denmark draws 41% of its electricity from wind; Ireland follows with 28%; the European Union as a whole gets 14% of its power from wind.

America’s wind farms currently produce 6.6% of the nation’s electricity. As a share of total power generation, that may sound relatively modest, but the U.S. ranks second only to China in the quantity of power-generating capacity that comes from wind. Moreover, the U.S. has scarcely begun to tap its vast wind power potential. On land, U.S. wind resources are capable of yielding about nine times the nation’s power needs. Offshore wind – wholly unexploited to date – could meet nearly twice the nation’s electricity demand.

Looking ahead, the Department of Energy has prepared a scenario for 35% wind reliance by 2050. While that level of wind generation sounds like major progress, it may be substantially less than is needed for renewable energy resources to be the primary drivers of a net-zero carbon U.S. economy.

Wind power’s evolution

Wind power has served various purposes in America since colonial times, but it first became available as a source of electricity in the early 20th century, when modestly scaled wind chargers supplied power to thousands of American homesteads and farm operations. Soon, however, a built-out grid brought centrally generated electricity to the nation’s rural areas, leaving little room for small-scale wind. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the Arab oil embargo and a growing interest in renewable energy gave rise to a second wave of American wind power.

In 1978, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) broke open the U.S. power market by requiring utilities to buy electricity from independent companies so long as they could generate electricity at less than the “avoided cost” of new utility-generated power. That law paved the way for America’s first commercial wind farm developers. A federal investment tax credit gave wind farms an additional push, particularly in California where a matching state tax credit earned renewable energy investors a 50% combined tax break.

These incentives created a super-heated climate for eager wind energy entrepreneurs. Often relying on minimally tested technology, California’s early wind farms experienced a high rate of mechanical and structural failure, supplying ample fodder to politicians who much preferred mining domestic coal and drilling for oil and gas.

The federal investment tax credit lapsed in 1985 and the California tax credit ratcheted down over the subsequent two years, slowing commitments to new wind projects. A federal incentive for wind was revived in 1992, but this time it was reformulated as a production tax credit that rewarded the actual generation of electricity. Hampered by repeated delays in reauthorization, the federal production tax credit has nevertheless been a key catalyst to wind power’s ascent, reinforced by widely adopted state-level renewable electricity standards that require utilities to increase their reliance on wind and other sources of renewable energy.

The scaling up and declining cost of wind power

The average wind turbine today is nearly three times taller than turbines built in the early 1990s. [See Figure 1.] This allows modern wind farms to tap the stronger, more constant winds that prevail at higher altitudes. Because wind power increases as the cube of wind speed, the gains from taller towers are particularly momentous.

A further boost to output comes from development and use of much larger rotors. Applying the formula for the area of a circle (A= π r2), an increase in blade length (i.e. rotor radius) translates into a disproportionate expansion of the rotor’s “swept area,” a key to determining the amount of wind that is captured and converted into electricity.

Figure 1
Source: Berkeley Lab, 2016

While wind turbines have grown dramatically in size, the cost of building and operating U.S. wind farms has dropped in recent years, making them now fully competitive with the two other leading sources of new power generation: solar photovoltaics and combined cycle gas. According to Lazard, the levelized cost of land-based wind power ranges from $29 to $56 per megawatt-hour; photovoltaics cost from $36 to $46 per megawatt-hour; and combined cycle gas runs from $41 to $74 per megawatt-hour. Nuclear power is much more expensive at $112 to $189 per megawatt-hour.

The geopolitics of wind

As a non-carbon-emitting technology, wind power has a big environmental advantage over its leading fossil fuel competitors. Onshore and offshore wind has a life cycle carbon footprint of 20 grams or less of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour. The “cleanest” natural gas power plants – those that use combined cycle technology – produce more than 400 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour. Supercritical coal plants – the least polluting in the industry – generate close to 800 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour.

While attractive to many who see climate change as a real and immediate threat, wind power has developed much of its momentum in relatively conservative rural states [see Table 1]. In 2018, 13 states in the nation’s interior region accounted for more than 80% of new wind capacity additions.

Table 1
Source: American Wind Energy Association, 2019

Robust and relatively steady winds in the so-called Wind Belt, from Texas on up through the Dakotas, partially account for the heartland’s heavy investment in wind [see map]. Economics are also at play. Not only are many of the 111,000 American wind power jobs located in rural areas, but substantial financial benefits accrue to farmers and ranchers who lease out small sections of their lands to wind developers. Wind farm-generated tax revenues have also aided many cash-strapped rural communities.

NREL image
Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, AWS Truepower

Watching out for birds and bats

Estimates vary, but hundreds of thousands of birds per year are thought to be killed by wind turbines, and those numbers are expected to rise as wind power’s use expands.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an Avian Radar Project that helps wind developers identify and steer clear of major bird migratory corridors when siting new wind farms. At some operating wind farms where raptors and other vulnerable bird species may be present, specialized detection equipment and human monitors can halt turbines as birds approach.

While bird fatalities are certainly cause for concern, wind energy proponents urge that they be viewed in perspective. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 365 to 988 million birds die each year by crashing into building windows, and 89 to 340 million die in collisions with cars. Communication towers and electric utility lines cause millions of additional bird deaths annually. And the ravages of climate change caused by fossil fuel burning will wipe out vastly greater numbers of birds as entire ecosystems are disrupted.

Efforts are also being made to minimize harm to bats living near wind farms. Because bats generally fly in low winds hunting for insects, studies have shown that their mortality rates can be minimized by curtailing wind operations during these times – precisely when there are limited economic gains from keeping turbines running. The Beech Ridge Wind Energy Project, located in a wooded area of West Virginia, has been particularly engaged in these curtailment efforts.

Wind noise

Another commonly expressed concern involves noise resulting from wind power, with neighbors’ complaints ranging from irritability, headaches, and insomnia caused by audible sound to more tenuous claims of inner ear and sense of balance disturbances attributed to ultra-low frequency infrasound. While the transmission of turbine-generated sound can vary with topography and weather conditions, setting a minimum setback for wind turbines from the nearest inhabited buildings and outdoor public spaces is one important step that state and local governing bodies can take to protect wind farm neighbors and reduce public resistance to proposed projects.

Offshore wind – the next frontier

Though well advanced in several European nations, U.S. offshore wind got off to an unfortunate start with New England’s hotly contested Cape Wind project. Proposed for shallow waters near upscale vacation communities on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, Cape Wind met with vigorous opposition. Substantially funded by fossil fuel interests, opponents objected to the project’s high cost to ratepayers, but the anticipated visual impact of turbines on Nantucket Sound drew particular hostility. Backers abandoned Cape Wind in 2018.

There’s new and increasing hope for U.S. offshore wind, with numerous federal leases opening up large expanses of ocean acreage from New England down through the mid-Atlantic. Technology advances, including floating turbines, make it possible to place wind farms in deeper waters, farther from populated coastal areas. Equally important, much lower project costs now make offshore wind a realistic competitor with other sources of power generation. Public concern and official analyses now focus on balancing wind development with fisheries and marine mammal protection and with navigational safety.

The way forward

As U.S. reliance on wind power grows, there is an increased need to build enough energy storage and demand response capability to absorb surplus power when it’s generated and adjust to shortfalls when they occur. Modernized and expanded transmission also will be required, to manage the flow of electricity from diverse energy resources across broad geographical areas. Prioritizing these investments will be essential if wind is to meet its potential as a bulwark against runaway U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

AUTHOR
Philip Warburg, an environmental lawyer and former president of the Conservation Law Foundation, is the author of Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability. On twitter: @pwarburg.

Filed under: Philip Warburg

Trump’s Windmill Hatred

The following article appeared verbatim in The New York Post (not exactly a left wing rag).

Donald Trump’s windmill hatred is a worry for booming industry

By Associated Press, September 30, 2019

BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. — The winds are blowing fair for America’s wind power industry, making it one of the fastest-growing US energy sources.

Land-based turbines are rising by the thousands across America, from the remote Texas plains to farm towns of Iowa. And the US wind boom now is expanding offshore, with big corporations planning $70 billion in investment for the country’s first utility-scale offshore wind farms.

“We have been blessed to have it,” says Polly McMahon, a 13th-generation resident of Block Island, where a pioneering offshore wind farm replaced the island’s dirty and erratic diesel-fired power plant in 2016. “I hope other people are blessed too.”

But there’s an issue. And it’s a big one. President Donald Trump hates wind turbines.

He’s called them “disgusting” and “ugly” and “stupid,” denouncing them in hundreds of anti-wind tweets and public comments dating back more than a decade, when he tried and failed to block a wind farm near his Scottish golf course.

And those turbine blades. “They say the noise causes cancer,” Trump told a Republican crowd last spring, in a claim immediately rejected by the American Cancer Society.

Now, wind industry leaders and supporters fear that the federal government, under Trump, may be pulling back from what had been years of encouragement for climate-friendly wind.

The Interior Department surprised and alarmed wind industry supporters in August, when the agency unexpectedly announced it was withholding approval for the country’s first utility-scale offshore wind project, a $2.8 billion complex of 84 giant turbines. Slated for building 15 miles (24 kilometers) off Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Vineyard Wind has a brisk 2022 target for starting operations. Its Danish-Spanish partners already have contracts to supply Massachusetts electric utilities.

Investors backing more than a dozen other big wind farms are lined up to follow Vineyard Wind with offshore wind projects of their own. Shell’s renewable-energy offshoot is among the businesses ponying up for federal leases, at bids of more than $100 million, for offshore wind farm sites.

The Interior Department cited the surge in corporate interest for offshore wind projects in saying it wanted more study before moving forward. It directed Vineyard Wind to research the overall impact of the East Coast’s planned wind boom.

Interior Department spokesman Nicholas Goodwin said offshore energy remains “an important component” in the Trump administration’s energy strategy. But the strategy includes “ensuring activities are safe and environmentally responsible,” Goodwin said in a statement.

Wind power now provides a third or more of the electricity generated in some Southwest and Midwest states. And New York, New Jersey and other Eastern states already are joining Massachusetts in planning for wind-generated electricity.

Along with the US shale oil boom, the rise in wind and solar is helping cushion oil supply shocks like the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities.

But the Interior Department’s pause on the Vineyard Wind project sent a chill through many of the backers of the offshore wind boom. Critics contrast it with the Republican administration’s moves to open up offshore and Arctic areas to oil and gas development, despite strong environmental concerns.

“That I think is sort of a new bar,” for the federal government to require developers to assess the impact of not just their projects but everyone’s, said Stephanie McClellan, a researcher and director of the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind at the University of Delaware. “That worries everybody.”

Thomas Brostrom, head of US operations for Denmark’s global offshore wind giant Orsted and operator of the pioneering Block Island wind farm, said that “the last three, four years have seen unbelievable, explosive growth, much more than we could have really hoped for,” in the US, compared to Europe’s already established wind power industry.

Given all the projects in development, “we hope that this is a speed bump, and certainly not a roadblock,” Brostrom said.

Wind power and the public perception of it have changed since America’s first proposed big offshore wind project, Cape Wind off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, died an agonizing 16-year death. Koch and Kennedy families alike, along with other coastal residents, reviled Cape Wind as a potential bird-killing eyesore in their ocean views.

But technological advances since then mean wind turbines can rise much farther offshore, mostly out of sight, and produce energy more efficiently and competitively. Climate change — and the damage it will do these same coastal communities — also has many looking at wind differently now.

Federal fisheries officials have been among the main bloc calling for more study, saying they need to know more about the impacts on ocean life. Some fishing groups still fear their nets will tangle in the massive turbines, although Vineyard Wind’s offer to pay millions of dollars to offset any harm to commercial fishing won the support of others. At least one Cape Cod town council also withheld support.

A rally for Vineyard Wind after the Interior Department announced its pause drew local Chamber of Commerce leaders and many other prominent locals. Massachusetts’ Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has been traveling to Washington and calling Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to try to win his support.

At Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, instructor Chris Powicki’s Offshore Wind 101 classes and workshop have drawn nuclear and marina workers, engineers, young people and others. People are hoping wind will provide the kind of good-paying professions and trades they need to afford to stay here, Powicki says.

“Cape Cod has always been at the end of the energy supply line, or at least ever since we lost our dominance with the whale oil industry” after the 19th century, the community college instructor said. “So this is an opportunity for Cape Cod to generate its own energy.”

On land, the wind boom already is well established. By next year, 9% of the country’s electricity is expected to come from wind power, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The wind industry already claims 114,000 jobs, more than twice the number of jobs remaining in US coal mining, which is losing out in competition against cleaner, cheaper energy sources despite the Trump administration’s backing of coal.

The Trump animosity to wind power has gone beyond words in some states, especially in Ohio. A Trump campaign official was active this summer in winning a state ratepayer subsidy for coal and nuclear that also led to cutting state incentives for wind and solar.

But despite the steady gales of condemnation from the country’s wind-hater in chief, wind is booming most strongly in states that voted for Trump.

Then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now Trump’s energy secretary, pushed his state to one of the current top-four wind power states, along with Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa.

In Iowa, home to nearly 4,700 turbines that provided a third of the state’s electricity last year, wind’s popularity is such that Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley had a drone film him as he sat, grinning, atop one of the country’s biggest wind turbines.

Grassley had no patience for Trump’s claim in April that wind turbines like Iowa’s beloved ones could cause cancer.

“Idiotic,” Grassley said then.

On the East Coast, many developers and supporters of offshore wind politely demur when asked about Trump’s wind-hating tweets and comments.

But not on Block Island.

“We’re very fortunate that we got it. Very fortunate. It’s helped us,” McMahon, the retiree on Block Island, said of wind energy. “And don’t worry about the president. He’s not a nice man.”