The news has been nothing but great lately for the wind energy industry. From plunging costs to exploding growth to a fast-expanding job market, recent developments in wind have proven clean energy can both create real economic opportunity and help us stop climate change. To put it another way, the fact that wind is supplying more and more of our power while putting more and more people to work and reducing our dependence on carbon-emitting, climate-harming fossil fuels has turned us into very big fans.
Still, there is an awful lot most people don’t know about this game-changing energy source. So, let’s jump right in.
First, give it to me straight – can wind really provide as much power as fossil fuels?
It sure can – and then some! And we mean it, too: by some estimates, wind could supply worldwide electricity consumption more than 40 times over.
When we talk about that level of potential, we don’t mean it in some big, theoretical “If all the wind in the entire world were able to be captured and turned into power…” kind of way, either. In a far-reaching study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers from Harvard University and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland found that a network of land-based 2.5-megawatt (MW) wind turbines – restricted to non-forested, ice-free, nonurban areas (i.e., places we really could build them) – operating at as little as 20 percent of their full capacity could easily supply that much electricity. Which would be more than five times the total energy the world uses in all forms (including oil, coal, and natural gas).
That same PNAS study found that in the United States, the Central Plains states – an area identified by researchers as “extending northward from Texas to the Dakotas, westward to Montana and Wyoming, and eastward to Minnesota and Iowa” – could alone accommodate wind facilities producing as much as 16 times the total current demand for electricity in the United States.
The potential is very much there – we just need to harness it.
How exactly do wind turbines work?
It’s pretty simple, really. Wind turns the turbine’s blades, which spin a shaft that is connected to a generator. The generator converts the kinetic energy in the wind into electricity.
There are two basic types of turbines: horizontal-axis and vertical-axis turbines. A vertical-axis turbine kind of looks like an eggbeater, but you are probably much more familiar with horizontal-axis wind turbines. These are the turbines that have two or three large propeller-like blades that face into the wind. Wind turbines can be built on both land and – increasingly and to great effect – offshore in large bodies of water like oceans and lakes.
So, how much electricity comes from wind in the US right now?
Not nearly as much as it should (but we’re working on it). Wind energy currently powers about 5 percent of the nation’s total overall electricity demand – though, how much electricity a given place is getting from wind power varies greatly from place-to-place and frequently day-to-day. Wind provided 66.4 percent of the power in Colorado at one point in November 2015, and at one point that same month, it reliably met more than 43 percent of Texas’ electricity demand, according to the state’s primary grid operator.
Wind power represented the largest source of new US electricity in 2015, making the country second in the world in annual wind additions that year. But when it comes to actual wind energy penetration (or how much of the total market wind generation accounts for) we trailed well behind market leaders like Denmark, which generated 42 percent of its electricity from wind power in 2015.
All of which is to say that, even as we build the infrastructure to get more and more of our electricity from clean wind energy, we continue to be far more reliant on the status quo – generating energy from environmentally harmful fossil fuels – than we really need to be.
If the industry flourishes as expected, the US Department of Energy estimates that wind could provide more than one-third of the nation’s power by 2050. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and the conditions are just right for wind power to blow up here in the US.
(OK, we’ll stop!)
Which states are the biggest wind energy producers?
Texas is by far the biggest wind energy-producing state in the US, with nearly 18,000 MW installed and accounting for about 10 percent of overall in-state electricity production in 2015. That may seem like a surprise for a state well-known for its robust oil industry, but it makes a great deal of sense when you consider its vast, generally flat topography and just how good an investment wind power has become (more on that below).
The distant runners-ups in 2015 were Iowa (with about 6,200 MW of wind capacity) and California (with close to 5,700 MW of wind capacity). However, even though they might have less wind capacity than Texas, wind power nevertheless supplied a larger share of overall electricity generation in many of these states. In Iowa, for example, wind power met more than 31 percent of overall electricity demand in 2015, the highest percentage in the nation. Kansas and South Dakota were not far behind, as both of them also generated more than 20 percent of their electricity from wind last year. States like these are proving that wind is far from a niche technology and can reliably meet a substantial portion of electricity demand.
But isn’t wind energy more expensive than energy from conventional sources?
Not at all – and it’s getting even less expensive very quickly. This wasn’t always the case, something the fossil fuel industry trumpets to mislead consumers today, but since peaking in 2008–09, the cost of wind energy has fallen dramatically.
Wind turbine prices have fallen 20 to 40 percent from their 2008 highs, per a recent report from the US Department of Energy and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), and the average levelized long-term price from wind power sales agreements has dropped to an average of around 2 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), after reaching a nearly 7 cent/kWh high in 2009.
It’s important to note that 2 cents per kWh is a nationwide average dominated by projects hailing largely from the very windy (and consequently lowest-priced) Central Plains states. But even when looked at a little more broadly, rates for electricity generated by today’s better-than-ever wind farms are currently comparable to wholesale electric power prices of 2.5-3.5 cents/kWh. Moreover, current wind energy contract prices compare very favorably to the projected future costs of electricity generated from fossil fuels.
And wind energy costs are expected to get even better in the very near future. Wind turbines are getting bigger, and as you might expect, taller installations with bigger blades can harness the power of more wind and generate more power, driving down prices even further.
Because of this and rising installations, the cost of electricity generated by wind is expected to plunge. Top experts in the field estimate that by 2030 the cost of wind-generated electricity could fall by as much as 30 percent – and even further by mid-century.
Cheaper electricity and new industry growth sound awesome, but how will it impact jobs?
The growth of the wind power industry is going to create many, many new jobs in fields such as development, construction, transportation, manufacturing, operations, and supporting services.
The forecast is even better. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, wind turbine service technician is projected to be the fastest-growing occupation in the US through 2024. Just as exciting, the median annual wage for the gig is $48,800 – that’s $13,260 more than the median annual wage among all 15 projected fastest-growing occupations.
Now, with those numbers in mind, consider that the Department of Energy (DOE) estimates wind power could support up to 426,000 jobs by 2030 and 670,000 by 2050.
By that same year, assuming the DOE’s estimates bear out and wind energy grows unabated (and without obstruction), the agency estimates that the US could avoid the emission of more than 12.3 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases; save 260 billion gallons of water (because generating electricity from wind power uses virtually no water) and $108 billion in public health costs by cutting air pollution; and prevent 22,000 premature deaths.
Just a quick reminder that we could do all of this while creating hundreds of thousands of new, well-paying jobs across the country.
Just how popular is wind energy – and why does it matter?
Maybe it’s the image of a turbine at work in the breeze without any pollution in sight, but wind energy is remarkably popular. Seventy-three percent of Americans “prefer emphasizing alternative energy, rather than gas and oil production.” That’s pretty firmly in line with the 70 percent of registered voters who have a favorable impression of wind energy, specifically.
Perhaps even more telling is wind power’s popularity in the very states where it is flourishing. In Iowa, a poll conducted by WPA Opinion Research found that 91 percent of respondents supported wind energy, and in Texas, the Texas Clean Energy Coalition similarly found that 85 percent of registered voters in the Lone Star State support growth in clean energy like wind power.
We could go on and on, but you see where we’re going – both in this piece and as a nation with clean energy. The good news is that today Americans actually have the chance to help support this growing sector and cut greenhouse gas emissions by speaking up for the EPA’s Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP). As part of the agency’s Clean Power Plan, the CEIP encourages states to invest in clean energy sources like wind, helping build a sector that already employs thousands and thousands of Americans and is helping the US reduce emissions in a big big way.