GO
Loading...

Wind Power Grows 39% for the Year

Despite a crippling recession and tight credit markets, the American wind power industry grew at a blistering pace in 2009, adding 39 percent more capacity. The country is close to the point where 2 percent of its electricity will come from wind turbines.

Photo: LMT

While that is still a small share, it is up from virtually nothing a few years ago. Continued growth at such a fast pace could help the nation lower its emissions of the gases that cause global warming.

The American Wind Energy Association, in its annual report to be released on Tuesday, said the amount of capacity added last year, 9,900 megawatts, was the largest on record, and was 18 percent above the capacity added in 2008, also a banner year.

The group said the growth of wind power was helped by the federal stimulus package that passed a year ago, which extended a tax credit and provided other investment incentives for the industry.

But the group warned that the growth could slow. Much of the wind development in 2009 was caused by momentum from 2008, as huge turbines ordered then were delivered to wind farms. In 2009, the recession idled many manufacturers and new orders weakened, which could portend an installation slowdown this year.

“The U.S. wind industry shattered all installation records in 2009, and this was directly attributable to the lifeline that was provided by the stimulus package,” said Denise Bode, the trade association’s chief executive. “The second half of the year was extraordinary. But manufacturers didn’t see much growth because they had built up so much inventory.”

About as much new power-generating capacity came from wind as from natural gas last year, Ms. Bode said. Together, new wind and natural gas projects accounted for about 80 percent of all new generating capacity added in the country.

The Carbon Challenge: A CNBC Special Report
The Carbon Challenge: A CNBC Special Report

The wind industry has undergone rapid growth in recent years. Since 2002, the country’s installed base of wind turbines has jumped almost sevenfold.

Even so, the American industry has lagged behind Europe, which gets about 5 percent of its electricity from wind. The European Commission has set an ambitious mandate to achieve 20 percent of electrical production from wind and other renewable sources by 2020. Denmark has essentially achieved that goal already, and sometimes produces more wind power than it can use.

Last year, China also outlined plans to more than double the country’s wind capacity by the end of this year by investing $14.6 billion, with rapid growth planned through the end of the decade.

Concerns about global warming have sparked interest in renewable power in the United States and spurred the creation of a domestic manufacturing industry that now employs 85,000 people. Today, about half the components used in wind farms are made in the United States, compared with 25 percent in 2004, the trade group said.

Much of the growth is attributable to state laws that mandate that a portion of the local power come from renewable sources. But many hurdles remain in getting to 10 or 20 percent wind power nationally.

Wind investors have called for long-distance transmission lines between the nation’s wind-intensive regions, mostly in the Great Plains and Texas, and its biggest population centers, mostly on the coasts. The lack of such transmission is seen as a major obstacle to further expansion.

“It is not a question of lack of resources,” said Tim Stephure, an analyst at Emerging Energy Research, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. “Unlike the federal highway system or the national gas system, there is a huge lack of federal oversight for electricity. This is something that will take time, while the need for the industry is now.”

Still, the potential for wind is enormous. Mr. Stephure said that by 2020, wind’s installed capacity could be five times higher than it is today, reaching about 180,000 megawatts.

The industry has also called on Congress to pass a federal mandate requiring that a certain percentage of power come from renewable sources. Such mandates are already in place throughout the European Union and in China. In the United States, 29 states have adopted such a renewable power standard.

“The wind manufacturing sector has the potential to employ many more Americans in green jobs, but without a renewable electricity standard to provide a long-term market, the sector will be slow to grow,” the trade group said in its report.

The nation’s wind turbines generate enough electricity to power the equivalent of 9.7 million homes, according to the report. Last year, Texas consolidated its lead as the nation’s top wind producer, with a total capacity of 9,410 megawatts, about three times more than the second-largest producer, Iowa. They were followed by California, Washington and Minnesota.