Global Wind Grows, But At Slower Rate

The world added 44.7 gigawatts of wind power capacity in 2012, but that wasn’t enough to keep the rate of growth from slowing for the third consecutive year.

In releasing annual wind power totals, the Global Wind Energy Council cited a big drop by China – from 18 GW of new capacity added in 2011 to 13.2 GW brought online in 2012 – in holding the growth rate to just under 19 percent. In 2009, installed capacity had grown by 32 percent. In 2010, it grew 24 percent, and in 2011, 21 percent.

2012 global wind energy

The London Array in the U.K. began producing electricity in 2012 (image via London Array)

That’s not a great trend, but stepping back a bit things look better: In 10 years, global capacity has gone from 31.1 GW to 282.4 GW. And even in 2012, the GWEC said, so-called “emerging markets,” like Mexico and European nations (Sweden, Romania, Italy and Poland) beyond the traditional wind countries, pitched in with a record 12.4 GW.

“While China paused for breath, both the U.S. and European markets had exceptionally strong years,” Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the GWEC, said in a statement.

GWEC wind power

Top 10 new installed capacity, 2012 (image via GWEC)

In fact, China barely beat out the U.S. in 2012, 13,200 MW to 13,124 MW, according to GWEC data (1,000 MW equals 1 GW). The two countries together provided some 59 percent of the world’s new installed wind energy capacity in 2012.

China overtook the U.S. in 2010 as the country with the most installed wind energy capacity, and as of the end of 2012 had 75.6 GW installed (the U.S. had 60 GW), but its industry is suffering great growing pains.

GWEC wind

Top 10 cumulative capacity, December 2012 (image via GWEC)

A Greenpeace report last fall noted that only 76.7 percent of China’s wind power was actually connected to the grid, and that 12 percent of the wind energy produced in regions examined – some 10 billion kilowatt-hours – was curtailed. That is, turned away because the grid couldn’t take it. The government is now being more careful about approving projects, particularly those over 50 megawatts in capacity.

The U.S. industry, despite the record year it had in 2012, is hardly humming along smoothly itself. The 2012 record only happened because companies, fearing the end-of-year expiration of eligibility for the production tax credit, squeezed in every new project they could. Nobody expects 2013 to deliver anywhere near the total 2012 did, despite the fact the PTC was eventually extended.

Then there’s offshore wind, where the U.S. is trying to gear up but continues to register a big, fat zero. Although more costly to develop, many analysts believe offshore has better long-term potential than land-based wind, with better wind resources and fewer conflicts. There, the United Kingdom is the leader; it brought 854 MW of offshore wind capacity online in 2012, driving its total to 2,093 MW. No other country has yet to reach 1,000 MW.

The Global Wind Energy Council’s “Global Wind Statistics 2012” document is available online as a PDF.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.


  • Reply February 12, 2013

    Gerald Wilhite

    Somebody forgot to tell the technocrats in these governments that a wind generator’s actual performance in the field will be a small fraction of its theoretical capacity. Wind doesn’t blow all the time, and often blows when you don’t need it. Think of your car — it may be capable of traveling 120 mph, but its actual average speed is probably closer to 40 mph.

    • Reply February 12, 2013

      Pete Danko

      Gerald, I’ve yet to encounter anyone involved in renewable energy in government or elsewhere who doesn’t understand the concept of capacity factor with wind (as with all energy-producing technologies). It’s a key consideration in all wind power development. Why do you think otherwise?

  • Reply February 12, 2013

    Louisette Lanteigne

    The data might be outdated already because there was a 20% increase in Wind power in 2012. The US is now generating 60,000KW providing enough power for 15 million homes. More than 1200 new wind turbines will be dotted throughout Britain’s countryside over the next year and China is now expanding their programs faster due to the massive smog they have. The growth is huge in this sector right now.

    • Reply February 12, 2013

      Pete Danko

      Just to make clear, the data in this story includes 2012 additions.

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