Wind Power 101: It Betters Fossil Fuels, Even With Slowing Growth

If last year was a great year for the growth of solar power around the world and it still has a long way to go to equal wind power in terms of how much is installed, growth in wind power was a different story. Even though an additional 44.7 gigawatts of new wind power was installed, the rate of growth slowed for the third consecutive year, dropping to 18.7%.

That may make things sound pretty bad, but there are some interesting pieces to pick out. But first let’s get up to speed on the state of wind power today—focusing on onshore wind power.

Growth Slows, Even Though Records Are Set

As of the end of 2012, China continues to lead the world in installed wind power—something it’s done since 2009—with about 75 GW of onshore wind power and  roughly half a gigawatt of offshore wind power. The US comes in second with 60 GW (conspicuously, all onshore). This is after the two nations virtually tied in new installations last year, China with 13.2 GW and the US with 13.1 GW (resulting from a drop in Chinese installations and a new record high for installations in the US).

wind-turbines-washington

Photo: Amit Patel

Rounding out the top six places for total wind power capacity: Germany, 31.3 GW; Spain, 22.8 GW; India, 18.4 GW; Great Britain, 8.5 GW. These same nations were also leading nations for wind power growth last year: Germany and India virtually tied, adding 2.4 and 2.3 GW respectively; Britain added 1.9 GW; Spain and Italy also virtually tied with about 1.2 GW each. It total, there is 282.5 GW of wind power now installed globally.

All told though, the cumulative growth in wind power here did not add up to the growth in either the US or China alone. So let’s get back to that story.

Wind Outpaces Nuclear, Coal, Natural Gas

In both China and the US wind power has overtaken fossil fuels in some way. In China, wind power now generates more electricity than its nuclear power plants. In the US, wind power was the leading source of new electricity capacity last year —the nation added 8.8 GW of new natural gas and 4.5 GW of new coal in 2012.

China’s ambitions for wind power are also particularly impressive. The government has set a target for 100 GW of wind power by 2015—something which it will reach early if current growth trends continue. Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecasts China will add 16 GW more wind power this year, with 17-18 GW added in 2014 and 2015.

Ambitions for more wind power in the US are less lofty, with government policy supporting wind power swinging back and forth—part of the US record last year was due to a surge in the fourth quarter of the year and in December in particular, trying to get projects completed before tax credits were expected to expire—and there being no national target for x amount of wind power by such-and-such a date. In fact growth in 2013 is expected to be less than 2012.

Texas continues to lead the US in wind power, adding 1.83 GW last year. California added about 1.7 GW. Kansas, Oklahoma, and Illinois round out the top five states for wind power growth.

Wind power provides more than 10% of the electricity in nine states in 2012—in 2011, only five states could boast that—with wind providing more than 20% of Iowa’s and South Dakota’s power. Perspective: Even with the record growth last year, wind power is just 3.5% of the overall US electricity supply.

As a glimpse of what is possible today, look to Spain, where for the period from November 2012-February 2013 wind power was the leading source of electricity for the nation, generating 25% of the nation’s power, bettering both nuclear power and natural gas. Spain hopes to generate 40% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020.

Also look to Australia, for where the momentum is and what will really push wind power (and all low-carbon energy sources) forward: Recent research from Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows that wind power is supplying electricity less expensively than from either new coal and natural gas power plants.

A megawatt-hour of electricity from a new wind power project costs about $A 80, while the same amount of power from a new coal power plant costs $A 143 and $A 116 from a new natural gas power plant. Part of the reason for the price difference: Australia currently charges $23 per metric ton of carbon pollution. But even without taking into that carbon tax, new wind power would still be 14-18% cheaper than new fossil fuels.

Policy and Politics Holds Back Clean Power

As with solar power, the potential to generate electricity from wind power is enormous. Just looking at the United States, stats from the National Renewable Energy Lab show that the nation could produce roughly 10 times more electricity from wind alone as it does today from all electricity sources.

So, what’s holding things up, at least in the US?

I don’t think it’s going out of a limb to say that it’s not technology that’s holding back wind power (and renewables in general). Even if technology weren’t to advance over the next several decades, we could meet the majority of current and future power demand with what we already know how to produce. Rather, it’s the failure of economics and the failure of political will.

The failure to include the cost of pollution into the price of energy (mostly via some sort of carbon pricing), combined with a gross imbalance between support for the already hugely profitable fossil fuel industry and the developing renewable energy industry, as well as the significant political influence that polluting industries have, prohibits the nation from developing its massive renewable energy potential with the speed needed to avoid the worst of climate change.

Price carbon, remove excess support for any individual technology, prohibit the political spending of corporations, and (certainly simplifying things, but not excessively I don’t think) voila, polluting and non-polluting sources of energy can actually compete head to head—with non-polluting energy, renewable energy, energy that provides genuine energy security, not just in empty political rhetoric, rises to the surface, hopefully as quickly as logistics allow.

From his home in New York City, Mat McDermott writes about energy and resource consumption, environmental ethics, climate change, issues of animal welfare and animal consciousness, and the response of religious communities to environmental problems. He was editor of business, politics, and energy content for TreeHugger.com from 2008 though 2012. Beyond writing, Mat is an Advisor for The Bhumi Project, a Hindu environmental organization based in the UK, affiliated with the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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