The best thing to happen to America
Let’s talk about wind
A survey in November 2016 of 1,000 people conducted by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies found that 75% of Trump voters supported “accelerating the deployment and use of clean energy.”
This isn’t surprising. Historically, wind has disproportionately benefitted states that vote Republican (85% of the US wind energy capacity is in Republican districts). That’s why 80% of conservatives support wind energy, and why many Republican governors support clean energy.
“If [Trump] wants to do away with [the wind tax credit], he’ll do it over my dead body.” — Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)
The wind industry basically exists in rural America — over 99% of wind energy capacity in the US is in rural areas, and 71% in low-income counties. These towns have received an enormous amount of the benefit from the annual ~$15B of investments that are made to the wind industry. Every year, farmers and ranchers who host wind turbines are paid $245M in lease payments, even allowing some towns to eliminate taxes for nearly a decade.
On top of these lease payments, the wind industry has also created hundreds of thousands of jobs. This is because wind turbines have to be largely manufactured domestically, since the components of wind are large and would be a transportation burden if they were produced internationally.
“The nation’s wind and solar energy resources are transforming low-income rural areas in ways not seen since the passage of the Homestead Act.” — Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), Gina Raimondo (D -Rhode Island)
Wind energy is one of the best things that have happened to America.
But the success of wind energy in the US has largely been in spite of the policy around it. Ironically, it’s the home states of leading critics of renewable energy tax credits and environmental incentives (Ted Cruz of Texas, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Pat Roberts of Kansas, etc.) that have benefitted the most from the US’s shift to renewable energy. Why these senators engage in self-sabotage is anyone’s guess.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented for these energy critics to support deductions and tax breaks for the energy industry. In fact, many have supported the energy subsidies for domestic gas and oil production that have continued for over a century, totaling $470 billion today. In contrast, production tax credits for renewable energy resources are only authorized for one or two years at a time. Each time the PTC renewal comes into doubt, investment and installations drop.
The intermittent nature of energy subsidies isn’t without consequence to the global competitiveness of renewable energy in the US. Take a look at the meteoric growth of the industry in China. China only moved into wind about a decade ago but became the global leader by, for example, heavily subsidizing the domestic manufacturing of its leading producer, Goldwind, and enacting policies such as feed-in tariffs that required power companies to buy the electricity produced. As a result, by the end of 2015, Goldwind became the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer. Four other Chinese companies are also among the top ten wind-turbine producers.
China only had 1.26GW in 2005. Now they have 169GW, giving them the largest wind energy fleet in the world. The US only has 82GW.
We weren’t just left behind by China. Take, for example, our offshore wind industry. The offshore wind industry is virtually all in Europe, which holds 90% of the world’s offshore wind capacity (surprise! China is the largest non-European market). Europe has nearly 13,000 MW of wind capacity — the US only has 10.8 MW.
The fact that we have almost no offshore wind isn’t inconsequential. Offshore wind is really important to the energy portfolio of any developed country, and in many cases, is the only way for a state (like NY and CA) to get to their 50% renewables by 2030 mandate. Coastal cities have limited land area, making them unsuitable for traditional land-based renewable energy options like solar or wind farms, but have the largest energy demands, with 53% of the US population living by the coasts. While coastal areas benefit from something called convection currents, a phenomenon caused by the temperature gap between water and land (making wind speeds faster, wind direction more consistent, and energy production more predictable), we haven’t been able to tap into this at all. The US offshore wind industry has remained completely undeveloped.
The US started to fall behind from about a decade ago, starting from the proposal for Cape Wind — the project was meant to be America’s first offshore wind farm. But fierce legal opposition from oil allies like the Koch brothers eventually brought the project to a halt, and stunted the growth of the US offshore wind industry.
Despite all of these roadblocks, the US wind industry is starting to take off. Of the 2016 total energy capacity additions, more than 60% were wind, compared with 33% from natural gas, and as of February of this year, wind surpassed hydropower to become the largest source of renewable electric capacity in the US. The levelized cost of electricity has declined by 20%~40% since 2008, and is anticipated to decline by another 30% in the next decade, making it the cheapest source of electricity in many parts of the country. The quality of wind turbines has also significantly improved. Wind turbine size has increased 20-fold in the last 30 years (allowing them to take advantage of faster wind speeds at higher altitudes and have a larger sweep area), and now include sensors, pitch control, collapsible wind rotors, and improved performance at lower wind speeds. The AWEA says the Eastern Interconnection could reliably and affordably obtain 30% of its electricity from wind and solar using today’s technology and tools. And the offshore wind industry is starting to move forward, with a total of 23 offshore wind projects in various stages of development in the U.S.
It’s hard to imagine just how much further the wind industry could have been had it benefited from the support of the very states that benefited from it the most. Maybe we’d still be the global leader.
At the very least, let it be of some comfort that the wind is starting to blow in our direction.
I write about energy during my free time — check them out if you’re looking to learn more about the energy industry. I’ve written about climate change, electric cars, batteries (Part I and Part II and Part III), oil, venture capital, solar, wind, Trump (Part I and Part II), Congress, the electrical grid, fuel cells, nuclear, and energy efficiency.