The Future of US Wind Power

It’s amazing to think that wind power could actually be on the decline when the alternative energy sector seems to be just taking off in the United States.  Wind power generation broke records in 2009 with 9.8 GW of new installation; however, this expansion of growth is slowing down dramatically as favorable sites are already taken and energy consumption has dropped in the US creating less demand.

Photo by Jennifer Lance

New wind power installation is declining

Despite declining rates of installation, wind power is still an important energy source for the US.  Matthew Kaplan of Emerging Energy Research states in Renewable Energy World:

2010 marks the first time since 2004 that the US wind industry will not surpass the previous year’s growth level. Despite unprecedented federal wind incentives, reverberations from the financial crisis continue to create a difficult near-term market landscape especially in light of continued energy policy uncertainty. However, the US wind market is poised to emerge from this near-term uncertainty with a clearer path toward strong future growth.

The numbers for 2010 installations are actually 40 to 60 percent lower than the previous year.

One positive reason new wind power installations are on the decline is energy consumption has fallen in the past two years. Whether as a result of economic recession or energy awareness, consumers are using less power causing utilities to “to look for less new capacity, including wind.”

Another problem facing onshore development, which will account for 95 percent of US wind power by 2025, is the availability of suitable locations.  Renewable Energy World reports:

The wind sector is suffering from its own success. In the last decade the industry has expanded from a handful of wind farm developers to a plethora. These companies have left hardly a stone unturned – or rather a breeze unmeasured – in their quest for prime, onshore wind power sites.

As a result, it is no longer easy to find large pieces of land in advanced markets with all the right ingredients for a wind project: strong and steady winds, a welcoming community and easy access to transmission. Developers find themselves jostling for position, with four of five companies sometimes vying for the same sweet spot.

It’s hard to imagine we have already used up the best onshore wind spots in this vast country, but the real issue is infrastructure in place for ease of transmission.

In the US, a lack of transmission continues to be a primary restraint to the growth of onshore wind farms. The US has land aplenty with strong wind, but it remains undeveloped for lack of a way to get the power to market. Transmission lines cost roughly US$1 million per mile to build in the US. Given that prime wind sites are often far from where the wind power is needed, the price tag is hefty and the federal government has yet to resolve who will pay the bill.

The good news is wind power is not going away, only growth is slowing down.  Resolution to problems facing the industry are not insurmountable, and hopefully utility companies will move towards replacing non-renewable sources of energy with renewables even as energy consumption decreases.

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