A decade ago, the federal Energy Information Administration predicted that the installed capacity of wind turbines in the United States would, at best, reach 20,000 megawatts by 2020. It was one of the EIA's patented underestimates of renewable energy sources. This morning, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) released its annual report [pdf]. Installed U.S. wind capacity as of December 2009: 35,000 megawatts. Of that, 10,000 megawatts were installed in 2009, the most in U.S. history, and 39% of the total new electricity-generating capacity installed last year, second behind natural gas. Some 3000 megawatts are currently under construction. Wind power now generates 1.8% of all U.S. electricity.
Without grants from the Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – the stimulus package – many of those new turbines now cranking power out to residences and businesses would be sitting in warehouses. And many of the 85,000 Americans employed in the wind industry in all 50 states would be in the unemployment queue.
Fourteen states have now joined the wind power "gigawatt club," that is, at least 1,000 megawatts of installed capacity. In 2008, only seven states could make that claim. In 2005, only two could. The top three? Texas, Iowa, and California. While everybody would expect the two giants to be on that list, Iowa has a bigger claim to fame than either of them. Thanks to far-sighted state policies that saw the state's first big wind farm installed at Storm Lake in 1999 when EIA was downplaying the future of wind, turbine farms and other wind installations now generate 14.2 percent of Iowa's electricity.
But, while the United States has again recaptured the lead in wind-turbine installations, tripled the number of manufacturers who install turbines to 15 in just five years, and managed with the help of the stimulus package to beat expectations during the recession, there are obstacles ahead. These include the need for new and upgraded transmission lines and nimbyism. But the chief stumbling block is the myopic lack of a federal policy that levels the playing field for expansion of wind and other renewable energy.
Needed is a federally mandated "renewable energy standard," an RES. Of all the OECD countries, the United States and Canada are the only ones that don't have an industrial policy that includes RES targets for 2020. All of Europe, Japan, Korea, India and China have set targets. As Sarah Howell, AWEA's vice president for public affairs said at a press conference Thursday, there is an ongoing race between U.S. policies and the policies of other countries when it comes to wind. Remaining competitive in this market will require a different approach in Washington.
Over the years, the failure to establish an RES created a boom-and-bust cycle for wind energy in the United States. Federal production tax credits have been highly beneficial to the industry. But these have had to be renewed by Congress every one or two years. They have sometimes expired, only to be revived at some future date. This has made it impossible for the industry or potential customers to make firm plans. And, even though the modern wind energy industry started in the United States in the 1980s, failure to set a long-term policy meant that other countries, like Denmark and Germany, leaped ahead in manufacturing and installations, respectively. As Denise Bode, CEO of the AWEA says, the wind sector "needs long-term policy certainty and market pull in order to grow."
The myopia that has afflicted U.S. energy policy for three decades had a chance for some correction in 1999 when Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson presented the Comprehensive Electricity Competition Act to Congress. Among other things, this included a federal "renewable portfolio standard" requiring that a certain level of future electricity come from renewable sources, including wind. Congress didn't go for it. Last year, as part of its comprehensive energy bill, the House of Representatives finally approved an RES of 20 percent by 2020. But the Senate is still wrangling with its version.
Last month, the Governors' Wind Energy Coalition, a bipartisan group of chief executives from 29 states, called on Congress to quickly pass an RES. A new study, the Jobs Impact of a National Renewable Electricity Standard, conducted by Navigant Consulting, Inc., found that a 25% by 2025 national RES would generate 274,000 more renewable energy jobs over a no-national RES policy.
Lower carbon emissions, added U.S. manufacturing operations, more jobs and a potential bonanza in exportable products make an RES a no-brainer. But it was a no-brainer in 1999, too, and not enough members of Congress showed they had the brains to make it happen. Is it too much to hope that the Senate shows it's learned something since then?