Scaling New Heights

Wind power has nowhere to go but up – literally. It’s probably no surprise that the fast-growing industry is optimistic about its future. After all, the sector created 23,000 new jobs last year and put more than $23 billion worth of private investment behind 100 wind projects, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). 

“Wind generation has more than tripled in the United States in just six years, exceeding 4.5 percent of total generation, and we are now focused on expanding its clean power potential to every state in the country,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told an audience at AWEA’s WINDPOWER 2015 conference in Orlando in May. “By producing the next generation of larger and more efficient wind turbines, we can create thousands of new jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as we fully unlock wind power as a critical national resource.” 

Moniz was referring to the construction and use of next-generation wind towers that are even taller than the towers that dot many parts of the Midwest and Great Plains. Those towers generally reach 80 meters in height, but Moniz says much stronger, steadier winds could be harvested if towers stretched to at least 110 meters or even as tall as 140 meters. Tower heights of 120 meters or more are already common in Europe.

“Wind turbine technology has advanced in just a few decades from the Model T era to more like that of a Tesla Model S,” AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan said at WINDPOWER. “Advanced towers, blades and improved electronics to operate and maintain the turbines are all part of this revolution.”

A recent U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report, “Enabling Wind Power Nationwide,” said that taller hubs, among other advances, would open up an additional one-fifth of U.S. land area to wind installations. This would have a big impact on many states, particularly in the Southeast. Southeastern utilities now purchase thousands of MWs of wind output from Midwest and Great Plains states.

“Our domestic wind resource is massive – enough to meet our electricity needs 10 times over – but is largely untapped,” Kiernan noted.

Industry reaction to the DOE report was understandably enthusiastic. “Taller wind towers represent a significant growth opportunity for wind energy in the United States,” stated Jacob Andersen, CEO of Siemens Wind Power and Renewables Onshore Americas. “We have experience with taller towers in Europe, and as policymakers work to address the regulatory side, we stand ready to harness our global expertise to continue the robust expansion of wind energy in the U.S.”

“What’s so exciting to me about tall towers is the way it opens new regions for wind development and makes in-region wind possible,” noted Jacob Susman, CEO and founder of OwnEnergy. “Imagine if Louisiana could get its wind from right there on the bayou, instead of having to import it from neighbor states. That’s the power of tall towers. This is a big advancement for the industry.”

Give Them a (Tax) Break

WINDPOWER attendees had more than tall towers on their minds, however. Mike Garland, president and CEO of Pattern Energy and chairman of the AWEA board, used the event to call on industry members to demand a five-year extension of the production tax credit (PTC) that, along with an investment tax credit, expired at the end of 2014. He argued that the PTC extension is necessary to incentivize the building of more turbine farms and provide the industry with certainty, even though the cost of wind power has declined nearly 60 percent in the past five years.

The AWEA, in its background materials, argues that uncertainty over the fate of the PTC “has made it difficult to make the industry fully cost-competitive.” Or as Garland said at WINDPOWER, “What we do now will determine our success for years to come. Let’s do our part and remind everyone that wind energy helps everyone, that wind is America’s clean, domestic and cheap fuel.”

Others at WINDPOWER agreed that Congress needs to provide certainty in order for the wind industry to reach goals set by the DOE, such as doubling wind’s share of U.S. energy production by 2020. 

“We’re talking about adding 10 GW a year,” said James Murphy, executive vice president, CFO and COO of Invenergy LLC. “That’s something like $15 billion of investment. We need to broaden the capital base.”

Certainly most industry players are hoping the PTC issue is settled by May 2016, when the next WINDPOWER is scheduled to take place. “The industry remains hard at work to achieve Moniz’s vision: expanding low-cost, reliable wind power to all 50 states,”  Kiernan said. “U.S. wind power created 23,000 jobs nationwide in 2014, and we hope to see many new faces next year in New Orleans for WINDPOWER 2016.” 

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