Feds Report Record Growth In Wind Industry, Some Surprising Results

Smaller wiind turbines: becoming more popular? | Photo: tswind/Flickr/Creative Commons License

According to new reports from the U.S. Department of Energy, the nation's wind power sector is growing faster than ever before. Wind power was the United States' single largest source of new electrical generating capacity installed in 2012, and nearly three quarters of wind turbine parts installed that year were made domestically. That's a tripling of domestic production over figures from 2006. And some of the growth comes in a sector that surprised us.

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The reports, the 2012 Wind Technologies Market Report (compiled by DoE in partnership with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) and the 2012 Market Report on Wind Technologies in Distributed Applications (co-written with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) were released simultaneously on Tuesday. According to the new data, 43 percent of all new U.S. electrical power generation built in 2012 consisted of wind turbines, adding up to 13 gigawatts of new generating capacity, a doubling over 2011's figures.

Texas leads the nation in wind power with 12 gigawatts of wind capacity, more than twice what we have here in California. Iowa, South Dakota, and Kansas derive more than a fifth of their power consumption from wind.

"The tremendous growth in the U.S. wind industry over the past few years underscores the importance of consistent policy that ensures America remains a leader in clean energy innovation," said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a press release.

Of particular interest to ReWire were some of the facts mentioned in the report on distributed wind, which some analysts have suggested might be a partial solution to the wildlife risk posed by large centralized complexes of utility-scale wind turbines such as those generally found in California. At the end of 2012, says the report, 69,000 small units were providing 812 megawatts of distributed generating capacity either behind the owner's electric meter or tied directly to the local grid. Turbines ranged from the standard utility-scale size of greater than 1 megawatt in capacity that increasingly loom over California mountain passes to smaller, 100-kilowatt and under turbines.

In California, according to the California Energy Commission (CEC), the state's Emerging Renewables Program paid out about $500,000 in incentives in 2012 for 25 small wind projects that totaled 169 kilowatts in capacity.

About 3,800 distributed wind turbines were installed in the U.S. in 2012, accounting for 175 megawatts of new capacity. Of that amount, about 138 megawatts was made up of utility-scale turbines of 1 megawatt or larger capacity.

That's almost 80 percent of the total distributed capacity installed in 2012, but that figure obscures what we find most interesting. 138 megawatts' worth of turbines 1 megawatt or larger in size means, at a maximum, 138 turbines. The figure's likely considerably smaller than that, given that utility-scale turbines between 1.8 and 2.5 megawatts are common.

But call it 138 turbines. That's out of 3,800 distributed turbines installed in 2012. That means 96 percent of the wind turbines installed in a distributed generation fashion in 2012 were smaller than utility-scale in size. That's despite the utility-scale turbines being cheaper per kilowatt of capacity: $2,540 per kilowatt on average for the big turbines, while mid-sized and small turbines averaged $2,810 and a whopping $6,960 per kilowatt, respectively.

Of course, that lower cost per kilowatt doesn't help a huge amount for companies who want to install a 1-megawatt utility scale turbine if they don't have $2 million on hand. But many companies do, as they can amortize their renewable energy investment out a few years against lower energy bills with the help of their lenders. And yet at least 96 percent distributed wind installations are done on that smaller, more expensive scale.

The preference for smaller wind and the much higher price have conspired to create a market in used turbines, says the report. Refurbished small wind turbines seem to be going for about $2,000 less per kilowatt than their factory showroom equivalents.

Incidentally, neither report mentions wildlife protection issues, even, as you might expect in a market report, in the context of obstacles to wind development.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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