U.S. wind energy can become the single biggest source of U.S. electricity by mid-century and cut the average consumer’s utility bill in the process, according to a rigorous new study.
Wind’s growth from a 4.5% share of today’s U.S. electricity mix to 35% in 2050 would generate 600,000 wind industry jobs. It would also transfer wealth now going to owners of coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants to farmers, ranchers, and taxpayers through $1 billion in annual land lease payments, $440 million in lease payments for offshore wind, and over $3 billion in annual property tax payments.
“In the near and mid-term, 2020 and 2030,” Department of Energy (DOE) Wind and Water Program Director Jose Zayas said, “there is a cost to the nation to make these scenarios — 10% and 20% — happen. It is just under a 1% increase in the electricity price nationally."
"But in the longer term, by 2050," he continued, "the study’s modeling assumes innovations would make wind the most cost competitive option and saves 2% on the electricity price nationally.”
DOE’s new report, "Wind Vision: A New Era for Wind Power in the United States," also found wind will be cost competitive against traditional generation without subsidies by 2030, Zayas added.
The numbers come out of an ongoing collaboration that began during the Bush administration between DOE and over 250 experts on wind from industry, electric power system operators, environmental stewardship organizations, state and federal governmental agencies, research institutions and laboratories, and siting and permitting stakeholder groups.
Though many state renewables mandates will increase by mid-century and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plant could drive new growth, those policies did not factor into the report’s conclusions. “The analytics and forecasting did not consider policies not in place,” Zayas explained.
“The EPA Clean Power Plan was not considered in the Wind Vision because it is was not yet part of U.S. policy at the end of 2013,” Zayas said. “But wind is an incredibly powerful tool when you are looking at low carbon solutions and thinking about climate change variables like greenhouse gases and water savings.”
How wind can grow
The model predicts wind is likely to be the market’s least cost option by 2030, based on Energy Information Agency all-in economic projections for “energy demand, new energy sources needed to meet the requirements of the nation, fossil fuel costs, and many other economic factors,” Zayas said. “And it looks at not just the cost of wind, but the transmission needed for it.”
The Wind Vision report concludes U.S. wind resources will not be bottle-necked by a lack of transmission if system builders continue to annually add the equivalent of 870 miles of single-circuit, 345-kilovolt, 900-MW carrying capacity line, as they have since 1991. An expenditure of less than 2% of total electric sector costs will produce a 2.7 times increase in transmission capacity (10 million MW-miles ) by 2030 and a 4.2 times capacity increase (29 million MW-miles ) by 2050.
“Many utilities already have found ways make wind a key part of their portfolios with innovations such as forecasting and coordinating with transmission expansions,” Zayas said. “This report shows more can be integrated effectively and reliably. Wind should be central in utilities decision-making about resources.”
Wind is expected to mostly displace fossil fuel-sourced electricity generation and especially natural gas, the study concludes. As wind and grid-scale storage technologies improve and there are more geographically dispersed wind resources available to grid operators, it reports, “the fossil fleet’s role to provide energy declines while its role to provide reserves increases.”
As wind becomes the biggest single generation resource in the U.S. after 2030, it is likely to have an impact on nuclear power as well. Though it may displace other renewables, Zayas said, “Wind and solar are synergistic and complementary to one another.”
But the exact mix of avoided generation “will ultimately depend on uncertain future market conditions, including fossil fuel prices and technology costs,” the Wind Vision reports.
Not everybody has embraced the study. “Relying on windmills to produce that electricity when nuclear power is available is the energy equivalent of going to war in sailboats when nuclear ships are available,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).
“After 22 years of billions of dollars in subsidies, wind still produces only 4 percent of our electricity and the windmills work only about 30 percent of the time. Nuclear power produces 20 percent of our electricity,” Alexander added.
For renewable energy supporters, Sen. Alexander’s condescending use of the term “windmills” to describe modern wind turbines — some individually capable of generating electricity for 1,200 average homes — represents a misinformed bias. His home state of Tennessee has long been heavily involved in the nuclear power industry, and while EIA data shows that wind's share of the U.S. electric market is more than 4.5% and growing, nuclear power is declining from its current 19.5% share, according to the EIA. What's more, wind's capacity factor is nearly 40% and increasing, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Lab researchers.
Though not prescriptive, the Wind Vision Roadmap charts a detailed course through nine technical, economic, and institutional “action areas” to grow American wind energy. It offers no policy preferences, but is intended as “the beginning of an evolving, collaborative, and necessarily dynamic process,” the study explains. There should be “continual updates at least every two years, informed by its analysis.” The action areas are:
- Wind Power Resources and Site Characterization
- Wind Plant Technology Advancement
- Supply Chain, Manufacturing, and Logistics
- Wind Power Performance, Reliability, and Safety
- Wind Electricity Delivery and Integration
- Wind Siting and Permitting
- Collaboration, Education, and Outreach
- Workforce Development
- Policy Analysis
Stakeholders in each area can improve the market competitiveness of wind, the Roadmap explains, through interwoven actions to reduce the levelized cost of wind, expand the lands on which it can be developed, and increase its economic value.
Manufacturers can work on capital costs and project managers can work on expenses. Taken together that would optimize output and reduce curtailment, as would better grid integration. Lowering regulatory barriers by streamlining permitting and environmental approvals would reduce the costs of development.
More and better transmission would open up new territory to development. Improved technology such as taller turbines, longer blades, and more efficient mechanics would make low wind speed locations developable. Opening up offshore wind along both coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes is vital. Better management of wildlife, aviation, telecommunication, and environmental issues would allow more development in now-protected areas.
Policy and decision makers will be able to better see wind’s economic value if costs and benefits, especially externalized benefits, are quantified. Other economic benefits that need to be detailed include the values of wind’s domestic supply chain and local workforce and its contribution to a diverse energy portfolio as a flexible source of energy and capacity and as a hedge against fossil fuel price volatility.
The risk of not acting
There is, the roadmap concludes, a real risk in not taking action to grow U.S. wind. As the nation’s electricity demand growth continues to flatten, the structural economics of wind development is being compromised.
“If domestic markets for new installations deteriorate,” the study warns, “manufacturing may move to other active regions of the world.” That could cost the U.S. much of wind’s significant overall cumulative benefits in jobs, health, carbon reductions, environmental, and other social benefits.