The Good News About Wind & Solar Power
By Bruce E. Johansen
Some of my friends call me “Doctor Doom,” because when my news is about global warming, the prognosis is usually grim. This month, however, I have some rare good news, so enjoy it. The subject is how rapidly wind power is replacing fossil fuels as a preferred source of electricity. Those of us who have been watching already know that the Omaha Public Power District for example (heretofore wholly coal- and nuclear-generated), by next year, will be about one-third wind. By that time, one-half of Iowa’s electricity also should be generated by wind power.
The costs of solar and wind power have been declining rapidly, to the point where wind competes favorably under many conditions with fossil fuels. This is an important reason why wind has suddenly become very popular as a source of electrical generation in many parts of the United States—especially in the Midwest.
Global installations of wind power increased by 35,467 and 51,447 megawatts in 2013 and 2014, respectively, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. As of the end of 2014, worldwide, total cumulative installed capacity from wind power totaled 369,553 MW—an increase of 16 percent in one year. In 2014, China was adding half of the world’s new capacity and, at 114,763 MW, was the world’s leader, with 31.7 percent of the world total. The United States was second at 65,879 (17.8 percent), followed by Germany (39,165 MW, 10.6 percent); Spain: 22,987 MW (6.2 percent); India: 22,465 MW (6.1 percent); United Kingdom: 12,440 MW (3.4 percent), and Canada: (9,694 MW, 2.6 percent). (Source: Global Wind, 2015).
Advances in wind-turbine technology adapted from the aerospace industry have reduced the cost of wind power from 38 cents per kilowatt-hour (during the early 1980s) to 3 to 6 cents. This rate is competitive with costs of power generation from fossil fuels, but costs vary according to site. Major corporations, including Shell International and British Petroluem, have been moving into wind power.
“A Glorious Wind Blows on the Prairie”
Wind-power advocates now watch the share of electricity generated by turbines day by day. “A glorious wind blows on the prairie,” remarked one such observer in Omaha in mid-April, 2015, as the share of wind power in the Southwest Power Pool (the Regional Transmission Organization that balances demand and supply) passed 25 percent on April 11 at 1:10 p.m. Central Daylight Time, during a warm, breezy afternoon in a region from North Dakota southward through northern Texas. Wind has been gaining power share so quickly that we can watch it happen. It passed 28 percent later the same day.
In 2013, for the first time, electric utilities worldwide installed more new capacity from renewable sources (143 gigawatts, mainly wind power) than fossil fuels (141 GW), according to an analysis presented April 14, 2014 at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance annual summit in New York City. Analysts with BNEF expect that the shift will continue to accelerate, and that by 2030 more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added.
“In Texas,” reported Diane Cardwell of the New York Times in 2014: “Austin Energy signed a deal this spring for 20 years of output from a solar farm at less than 5 cents a kilowatt-hour. In September, the Grand River Dam Authority in Oklahoma announced its approval of a new agreement to buy power from a new wind farm expected to be completed next year. Grand River estimated the deal would save its customers roughly $50 million from the project. Also in Oklahoma, American Electric Power ended up tripling the amount of wind power it had originally sought after seeing how low the bids came in last year. ‘Wind was on sale—it was a Blue Light Special,’ said Jay Godfrey, managing director of renewable energy for the company. He noted that Oklahoma, unlike many states, did not require utilities to buy power from renewable sources. We were doing it because it made sense for our ratepayers,’ he said.”
Advances for Solar, Too
In the meantime, a study from Lazard, an investment banking firm, said that utility-scale solar within a few years will go for as low as 5 to 6 cents a kilowatt-hour—comparable to coal and natural gas in many areas. “It is really quite notable, when compared to where we were just five years ago, to see the decline in the cost of these technologies,” said Jonathan Mir, managing director at Lazard. Wind and solar often were used, because of their intermittent nature, in combination with other fuels. By 2014, the cost of solar power had dropped 70 percent in the U.S. Southwest.
Wind capacity in the Pacific Northwest, where it is often used with hydroelectric, soared from only 25 megawatts in 1998 to more than 3,800 megawatts by 2009. During 2006, Washington State added 428 megawatts of wind power, trailing only Texas in new installations. According to Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association, the electrical grid in the Northwest is especially inviting to wind power developers because of its hydroelectric distribution network, relatively reliable wind, progressive utility companies and new state laws that establish preferences for renewable energy.
Canada also has become a serious player in wind energy, said Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association. In 2007, he said: “Canada is on the cusp of a wind energy boom as provincial governments are now targeting to have a minimum of 10,000 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity in place by 2015,” Hornung said. Hornung was close: in 2014, Canada had 9,694 MW of installed capacity.