Will Wind Energy Survive 2012?

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Synopsis

Wind energy is a polarizing topic of debate. The divide is along economic as well as environmental lines. With the wind energy tax credit expiring at the end of 2012, what legacy will wind energy leave?

Wind is one of the world’s few unlimited resources. With its ready availability, harnessing its energy has been a growing source of investment (and debate) across the United States. Wind energy is the fastest growing source of new electrical energy in the United States, growing 28.1% from 2009 to 2010. In the last four years alone, the electrical energy produced by wind has tripled.

Recently, THNKR sat down with Van Jones, environmental activist, attorney, and former Special Advisor for Green Jobs to President Obama to discuss the impact of wind energy on green jobs and his opinion that, “In the United States, we have a Saudi Arabia of wind energy that we have not yet tapped.”

The Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) published a study entitled “20% by 2030” in 2008. The study concluded it is possible the United States could be 20% dependent on wind energy by 2030. If it continues on its current trajectory, it also estimates 500,000 green jobs directly employed by the wind industry and an additional estimated 300,000 jobs related to the industry would be created. Jones nicely summarized the impact the wind industry could have explaining, “Eight thousand finely machined parts in each wind turbine – that’s a car. You could put your auto makers back to work, your steel workers, and tap all that wind potential and begin to run America on clean energy.”

In addition, the typical industrial wind turbine can churn out, on average, enough energy to power about 300 homes for a year. The 10,000 megawatts of wind energy installed in 2009 alone can power over three million homes.  

However, expansion remains vulnerable to the whims of government and politics, which have slowed growth. Right now, the companies developing wind energy and building turbines receive tax credits under Production Tax Credit (PTC), a federal policy helping bolster the fledgling industry. This policy is set to expire at the end of 2012 if Congress does not renew it. 

With the presidential election approaching, wind power is a hot issue. President Barack Obama is very supportive of the PTC while Governor Mitt Romney has announced that, if elected, he will let the credit expire, instead focusing current energy resources like natural gas. Romney is also hesitant due to the costly Solyndra debacle, a solar energy company granted millions of dollars in federal money by the Obama administration that filed for bankruptcy 2011. He is also hesitant to pump money into new energy sources when the nation’s current resources are not yet exhausted and are cost effective. 

The most interesting point about the politic divide between the presidential nominee and his gubernatorial counterparts is research indicating Republican governors largely support wind energy development and the PTC. A study by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) shows that the largest growth in wind energy between 2003 and 2010 was in red states like Alaska and North Dakota. Similarly, Texas, another red state, added the most wind power capacity in 2010 and has the top 5 largest wind power projects in the country.  

Opponents argue the turbines are an eyesore, noisy, and are inefficient, only working when it’s windy outside. It’s true that wind turbines energy output is highly variable. They only produce their average output (or above) 40% of the time but because their energy output is reported in average annual output, the variability is often overlooked.  

This variability is also dependent on wind speed, which itself is somewhat erratic. This affects the nation’s power grid. When the wind begins to blow, the grid has react by turning off another source of energy to prevent a power surge and overloading the grid. 

There are plusses and minuses to every source of energy. While wind energy may be more costly in the short run compared to natural gas and other traditional sources of electricity due to inefficiencies and continued development of the technology in general, wind energy can be considered in the context of the environment as well as the economy. If something goes wrong with a turbine, Van Jones says, “You don’t have a massive wind slick that comes and messes up the coastline.”

In addition to the growth in jobs associated with wind energy, it would also provide cleaner energy. The AWEA estimates that approximately 40% of the United States CO2 emissions come from power generation facilities. The proposed “20% by 2030” plan could reduce electric sector CO2 emissions by 25%, if the target is met.

People are searching for answers and remain skeptical of new energy sources and spending on green energy, especially after the bankruptcy of Solyndra. Is wind energy and wind technology cost effective? Has it been given enough time to develop into a viable source of ongoing energy? Can it compete with natural gas, coal and oil. 

With two of the hottest political topics – the environment and the economy – hanging in the balance, there’s sure to be quite a lot of wind on the topic before it’s blown over.

See what more Van Jones has to say on EPIPHANY:

 

Photo: John Womack

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