A new report from the Department of Energy finds that wind will provide 10 percent of the nation’s power by 2020—and double again in the ten years after that.
The Shepherds Wind Farm in Oregon. Image: Wikimedia
The US Department of Energy anticipates that the amount of electricity generated by wind power will more than double over the next five years. Right now, wind provides the nation with about 4.5 percent of its power, but an in-depth DOE report released today forecasts that will rise to 10 percent by 2020.
The agency's Wind Vision outlines the potential the renewable energy source has to grow not just over the next few years, but in coming decades. It charts a course for powering the US with 10 percent wind in 2020, 20 percent in 2030, and 35 percent in 2050. The DOE believes that the US could be running on over one-third wind power in less than 40 years. That would mark a radical—and sorely needed—energy transition for a country still largely reliant on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas for electricity.
In its announcement, the White House remarks that the "United States could install up to 11 GW per year in new capacity through 2050, an ambitious but feasible deployment scenario comparable to the wind capacity installed in 2012." (For reference, a rough ballpark is that a gigawatt, or one billion watts, can power some 750,000 American homes.)
The rate of wind power rollout envisioned by the report isn't actually far-fetched, but extrapolated on the US's recent better years of deployment. One crucial element, however, is maintaining federal support for wind, in the form of a production tax credit, or PTC. The PTC, which enjoys bipartisan support (many advocates are Republicans in states like Texas and Iowa), has significantly boosted investment in wind—when it's renewed on time, that is. The American Wind Energy Association says it has helped the cost of wind power fall 43 percent and has marshaled billions of dollars in investment.
Congress has a bad habit of batting the PTC around and failing to renew it, making it hard for investors to bank on wind. It's been out of commission since 2013.
"That's a key finding from this report," Jose Zayas, the DOE's director of the Wind and Water Power Technologies Office, said on a call this morning. "Make the PTC provide the kind of stability that's needed. Not only to get more wind on the grid," he said, but for the benefit of manufacturers. "That kind of market stability is key to both those things."
Still, as wind power production ramps up worldwide, prices for installing and maintaining wind plants are falling regardless. In some places in the US, wind power is already competing, subsidies or no, with dirt cheap fossil fuels like coal.
"Wind can be cheaper in places like the great plains, where there's lots of wind available," Dan Utech, the White House Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, said. That's why Texas already gets 13 percent of its power from wind, and Iowa gets over 5 percent.
The DOE's Wind Vision may strike some as optimistic, dependent as it is on a few factors—a steady PTC and relatively low wind power costs and/or high fossil fuel costs. But it's actually a rather measured prediction, and walks a line between plausible scenarios—if, for instance, we were able to properly tax the carbon content of fossil fuels and wind prices were to stay low, the report finds that we could be closer to 25 percent wind in 2030, and over 40 percent wind-powered by midcentury.
Researchers have said that there's enough wind available to meet the world's energy demand, perhaps several times over, and it's notable that the federal government is taking an optimistic and ambitious look at harnessing a fraction of it.
"Get a PTC in place," Zayas said, "and I think this report shows in detail the past value of the PTC and what it could do going forward."