To critics, wind power represents everything that’s wrong with renewables. It’s too expensive. It takes up too much space. It’s unreliable because the wind doesn’t always blow. They may have a point. Without government assistance, wind is still more expensive than coal or gas power, and you do need to manage the intermittency issue.
On the other hand, wind is becoming a more serious part of the energy picture, and there’s great potential for it to do more.
Just look at the Department of Energy’s big new Wind Vision report. It shows that wind could plausibly provide 10% of U.S. electricity by 2020 (up from about about 5% now), 20% by 2030, and 35% by 2050. Which is a hell of a lot.
What’s more, wind should be cheaper than fossil fuels within the next decade (without subsidies) and can do a lot to reduce pollution. The report says today’s wind farms already prevent the equivalent sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter emissions of at least 10 conventional power plants. That’s to say nothing of preventing greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050, wind could prevent 21,700 premature deaths from pollution-related diseases and save the country $108 billion a year in associated costs, the report says.
And wind can reduce the amount of water we need to make power, which could be a significant issue in places where water is scarce, like the U.S. Southwest. The report predicts a 23% fall in water use by 2050, assuming wind replaces fossil fuels.
Wind looks marginally expensive in the short term but a great big bargain going forward. “The Wind Vision analysis demonstrates the economic value that wind power can bring to the nation, a value exceeding the costs of deployment,” the Department of Energy writes. “Wind’s environmental benefits can address key societal challenges such as climate change, air quality and public health, and water scarcity.”
The latest study is a follow-up to a DOE’s 2008 report, 20% Wind Energy by 2030, which turned out to be conservative in its predictions. It forecast there would be 48 gigawatts (GW) of wind by the end of 2013. There were 61 GW. And it said the average price per megawatt hour would be $66, when it was actually $45. That’s testament to ongoing improvements in wind technologies (including the ability of the industry to build ever bigger turbines) and that a lot of wind equipment manufacturing has been repatriated to the U.S. The industry imported just 30% of its equipment in 2012 to 2013, compared to 80% in 2006 to 2007. Local manufacturing is important because moving huge turbines long distances is expensive.
Of course, the report makes plenty of assumptions about the future that could turn out to be wrong (its main “study scenario” falls in the middle of high and low estimates for wind and fossil fuel costs). But then they could be wrong in a way that’s positive for wind, not the other way around. It’s possible that we’ll get to 20% and 35% supply before the DOE’s projected dates if the industry keeps cutting costs like it has been.