Why Isn’t Wind As Sexy As Solar?

Solar startups get all the hype, but strong bipartisan support and new forays offshore have positioned wind to be a major player in the U.S. energy landscape–even under a climate-change-denying administration.

Why Isn’t Wind As Sexy As Solar?
Illustration: Oliver Munday

When employees begin to move into Apple Park, Apple’s new 175-acre campus in Cupertino, California, next month, they’ll be walking into one of the largest on-site solar energy installations in the world. The park will be powered by 100% renewable energy; a 17-megawatt rooftop solar installation is its crowning jewel.

Take a low-flying aerial tour of Silicon Valley, and you’ll see no shortage of solar panels glinting on roofs: Microsoft installed what was then Silicon Valley’s largest solar panel system in 2006, and since then companies like Oracle and Facebook have followed suit, spending millions of dollars to add rooftop solar to their sprawling campus sites.

What you will not see a lot of: wind turbines. Even though wind power accounts for 5% of the U.S.’s power supply versus solar power’s contribution of less than 1%, solar, much more so than wind, has captured the imagination of Silicon Valley-type innovators. Compared to the roughly 82 wind-power startups in the U.S., there are around 709 focused on solar power. The difference, says Stephen Comello, the director of the Sustainable Energy Initiative at the Stanford School of Business, is a matter of scalability: Because solar can scale down to the residential level, it’s both more visible and more personal, and more primed for innovation.

“There’s a difference when it comes to the salience of wind and solar,” Comello says. “Wind is really a technology that has been around for hundreds of years–people don’t really think about it, and we tend to keep it out of view.” Solar, however, “is something that’s fairly new, and still esoteric,” Comello says. As such, it’s seen a lot of momentum in recent years: Since 2008, solar installations in the U.S. have grown 17-fold, increasing from 1.2 gigawatts (GW) to an estimated 30 GW–enough to power 5.7 million homes. Wind’s growth over the same time frame has been less dramatic, but more substantial: Wind capacity has tripled to over 82 GW, enough to power 24 million homes.

Despite irrefutable growth in the renewable industries, President Donald Trump has made no secret of his preference for fossil fuels; in an interview with Herman Cain last October, he said wind and solar are not able to work at a large scale, adding “solar is very, very expensive. Wind is very, very expensive, and it only works when it’s windy.” Trump, instead, extols the virtues of coal, which, in 2015, was used for 33% of the approximately 4 trillion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity generated in the U.S. But the coal industry is dying: In West Virginia, Appalachia’s biggest coal producer, coal production declined 45% between 2000 and 2015; in that time, the whole region lost over 9,300 coal jobs. Coal is also getting expensive: According to an analysis from Lazard, the cost of coal in 2015 ranged from $60 to $143 per kWh.

Contrary to Trump’s claims, the cost of wind is plummeting: The same Lazard analysis estimated that the levelized cost of wind in 2015 ranged from $14 to $48 per kWh—the cheapest source of energy in some parts of the country. Solar, while cheaper than coal, is still more expensive, at $36 to $49 per kWh.

Suspended between Trump’s disdain and Silicon Valley’s innovation-fueled enthusiasm for solar, wind could be seen as stranded in something of an impasse. But Mark Barteau, the director of the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute, says that’s not the case. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, if the wind industry continues to see the steady growth its experienced over the last decade, it could provide over a third of the U.S.’s energy by 2050. More so than the environmental argument in favor of this development, which, under the current administration, is not faring well, the economics of the wind industry are driving this trend, Barteau says. It’s hard to argue with an industry that is economically competitive with other forms of energy, and provides massive opportunity for onshore manufacturing and job creation. And both because of its large-capacity potential and exciting new offshore developments, wind appears poised to keep renewables growing throughout the next four years.

The Innovation Gulf

But if wind has such enormous potential to grow the share of renewable energy in the U.S., why is it often relegated to the sidelines in discussions around renewable energy and innovation? Since solar panels began to gain momentum in the 1970s and ’80s, “solar was looked at much more like an R&D technology,” Comello says. It was seen as exciting and alternative; in 1979, President Jimmy Carter installed 32 solar panels on the roof of the White House to symbolize how the U.S. could begin to move away from its “crippling dependence” on oil (Ronald Reagan subsequently removed the panels). Wind was seen as less revolutionary: It mimics traditional energy sources in the way it’s generated in large quantities at a remove from society, rather than in the midst of it.

The perception of solar as a more cutting-edge R&D project persists today: In 2014, the Energy Department funneled over $53 million into 40 research projects run through universities and laboratories tackling how to innovate to lower the cost of solar; its SunShot incubator program seeded $14 million to 20 small businesses taking on the same issue. A paper by Daniel Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley maintains that the R&D dollars toward supporting innovation are a necessary component in keeping U.S. solar competitive with foreign markets, and with conventional energy sources.

While there has been some innovation in turbine technology–engineers are constantly producing more efficient and higher-capacity machines–most of the developments have revolved around making the already huge turbines even bigger. “The higher up you go, the stronger the wind,” Barteau says. It almost goes without saying that rooftop wind is not an option. Barteau, a few years back, was looking into a British company manufacturing small turbines that could be hung from the eaves of a house. “On a good day,” he says, “you might generate enough energy to power a hair dryer.”

So in contrast to solar panels, which, in addition to utility-scale farms in sun-drenched states, dot rooftops in cities from San Francisco to Chicago, wind capacity is limited to farms in the Plains states and underpopulated areas around the country. Turbines, for the most part, are isolated from the communities they serve; unlike solar, they don’t scale to the residential level. There is no way, as a result, for a tech company to actively work to deliver residential wind in the way that Google has done for rooftop solar. In 2015, Google funneled $300 million into the company SolarCity, which rents out rooftop space from homeowners on which to install their solar panels, for a partnership called Project Sunroof, whose goal is to add around 25,000 new solar households and 500 MW of new capacity.

Though wind power’s intransigence has largely left it out of the innovation conversation, that doesn’t mean that these same tech companies are ignoring it. Recognizing both the economic feasibility and generating potential of wind, companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are buying five times more wind than solar in order to hit ambitious renewable targets. Google, for instance, which aims to hit 100% renewable this year, has signed 2,548 MW of wind contracts versus 141 MW of solar contracts. Though corporate participation in renewable energy contracts is still relatively new, interest is growing. “As more businesses come under pressure from their customers, investors, or government regulators to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and help rein in global warming, they will be looking for low-carbon energy that can compete with the price of coal and natural gas,” the Guardian reported.

Though Trump has criticized regulations that pressure businesses to address climate change, it’s unlikely to affect companies’ policies. Microsoft recently announced a 178 MW wind energy contract, the largest corporate contract to date. Brian Janous, Microsoft’s director of energy strategy told the Guardian: “Certainly, there are many policy questions yet to be answered, but I don’t see the U.S. election having a significant impact on our commitments.”

The Green Energy For Red States

It is also unlikely that the climate-change denying administration will do anything to slow the growth of wind. Unlike solar power, which is most strongly associated with progressive states like California (the leader in solar with more than 13,000 MW of installed capacity; Arizona is next, with more than 2,300 MW), “wind is huge in states like Texas, Iowa, and Oklahoma, where the environmental element is not as promoted,” Comello says. Texas, in fact, is the undisputed leader in wind energy in America, with around three times the generating capacity of any other state and is home to nearly a quarter of the industry’s 100,000 jobs. In 2016, Texas became the first state to pass 20,000 MW of capacity (on especially windy days, that nets out to 40% of the state’s total electricity); another 5,401 MW are in development. Given that Trump’s pick for energy secretary, Rick Perry, was once the governor of this state that benefits so irrefutably from wind power, it’s unlikely that he would advocate for any rollbacks in development.

Another of wind’s most outspoken advocates also comes from the conservative camp: Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. Trailing only Texas in terms of generation capacity, Iowa leads the nation in terms of the percentage of its energy produced by wind (31%). Grassley, who has served as senator since 1981, oversaw a 1983 state law requiring investor-owned utilities to purchase 105 MW of power from wind. In 1992, Grassley wrote the wind power production tax credit (PTC) into law. That policy, which still is in effect today, allows companies that generate wind power to collect 2.3 cents, in the form of taxpayer-generated federal subsidies, per every kWh produced for the first 10 years of the facility’s operation. Last August, Grassley made it clear he would continue to advocate for wind-friendly policies, saying that if Trump wanted to do away with wind as a source of energy “he’ll have to get a bill through Congress, and he’ll do it over my dead body.”

The PTC is set to phase out by 2020, but advocacy organizations like the American Wind Energy Association see that as a positive: Because the industry has now scaled large enough to keep costs low without the credit, the disappearance of the PTC will not drastically raise expenses, and the time frame will act as incentive for more projects to get underway. In 2016, the first year of the PTC phasedown, the U.S. installed 8,203 megawatts of new capacity, representing over $14 billion in new investment.

A further 10,432 MW of capacity is under construction, and 7,913 MW are in advanced development. These projects will increase wind capacity in the U.S. by 25%, and set the country firmly on the path toward sourcing 10% its electricity from wind by 2020.

Why The Time Is Right For Wind

Though the fate of Obama’s clean energy goals remains unclear under the Trump administration, the 44th president set a clear benchmark before he left office: 50% renewable by 2025. In 2015, the U.S. sourced just 13.44% from nonpolluting sources.

While hydro and biomass supply the bulk of renewables currently, the sustained growth of wind and solar will be crucial to meeting that goal. And because wind’s generation capacity is inherently stronger, that sector, in particular, is poised to be a major contributor. Even if Trump disregards his predecessor’s goals, a handful of states and cities have set ambitious renewable portfolio standards (RPS), to which wind will be crucial.

In New York, for instance, Governor Andrew Cuomo has established a Clean Energy Standard that mandates 50% of the state’s energy come from renewables by 2030. The plan will phase in starting this year, and requires that utilities and other energy suppliers start by procuring and purchasing new renewable power resources. Just days before Trump’s inauguration in January, Cuomo announced $360 million in funding for 11 new renewable energy projects in the state, including two wind farms totaling 207 MW in capacity.

The biggest announcement, however, came on January 25, when Cuomo approved a 90 MW offshore wind farm, 30 miles off the coast of Montauk on Long Island. The farm will power around 50,000 homes, and is the first step in Cuomo’s goal of developing 2.4 GW of offshore wind power by 2030. Though offshore wind has taken off in Europe, where there are 12,631 MW of installed capacity (and costs have dropped by around half as a result), the U.S. has been slow to follow. The first successful project, the 30 MW Block Island Wind Farm near Rhode Island, only started spinning in December 2016. Jeff Grybowski, the CEO of Deepwater Wind—the company spearheading both Block Island and the New York project—told WBUR’s On Point that he could see hundreds of offshore wind turbines along the Atlantic seaboard by 2030.

Though Barteau is careful to emphasize that offshore “is just getting a toehold” in the U.S. renewable landscape, Comello thinks interest is unlikely to wane. European oil and gas companies like Statoil and DONG Energy, which have overseen projects like the Sheringham Shoal offshore farm in the U.K. and the Borkum Riffgrund farm off the coast of Germany, respectively, are beginning to eye the U.S. as a potential market for development, which makes sense to Comello. “You look at a company like Statoil, which is the major oil provider in Norway, and they’re pioneers,” he says. “They’re adept at building offshore oil rigs, and they’re aggressively moving in on the U.S. because we have a lot of capacity, and they have the capability of working in deep water and moving large equipment.” While the transition from oil to wind will not be nearly that neat, it could be a way to translate Trump’s fervor for maximizing federal lands into a more sustainable purpose.

And much like how onshore wind has drawn bipartisan support, offshore is likely to do the same under the Trump administration. The New York Times writes that “building and installing the wind machines could create thousands of new jobs, as it has in the land-based wind business, in manufacturing and construction. The project would also require special vessels and large onshore staging areas to assemble the components of the platforms and turbines, which could help the shipbuilding and port industries.” The Department of Energy estimates that by 2050, the offshore industry could support 160,000 jobs and add 86 GW of energy—enough to power 31 million homes. Should solar scale to that level, it could quadruple the number of jobs created: While offshore would support around two jobs per installed MW, solar typically supports around eight–a powerful argument in favor of growing both sectors in tandem.

It’s incontrovertible that, despite Trump’s insistence that the coal industry can be revived and sustained, our energy landscape will look quite different in a decade, and will be almost unrecognizable by 2050. If wind keeps up its pace of development, it will likely continue to be a major player in the growth of renewables. This is where some of the differences between wind and solar could come to truly complement each other. On WBUR’s On Point, Gretchen Bakke, author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, imagines how different renewables could work in concert with each other in different regions of the U.S.: In the west, utility-scale solar could step up to complement residential-scale; the Plains states could source from different wind farms; on the East Coast, offshore developments could chime in. “The great metaphor right now is the orchestra,” Bakke said. While Trump complains that wind only works when it’s windy, Bakke sees intermittency being overshadowed by scale. As the share of renewables grows, the fact that the wind might not be blowing in one section of the country could be balanced out by an influx of solar and wind from elsewhere.

Of course, that will require some serious updates to our electrical grid. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory has modeled a switch to a national grid–large enough to do away with the need for storage by being able to send renewable energy sourced from any part of the U.S. to wherever the demand is highest. It’d be a massive shift away from our current, fragmented grid, but one that would, like the advancements in wind energy, create jobs–and ensure that renewables continue to grow through a climate-change denying administration.

Read all the 2017 World Changing Ideas