Wind Power Is Blowing Strong as Technology Pushes Costs Down

Wind power set a record for generated electricity in 2017.

The answer to some of the United States’ growing energy needs appears to be blowing in the wind. In 2017, the wind power industry produced a record 6.3 percent of U.S. electricity, enough to power 27 million homes.

Today, more than a third of all states get more than 10 percent of their power from the wind, and four — Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota — get more than 30 percent.

Improvements in wind power technologies are helping to drive growth in the industry, which was up almost 9 percent last year. Prior to 2014, wind turbines captured 35 percent of their average annual maximum possible capacity; the newer ones are operating at 40 percent. That’s primarily because the equipment is getting bigger; the average rotor diameter in 2016 was 13 percent larger than the previous five-year average.

As the blades get wider and longer, they’re also getting lighter. The fact that turbines are now capable of operating in stronger winds also boosts their performance.

As turbine technology improves, the cost of constructing wind turbines has been falling, which has helped bring down the cost of wind power to about 2 cents per kilowatt. 

Big companies are taking notice — and taking advantage of the benefits of wind power. Facebook’s new data center in Nebraska will be 100 percent powered by a nearby windfarm. Walmart, which has committed to getting more than 50 percent of its power globally from renewable resources by 2025, recently announced that it will purchase power from a new 2,000-megawatt (MW) wind farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Home Depot is buying 50 MWs of wind power, enough to power 100 of its stores, from a wind farm in Texas.

Although wind power is a clean fuel source, it’s not without its problems. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been a big supporter, but it points out that wind farms still require a higher initial investment than fossil-fueled generators. In addition, the best places to generate electricity from wind are far from the population centers that require power. There’s concern about wind farms’ noise and aesthetic pollution, and about the injury they can cause to local wildlife.

The U.S. government has been subsidizing the production of wind energy primarily through a renewable energy production tax credit that covers 30 to 60 percent of wholesale electricity prices. That has helped spur the growth of the industry. But if the Trump administration is successful in convincing Congress to repeal the tax credit, the industry could take a hit. (Against the president’s wishes, Congress increased the amount of funding for renewable resources in the 2018 budget.)

In the meantime, researchers continue to advance wind power technology. For example, working with industry partners, the DOE’s Wind Energy Technologies Office has found that curving the tip of the blade can improve energy capture by 12 percent, and that reducing the effects of the turbine wake, which lowers wind speeds, in wind farms can increase their output by 4 to 5 percent.

A Spanish company, Vortex Bladeless, is even working on a technology designed to supply individual homes with power from the wind. The company uses 40-foot-tall oscillating wind generators to capture the energy of vorticity, the spinning motion of air around a tower. This design would reduce the material costs for the turbine, eliminate the need for maintenance and avoid the risk of birds being hit by rotating turbine blades.

Innovations like these may help keep wind power growing steadily over the next few years. The DOE projects that the United States’ wind power capacity will double from 76 gigawatts (GW) at the beginning of 2017 to 152 GW by the year 2023.

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.

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