Wind power is growing faster than any other form of energy. The next generation of the already-giant turbines anchored off the shores of Europe will be as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Maybe more importantly, many of the next round of wind turbines won’t be eligible for the subsidies that helped the industry grow — but won’t need them. Wind energy has gotten so cheap that it’s now the lowest-cost new source of power in much of the world. In Denmark, Germany, Texas and elsewhere, one problem wind power producers face is what to do with the excess power they produce. Dozens of big companies, including Bank of America, General Motors and Alphabet’s Google, have been signing long-term contracts with wind as well as solar farms. Wind power, particularly offshore wind farms, has one big skeptic: U.S. President Donald Trump. But market forces seem to be, well, blowing past his objections.
Trump is committed to boosting fossil fuels, particularly coal, but his first budget proposal left tax credits for wind power unchanged. In April, Germany approved bids for the first offshore farms that promise to supply electricity at market prices without any subsidy. Meanwhile, manufacturers led by Siemens AG are working to almost double the capacity of the current range of turbines, which already have wingspans bigger than the largest jumbo jets. In 2016, global wind capacity reached 487 gigawatts, including 54 gigawatts from new installations, roughly equivalent to Turkey’s electric output. More than half of that was installed in China, which has the world’s largest fleet of wind farms. But China typically idles at least one-tenth of its capacity because its grid can’t deliver it.
Persians discovered as early as the sixth century that the wind could be used to move water to irrigate crops. In early windmills, the sails spun parallel to the ground in a design that also proved useful for grinding grains under a slowly turning stone. By the 14th century, Europeans improved efficiency by shifting to a horizontal axis that allowed each cloth blade to absorb energy continuously. An American named Charles Brush in 1888 built the first full-scale electric wind turbine, in Cleveland. It was 60 feet tall and produced a maximum of 12 kilowatts. Today’s towers can exceed 400 feet and can produce as much as 8,000 kilowatts. NASA focused on wind turbine research after the 1973 oil embargo, and Congress passed the first tax credit in 1992; innovation by American and Dutch engineers led to lower costs. The success on land pushed manufacturers to build even bigger turbines for offshore use, where winds are stronger and steadier. In 2016, wind accounted for about 8 percent of power in the U.S. and about 5 percent globally.
Trump has mocked offshore wind farms as ugly, particularly a project planned near his Scottish golf resort. He’s disparaged “windmills’’ in general as deadly to birds and said they operate only with “massive’’ subsidies. In the U.S., opponents of the tax credits, which are set to end in 2021, call them a giveaway that distorts the market. Proponents say government support is still worthwhile, as wind farms that take as little as six months to build — less than half the time of a coal or natural gas plant — are the fastest way to meet the renewable energy goals set by 43 states. Europe’s biggest constraint for wind’s growth is the lack of empty land, which has led to more interest in offshore wind farms, whose cost is tumbling. Wind turbines can now provide more power than coal in Europe and more than hydroelectric dams in the U.S. But China’s experience shows that wind capacity can’t grow in isolation but requires substantial investment in the power grid. Otherwise, the lights might not shine where the people live even if the turbines are spinning where the wind blows.
The Reference Shelf
- A Bloomberg Intelligence primer on wind turbine design.
- The U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind Vision page pulls together resources and projections on the topic.
- The Global Wind Energy Council’s Wind in Numbers page and its 2014 report.
- The International Energy Agency’s wind page.
- The home page of the European Wind Energy Association.
First published Feb. 19, 2015
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