The U.S. isn’t going to become like Denmark, which relies on wind power for 22 percent of its energy needs, anytime soon. In that sustainable northern European country, sometimes the total share of wind power even jumps up to 60-70 percent during really windy periods, said Willet Kempton, Professor, Center for Carbon-free Power Integration, University of Delaware, at a green energy forum organized by The Atlantic magazine. After nearly $100 billion in investment over the past few decades, wind power is still just nearing 4 percent of the total U.S. energy system and won’t get up to Denmark’s levels without a dramatic shift in how energy is created and distributed, added Michael O’Sullivan NextEra Energy Resources’ Senior Vice President. NextEra, one of the world’s largest solar and wind energy providers, has alone invested some $20 billion in U.S. wind power to date.
According to Martin Klepper, co-head of the energy and infrastructure projects group at law firm Skadden Arps, federal financing, which has totaled $20 billion, has also helped bring the cost of solar and wind power down. Solar is down from $4 a watt to around $1. There are similar trends for wind.
Just a few states really offer the opportunity for “utility-scale” wind power. The same goes for solar power. That’s because there are only a few states with enough wind and sun to justify the expense of rolling out the expensive transmission lines and systems that can store power when there’s no wind blowing or sun shining.
The price trends are positive so the share of renewables is slowly growing though. The U.S. is now in the process of installing some of the largest solar, solar thermal, and wind power installations anywhere in the world. However, China may be eating the U.S.’s lunch given the rapid way they are scaling up.
O’Sullivan didn’t seem scared by China’s great progress though. He said some 25-30 percent of the enormous wind capacity China has built isn’t “connected to the grid. It’s wind to nowhere.” While China is adding 50-100 mega watts each year, the U.S. has a more “mature regulatory environment.” Comparing China to the Wild Wild West, the U.S. 75 years ago, O’Sullivan said “there’s a simpler regulatory regime there.” Klepper said it’s amazing but in one day a new power plant can receive land, water, air permits and financing, whereas in the U.S. that process can take anywhere from 2-5 years and involve lots of risk. A number of those proposals fail to win approval, meaning all those consulting fees go down to the toilet.
Perhaps the main stumbling block to turning the U.S. into Denmark is the lack of a national smart grid and any hope of one in the near term. A national smart grid could help transmit wind power collected in the central great plain states (the windy core of the country) and quickly move it to other parts of the states. O’Sullivan said the policy and regulatory landscape among the 48 lower states is so different that there are almost “48 different countries.” Within that mess of regulations, there are some 500 utilities that “own some piece of the grid.” As a result, infrastructure investment has to be done state by state or maybe regionally. “The technology is the easy part. It can decades to permit infrastructure. This isn’t like the interstate system.” The policy and regulatory differences between states and lack of cross-border coordination are slowing the U.S. down in a big way.
While the U.S. federal government and utilities have invested in research and development, it’s a fairly small number: a few billion. O’Sullivan said private equity and capital — see the energy entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley — are really driving the industry. They saw a “positive price signal from the federal government” and have gone for it.
What do all these firms now still need to boost wind production? Certainty that policies won’t change in the future so they can get busy building out these long-range projects. Klepper says the industry needs a federal renewable energy standard (see earlier post) and measures to reduce the cost of financing. Kempton would like policymakers to internalize the “externalities” in energy production, all the health and environmental costs that the public now covers. If the true cost of those were included in the price of energy, the story goes that the true benefits of wind and solar power will become clearer and the cost of these energy sources will be cheaper than dirty coal and oil.
Check out a map of American wind resources and explore the state of wind power generation in the U.S. In the midwest at least, farmers and communities could even benefit from wind farms.
Earlier in the day: Given much of Washington, D.C. now considers natural gas a clean energy, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, a former geologist and fan of “clean coal,” made a multi-pronged defense of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” to improve extraction. Saying he’s been doing fracking projects since the early 1980s, he believes these projects can be safe and he knows very few instances where fracking has led to groundwater contamination or earthquakes. Still, earthquakes are “possible” if the fluids cause earth plates to slide. He said that “like any industrial process, it can be done well or sloppily.” To be sure damage doesn’t occur, Colorado has doubled its fines for any damage to the groundwater. “We have a zero tolerance” policy on water pollution. Gas is clearly big business in Colorado.
Image credit: Wind farm mixed in with a real farm in Kansas / Grit