Wind is poised to provide almost as much power in 2050 as coal-fired power plants provide today, according to an Obama administration analysis released Thursday. Only 4.5 percent of US power currently comes from wind.
How is such rapid growth in wind capacity possible? Falling costs for wind power are helping it compete with traditional fossil fuels, even without the government support that fostered the industry’s development. And while so-called grid parity may exist in only a few regions now, wind power’s competitiveness will eventually spread across the country, according to the report.
“Every year, wind becomes cost competitive in more states, and this wind vision report shows that all 50 states could have utility-scale energy by 2050,” White House Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Dan Utech said in a statement Thursday. “The United States is uniquely poised to accelerate development of this important resource and technology, and the report will help us continue to build on the strong progress we’ve already made.”
Thursday’s report is a part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to tackle climate change by reining in the greenhouse emissions that are causing the planet’s temperatures to rise. Switching from dirtier-burning coal to cleaner sources – wind, solar, geothermal, and even natural gas – has been a staple of Mr. Obama’s clean energy policies.
If government and private sector support for wind remains strong, the report says, wind can play a pivotal role in moving the US toward energy sources that are carbon-free and replenishable.
“The stakes for the nation are high,” José Zayas, director of the wind and water power technologies office at the US Department of Energy, wrote in the report. “I am confident that, with sustained leadership in innovation, US wind power will continue to make a significant contribution to the ever-evolving energy landscape.”
Today wind power meets 4.5 percent of US electricity demand, while coal provides 38.7 percent, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration. The Department of Energy expects wind to provide 10 percent of US electricity by 2020, and it’s possible wind could produce 35 percent of US electricity in 2050.
Critics in the fossil fuel industry and in Congress say the White House’s renewable energy pronouncements are more bluster than anything else. They point out that wind and solar provide intermittent power, only producing electricity when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.
That’s a drawback compared to coal- and natural gas-fired power plants, which produce a continuous flow of electricity. What’s more, the wind industry took hold in the US largely due to a production tax credit, which has since expired. Without that federal support, some say the future of the industry isn’t so bright.
Thursday’s report acknowledges some of those challenges, including the difficulty of reaching price parity with traditional fossil fuel sources of power. But in some parts of the US, wind power already competes with traditional sources without subsidies, and the report suggests that trend will continue to spread across the country.
“National average wind costs are rapidly approaching cost competitive levels, but, without incentives, these costs are higher than the national average for natural gas and coal costs as of 2013,” the analysis says. “With continued cost reductions, the [analysis] envisions new wind power generation costs to be below national average costs for both new and existing fossil plants within the next decade.”
To provide 35 percent of US electricity by 2050, the US would need 400 gigawatts of wind by 2050 – enough to power 100 million homes, the White House says.
Getting to 400 gigawatts would require adding about 10 new gigawatts of turbine capacity every year from now till mid-century, given the current 60 gigawatt capacity. The US installed 11 gigawatts of wind capacity in 2012 under the wind production tax credit, the White House says.
It’s progress the industry thinks is possible.
"We can do this," Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, the industry's trade group, told USA Today. "The industry stands ready to achieve these numbers."