Wind power will play an increasing role in the U.S., likely supplying more than a third of the nation’s energy needs by 2050, according to a new analysis being readied by the federal Department of Energy, but Connecticut isn’t likely to be a major industry player.
The federal government’s timetable calls for doubling the existing 61 gigawatts of wind power by 2020, then doubling it again by 2030 and again by 2050 – growing wind’s share of the energy pie from 4.5 percent today to 35 percent.
Ambitious? Not at all, says the wind industry. Leaders of the American Wind Energy Association say those levels can be reached even faster if federal officials make the producer tax credit permanent and enact a comprehensive energy policy that gets serious about reducing carbon emissions.
But even in the rosiest scenario – 800 gigawatts of production in place by 2050 – don’t expect Connecticut to play a major role in generating wind power. DOE forecast maps show Connecticut’s involvement as a minimal factor, consigning the state to the bottom tier of states generating less than 500 megawatts as far out as 2050.
In private talks on the show floor of the American Wind Energy Association’s recent WindPower 2014 Conference at the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas, industry veterans declined to point to state regulations or local opposition as the reasons Connecticut won’t be on the wind production bandwagon. Instead, they speak in terms of developers seeking to reduce exposure to risk – ticking off such items as potential conflicts with existing radar systems, environmental impact concerns and population density – while embracing the economies of scale.
Everyone will be happier, they say, if Connecticut utilities continue to fund wind farms elsewhere. One immediate beneficiary is Maine, where Connecticut has arranged for a $1 billion contract between the state’s utilities and a 250 megawatt Maine wind farm.
A trip around the WindPower 2014 Conference’s expansive trade show, which was attended by the Hartford Business Journal, verifies that Connecticut companies are eagerly engaged in selling into the expanding wind power market.
There’s IMCORP of Manchester, a supplier of cable testing systems, and OFS of Avon, a supplier of fiber optic links for wind towers. Renewable Energy New England, an advocacy group, calls Madison home, while Oxford is the headquarters of a monthly magazine dedicated to the industry, North American Windpower.
But the same prevailing winds that are powering the industry’s bright future are leaving Connecticut behind, at least as far as being a producer of wind power.
While the price of generating wind power is down 90 percent since 1980, it’s increasingly clear that scale is a powerful economic factor. Wind is not the most cost efficient source of energy everywhere, just in certain places, explained Jose Zayas, program manager for the Wind and Water Power Program in the federal Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
In essence, wind power makes great sense across the Plains and in west Texas where wind speeds are strong and opposition to megaprojects is light. But the economic argument may be waning for the kind of smaller projects that could work in Connecticut and other areas with dense populations and limited sites.
One exception could be private wind generation. Both Apple and Google are working on wind projects to power their power-hungry server farms.
And then there’s the matter of offshore projects. Officials are mindful that public opposition to projects that obstruct views have the potential to tarnish all wind projects.
Connecticut has experienced that issue. Opposition to wind farms in several towns led state lawmakers to impose a three-year moratorium on turbine construction, which was recently lifted after policymakers and advocates agreed to new regulations to govern the industry.
Still, wind power potential is too great to ignore, advocates say.
By some estimates, tapping offshore wind could produce four times the entire energy needs of the U.S. That’s why the Department of Energy is moving ahead with Phase 2 trials of three designs for turbines that can operate far offshore.
Funding was announced May 7 for projects off the coast of Atlantic City, N.J.; Virginia Beach, Va.; and Coos Bay, Ore. Some are as far out as 26 miles from shore, well past sight lines for homeowners.
Still, if wind is to reach its full potential, the largest barriers may be political, not technical. Obtaining the kind of capital investment necessary will be difficult unless the producer tax credit is extended. That tax break expired at the end of 2013, and no action is expected until after the mid-term congressional elections in November. And passage of a comprehensive energy policy would deliver the kind of certainty all businesses crave. When – or if – that might happen is anyone’s guess.
The industry can make a strong case for itself.
Tom Kiernan, CEO of the America Wind Energy Association, said polls show 72 percent of Americans support wind power. After years of being on the defensive in state capitals, wind advocates are on the offensive this year in 10 states, including Connecticut, he said in his address opening Windpower ’14.
While there’s still room to expand state renewable power standards (RPS), the industry has already started to think beyond RPS.
Susan Reilly, incoming chair of the association’s board of directors and CEO of RES Americas, said wind is no longer an alternative but an imperative as the nation struggles to reduce its carbon footprint and slow climate change.
It’s that war on carbon emissions that offers the greatest opportunity for wind to grow, Reilly and others said. New regulations taking effect this month may speed the retirement of aging coal-fired power plants. And wind is poised to step in by adding 12-13 gigawatts of production a year.