The economics of wind power are looking good, according to a 350-page report issued Thursday by the U.S. Department of Energy, which states that the nation's swiftly expanding wind industry could help America significantly reduce its carbon emissions, support more than 600,000 jobs, and provide 35 percent of the United States's electricity needs, all by the year 2050.
"Wind Vision: A New Era of Wind Power in the United States"(pdf), which includes contributions from more than 250 people across government, the private sector, and academia, is a follow-up to a 2008 DOE report that charted a possible course for wind reaching 20 percent in the U.S. power mix by 2030.
Wind now accounts for 4.5 percent of the country's electricity capacity, with utility-scale wind plants installed in 39 states, and the sector is growing quickly.
Just this week, a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that the electricity generated from wind and solar grew a lot faster than electricity generated by fossil fuels in 2014.
And those trends are poised to continue. According to an Obama administration fact sheet, "with continuing technological advancements, cost reductions, and siting and transmission development, the nation can deploy wind power to economically provide 35% of our nation's electricity and supply renewable power in all 50 states by 2050."
"The Wind Vision analysis demonstrates the economic value that wind power can bring to the nation, a value exceeding the costs of deployment," the DOE study reads. "Wind's environmental benefits can address key societal challenges such as climate change, air quality and public health, and water scarcity. Wind deployment can provide U.S. jobs, U.S. manufacturing, and lease and tax revenues in local communities to strengthen and support a transition of the nation's electricity sector towards a low-carbon U.S. economy."
News outlets highlighted various aspects of the DOE's assessment.
"Wind power will be cheaper than electricity produced from natural gas within a decade, even without a federal tax incentive," Bloomberg noted.
The Christian Science Monitor reported: "Wind is poised to provide almost as much power in 2050 as coal-fired power plants provide today."
Pre-empting criticisms from those who worry that wind power harms ecosystems and certain animal species, Defenders of Wildlife president and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark—among those who advised the DOE on its report—wrote:
[C]limate change currently presents one of the most significant threats to wildlife and their habitats, and we are already observing the effects of higher temperatures, rising sea levels, warming oceans, droughts and other changes. For this reason, the transition to clean energy in America is critical, and wind energy is a major part of that transition. As with all energy development, wind can adversely affect wildlife, whether through habitat destruction or direct collisions. And so, as a representative from the conservation community, my goal in participating in the DOE's process was to ensure that the Wind Vision addressed the importance of simultaneously protecting and enhancing our nation’s conservation legacy while working to reach 20 percent wind and curb the greenhouse gas pollution accelerating climate change.
... A key is to improve our understanding of the impacts of wind power on various species, understanding that can only be gained by more research. We lack important information necessary to help us know where and how to develop wind energy projects in a way that isn’t going to be problematic for wildlife. And, the more we know about potential impacts to wildlife, the more we are able to offset those impacts before and during the lifespan of wind projects. We are also in need of clear and sound regulatory processes that work better for both wildlife and for wind developers.
Furthermore, realizing the goals laid out in the DOE's report will require continued cost reductions, improved efficiencies, added transmission capacity, and governmental policies friendly to the growth of the wind industry, its authors warn. The risk of inaction is high.
"Wind’s growth over the decade leading to 2014 has been driven largely by wind technology cost reductions and federal and state policy support," reads the report's executive summary. "Without actions to support wind's competitive position in the market going forward, the nation risks losing its existing wind manufacturing infrastructure and much of the public benefit illustrated by the Wind Vision analysis."