September 9, 2011 | Climate Change, Sustainability + Energy

Contrary to what it may feel like here in the U.S., the wind industry is booming.  I was reminded of this recently when Steve Sawyer, Secretary General of the Global Wind Energy Council, spoke at NRG Systems. It was a good time for a reminder.

Since 2007, the combination of a credit crunch, flailing public policies and the great recession has turned what had begun to seem like an infinite growth boom for wind in the U.S. into a pervasive sense of gloom and doom about the future.  The vision of a sustainable future for renewable energy faded. Steve Sawyer offered facts and trends for a global perspective on the industry.

The Facts

Wind industry growth is moving east and south. The 1980’s belonged to the Americas, the 1990s saw the rise of wind in Europe, and then in the 2000’s, Asia began to rise — with recent growth concentrated in China and India. In 2010, the investment in wind in China alone was more than double that of any other country.

The Trends

The cost of generating energy from the wind continues to decrease worldwide. The average cost of an installed wind turbine is now $1.4 million, and as technologies continue to improve, each turbine produces more energy. The price of wind per kWh produced is now competitive with traditional forms of energy generation, with the exception of countries where coal and nuclear power are unregulated.

Although extremely expensive to develop, offshore wind farms are attracting a lot of attention as a hot spot for investment. In Europe, in particular, as available land declines and offshore oil drilling equipment languishes unused, offshore wind farms are seen as key to achieving the region’s commitment to reduce CO2 emissions dramatically by 2050.

The Future

Sawyer talked about being optimistic about a sustainable future for the wind industry. His reasons for optimism included:

    • Focus and commitment is what makes the difference. Six years ago, China produced 0% of the world’s wind energy. Today, it is the global leader.
    • Coal and nuclear power are on the way out as their ‘true costs’ and risks are increasingly recognized.
    • In post-Fukushima Japan, the Kamisu offshore wind farm survived in the direct path of the tsunami and continues to produce power.
    • Projections are that offshore wind farms off the East Coast of the USA could generate enough power for the entire East Coast megalopolis.
    • China now has a cap-and-trade system, which makes wind energy generation even more attractive.

The Wild Card

The unknown is the impact on the industry of North America. Will the influence of the oil and coal industries in the US and Canada continue to stymie attempts to reduce carbon emissions? Will a newfound commitment to clean air and clean water lead to long-term public policy supporting wind energy, as it has in the rest of the world? Will there be an investment in the research and development needed to develop the potential for green technologies, or will North America lose this race to Asia?

Doom and gloom can be contagious. Instead, we need to spread the word about the need for a national commitment to low-carbon energy sources. Steve Sawyer reminds us that a sustainable future for the wind industry is based on thinking about it, doing it, and then repeating what works.