Wind Energy’s Role
Energy prices, supply uncertainties, and environmental concerns are driving the United States to rethink its energy mix and develop diverse sources of clean, renewable energy. In January 2009, President Barack Obama called for the expanded use of renewable energy in his inaugural address to meet the twin challenges of energy security and climate change. The administration has a comprehensive plan to invest in alternative and renewable energy that will help end our addiction to foreign oil, address the global climate crisis, and create millions of new jobs.
Wind energy is not only one of our nation’s most abundant renewable energy resources, it’s the fastest growing source of new generation. In 2008, the U.S. wind energy industry broke a global record by installing 8,358 megawatts (MW) of new capacity, demonstrating a 50% growth rate that brought our nation’s total wind energy capacity to 25,170 MW. The United States now claims the largest wind energy capacity in the world, taking the lead from Germany, which had 23,903 MW at the end of 2008.In the past, countries such as Germany, Denmark, and Spain have led the world’s production of wind energy, but according to the American Wind Energy Association, North America’s 2008 installations nearly tied all of Europe’s which installed about 8,900 MW in 2008, and Asia followed closely with 8,600 MW. China doubled its installed capacity by adding about 6,300 MW to reach a total of 12,200 MW.
The rapid expansion of wind energy development around the world is clearly demonstrating the potential for this clean renewable resource to become a major player in the field of global electric generation sources. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the U.S. wind energy capacity now produces enough electricity to power approximately 7 million households while avoiding nearly 44 million tons of carbon emissions the U.S. wind energy capacity now produces enough electricity to power approximately 7 million households while avoiding nearly 44 million tons of carbon emissions the U.S. wind energy capacity now produces enough electricity to power approximately 7 million households while avoiding nearly 44 million tons of carbon emissions - that’s equivalent to taking more than 7 million cars off the road. Although that sounds like a lot of electricity, wind energy still provides for only 2% of our nation’s electricity requirements. The vision of the wind industry in the United States and Europe is to increase wind’s fraction of the electrical energy mix to more than 20% within the next two decades. In the United States, that would mean increasing the wind energy capacity from a little more than 25,000 MW (25 gigawatts [GW]) to 305 GW.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in conjunction with AWEA, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and Black & Veatch undertook a study to explore the possibility of producing 20% of the nation’s electricity using wind energy. According to the report, achieving 20% wind energy by 2030 could help address climate change by reducing electric sector carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 825 million metric tons (25% of the electric utility sector CO2 emissions if no new wind is installed by 2030), and it will enhance our nation’s energy security by diversifying our electricity portfolio as wind energy is an indigenous energy source with stable prices not subject to fuel volatility.
Increasing our nation’s wind generation could also boost local rural economies and contribute to significant growth in manufacturing and the industry supply chain. Rural economies will benefit from a substantial increase in land use payments, tax benefits and the number of well-paying jobs created by the wind energy manufacturing, construction, and maintenance industries. According to AWEA, the wind energy industry channeled approximately $17 billion into the U.S. economy in 2008, employed about 85,000 workers, and opened or announced more than 55 wind equipment manufacturing facilities.
Although the initial capital costs of implementing the 20% wind scenario would be higher than other generation sources, according to the report, wind energy offers lower ongoing energy costs than conventional generation power plants for operations, maintenance, and fuel. The 20% scenario could require an incremental investment of as little as $43 billion (net present value) more than a baseline no-new-wind scenario. This would represent less than 0.06 cent (six one-hundredths of 1 cent) per kilowatt-hour of total generation by 2030, or roughly 50 cents per month per household.
The Wind Energy Deployment System model developed at NREL was used to estimate some of the important consequences associated with producing 20% of the nation’s electricity from wind technology by 2030. This generation capacity expansion model selects from electricity generation technologies that include pulverized coal plants, combined cycle natural gas plants, combustion turbine natural gas plants, nuclear plants, and wind technology to meet projected demand in future years. Technology cost and performance projections, as well as transmission operation and expansion costs, are assumed. This study demonstrates that producing 20% of the nation’s projected electricity demand in 2030 from wind technology is technically feasible, not cost-prohibitive, and provides benefits in the forms of carbon emission reductions, natural gas, and water savings.
Although the report concludes that achieving the 20% wind scenario is technically achievable, it also states that this growth will require enhanced transmission infrastructure, streamlined siting and permitting regimes, improved reliability and operability of wind systems, and increased U.S. wind manufacturing capacity. Of these challenges, enhancing the transmission infrastructure and integrating a variable, weather-driven resource into our nation’s transmission grid present two of the most difficult barriers to dramatically increasing wind energy development.
Transmission is a key energy infrastructure element critical to tapping our national wind resource and moving electricity to market, much as the interstate highway system does for the nation’s transportation needs. Much of the nation’s best wind resources cannot be tapped to meet our increasing energy demands without new transmission system capacity. The development of new transmission is challenged by many regulatory, jurisdictional siting, and cost allocation barriers. The development of new transmission corridors requires the coordination of many different organizations and groups from the federal, regional, state, and local levels. Upgrading the nation’s transmission system, like upgrading the interstate highway system, will have substantial costs and will cross many organizational boundaries.
The natural variability of the wind resource also presents challenges to grid system operators and planners with regard to managing regulation, load following, scheduling, line voltage, and reserves. While the current level of wind penetration in the United States and around the world has provided substantial experience for successful grid operations with wind power, many grid operators need to gain a better understanding of the impacts of wind on the utility grid before they can feel comfortable increasing the percentage of wind in their systems’ energy portfolios.
To meet these challenges, the DOE Wind Energy Program is conducting several regional high-wind-penetration studies that will expand on existing knowledge and provide information on the operating impacts and costs of wind, the benefits of geographical diversity and balancing area cooperation to manage variability, and the role and value of forecasting.
Power system operators may be able to significantly reduce the uncertainty of wind output by using wind forecasts that incorporate meteorological data to predict wind power production. In Colorado, DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is working with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Xcel Energy to develop improved models that will characterize wind resources and help utilities better forecast the wind so that they can predict how much electricity their wind turbines will generate during a given period of time.
The wind resource characterization models used for forecasting will also help system operators assess availability of transmission. To help coordinate transmission planning efforts, the program is working with state and federal energy offices as well as regional organizations and utilities to support appropriate representation of wind energy characteristics and opportunities in the energy infrastructure planning processes underway across the nation.
Wind forecasts are derived from weather prediction models. In addition to helping the wind industry mitigate integration and transmission issues, the Wind Energy Program is conducting R&D that will advance the technology and provide information to help increase its acceptance. To advance wind energy technology, the program works with industry partners to increase system reliability, improve manufacturing processes, increase capacity factors, and reduce capital costs for both large and small land-based systems. To increase technology acceptance, the program works closely with national, regional, and state partners to develop policies favorable to wind energy development and to communicate the opportunities and benefits of wind energy to industry stakeholders, rural communities, Native Americans, educators, and the public.
Advancing wind energy technology and removing barriers to its commercialization and development will lead to increased deployment that will fortify our energy security and benefit our economy through more diverse, clean, reliable, and affordable domestic electricity supplies.
Kathleen O’Dell is Senior Communicator at the National Wind Technology Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. For more information visit http://www.nrel.gov.