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Wind energy: headed for a slowdown?

April 7, 2011 | 11:05 am

Wind
The 5,116 megawatts of wind power installed in the U.S. in 2010 was just half the amount put in during the record year before, but the industry still grew 15%, according to an annual report from the American Wind Energy Assn.

To some, the trade group’s data illustrate a young industry’s resiliency amid hostile economics and inconsistent government regulations and incentives. But to others, it’s a worrisome harbinger that wind, which has boomed at an average of 35% each year for the last five, might be headed for a slowdown.

The 35,600 wind turbines in the ground nationwide can now produce 40,181 megawatts – enough to supply electricity to 10 million homes, according to the report. That’s 2.3% of all the electricity generated around the country, compared to roughly 2% from solar, geothermal and biomass sources.

More than a quarter of all the new electric generating capacity in the U.S. came from more than 100 wind projects, behind only natural gas. More than 5,600 megawatts' worth was under construction at the beginning of 2011 -– more than twice the amount at the outset of 2010. 

But the economy was still growing slowly last year, pushing down electricity prices and with them the demand for new energy generation. And although employment in permanent operations and maintenance grew, positions in wind construction and services slipped, with the industry logging 75,000 total direct and indirect jobs in 2010 compared to 85,000 the year before.

Though the extension of the federal 1603 investment tax credit at the end of the year bodes well for 2011, wind companies are already fretting about what will happen when the incentive expires again in December.

Texas, the leader among the 38 states that now have utility-size wind turbine installations, had 10,085 megawatts installed by the end of the year. The Lone Star state put in 680 megawatts, followed by Illinois with 498. One-time national leader California built up 455 megawatts for a total of 3,177 megawatts.

Though California legislators last month passed the country’s most aggressive renewable portfolio standard – requiring 33% of electricity to come from clean sources by 2020 – wind power currently produces less than 5% of the state’s energy. In Iowa, it makes up 15%.

But while hotbeds such as Texas and the Midwest are watching the pipeline of future wind projects shrink, installations under construction in California exceed projects from both 2009 and 2010.

Worldwide, 35,800 megawatts of capacity were installed in 2010 for a total of 194,490 megawatts. The U.S. lost its spot as the top installer to China, which now has 42,000 megawatts of capcity in place after putting in 16,500 megawatts – more than three times the U.S. and European countries' built-up 9,300 megawatts in 2010.

Spanish company Iberdrola Renewables and NextEra Energy Resources were among the major wind owners in 2010. Another top player, Xcel Energy Inc., said Thursday that it abandoned plans to build its $400-million, 150-megawatt Merricourt Wind Project in North Dakota after concerns that it could harm endangered or threatened birds.

On Thursday, President Obama was again pushing his clean energy agenda, this time at Spanish firm Gamesa’s wind turbine plant in Pennsylvania. He has proposed that the U.S. pull 80% of its electricity from clean sources by 2035.

RELATED:

U.S. has highest cumulative wind power capacity, China has most new capacity

$6-billion solar industry logs another record year

California Assembly OKs increased renewable energy requirement

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Wind turbines at Rocky Mountain Power's Dunlap project dot the landscape near Medicine Bow, Wyo. Credit: Tim Kuspick / Star-Tribune

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