Wind power is now the most-used renewable energy source in the United States, with a record amount of wind capacity expected to come online this year. In 2019, wind energy surpassed hydropower to become the largest source of renewable generation with more than 12 gigawatts (GW) of power interconnected. That’s enough energy to power 4.2 million homes – more than the total amount of housing units in the state of New York.
In 2020, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that 18.5 GW of wind power will come online, surpassing that national 2012 record of 13.2 GW.
Wind Capacity Breakdown
As 2019 came to an end, the U.S. had 103 GW of wind power capacity online – nearly 80 percent of which was installed over the last decade, the EIA reports. America’s hydroelectricity capacity has been relatively stagnant at 80 GW, with only 2 GW of new capacity added in the past decade. Therefore, a majority of the hydropower facilities have been operating for several decades.
To be clear, the total installed wind power capacity exceeded that of hydro’s in 2016, but it wasn’t until the end of 2019 that America’s wind facilities generated more energy than its hydropower plants.
The EIA explains this in terms of capacity factors – the ratio between what a generation unit is capable of producing at maximum output vs. its actual output over a given period. Between 2009 and 2019, the average annual capacity factors for hydropower ranged from 35% to 43%, whereas wind power ranged from 28% to 35%.
Expiring Tax Credits Drive Growth, But Not Forever
Wind capacity additions tend to come online at the end of the year, the EIA notes, most likely due to tax benefits. In fact, the expiring production tax credit (PTC) that gives a small credit to wind farm owners for the energy their facility produces, is only valid if construction begins by the end of 2020. Therefore, wind developers are working overtime to make sure their projects break ground by year-end.
NRDC policy analysts Robert Harding and Amanda Levin reveal that some states – Kansas, Iowa and North Dakota – are producing enough annual wind energy to meet more than half of their state’s energy needs. Even better – these states have “no binding renewable energy requirements” in place, meaning they are reaching milestones without the help of energy policies.
Harding and Levin write:
“These states and their neighbors are blustery places—which makes wind energy cheap. The price of a new wind contract in these states ranges from $9.30 to $19.70 per megawatt-hour (MWh). The cost of generating power from an existing nuclear or fossil-fueled plant is $23.90 and $35.90 a MWh, on average, respectively.”
Looking Ahead to 2050
Not all projects will make the 2020 deadline, naturally. From flooding to snowfall to wildfire, Mother Nature can create any number of setbacks. Over the next few decades, wind energy in America will grow exponentially, with the potential to support more than 600,000 jobs in manufacturing, installation and maintenance by 2050.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has developed a map that depicts the projected growth across the wind industry. The agency predicts that wind energy in America will achieve the following:
- 113.43 GW of capacity across 36 states by 2020
- 224.07 GW of capacity across 47 states by 2030
- 404.25 GW of capacity across 48 states by 2050
If America accomplished this feat, by 2050, the DOE estimates that wind energy alone could eliminate 12.3 gigatonnes of GHGs and save 260 billion gallons of water that would have been used by the electric power sector. Wind energy just may be the source that decreases our dependence on fossil fuels in the years to come.