Wind energy holds enormous potential to generate carbon-free electricity around the world, and the energy industry finally seems to be catching on. Last year the United States broke records for wind energy installation, and it looks like the wind revolution is just getting started.
While current global wind power capacity is capable of generating just a fraction of the world's energy demand, wind power’s technical potential actually exceeds worldwide energy production. The technical potential of a renewable energy technology is the amount of energy generation that is theoretically achievable once system performance, topographic, environmental, and land-use constraints are accounted for. And even when taking all of these constraints into consideration, wind energy alone would be capable of filling the entire world’s energy needs. In order to actually make that happen, though, massive scaling of both on- and offshore wind farms would be necessary -- and that kind of scaling is not without its drawbacks.
Other than initial cost, which could be a barrier to entry but which is decreasing all the time thanks to technological improvements and economies of scale, large-scale wind projects pose potential negative environmental and social externalities. Wildlife, such as bird and bat collisions on-shore and marine life offshore, must be considered. In terms of social impact, wind farms alter landscapes, block views, and can cause potential radar interference. These negative impacts, however, pale in comparison to the benefits of wind power, not to mention the negative externalities of global warming.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the energy used and greenhouse gases emitted in the life cycle of a wind turbine, from manufacturing to decommissioning, are puny in comparison to the energy generated and emissions mitigated over the apparatus’ lifetime. “the GHG emissions intensity of wind energy is estimated to range from 8 to 20 g CO2 /kWh in most instances, whereas energy payback times are between 3.4 to 8.5 months,” a 2018 report stated.
In this light, the wind power revolution can’t come fast enough. Just this month, the United Nations and the IPCC sounded a “code red for humanity” which stated in no uncertain terms that we have reached the point of no return for climate change, and the global clean energy transition must be swift and absolute in order to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. Wind energy will have to be a considerable part of that front.
The technology is already being scaled at unprecedented rates. 2020 saw more wind energy capacity installed in the United States than any other year before, and in 2019 wind power surpassed hydropower to be the country’s top source of renewable energy in the same year that renewable energies overtook coal in the U.S. energy mix. This success story owes a lot to wind-friendly policy in the United States, where the federal government has been offering a tax credit to wind producers. That policy, however -- and subsidies in general -- has been controversial and the federal incentive was slated to end last year, resulting in a rush to expand production while the tax credit was still in place.
“On the one hand, these government motivators have been good enough that the U.S. now has the third-highest per capita wind power generation in the world,” according to Marketplace. That’s a distant third, however, lagging far behind the global leaders, Denmark and Germany. Even after the massive expansion in 2020, the United States’ total wind energy capacity is just half that of China’s. “On the other hand, we are a distant third — behind Denmark and Germany. The U.S. total capacity is half of China’s, and our volatile and cyclical policy of subsidies followed by subsidy cancellations is part of the reason why. While wind power is unequivocally a reliable, cost-effective, and efficient means of carbon-free energy production, its continued expansion is no guarantee without broad support.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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