April 11, 2010
New US Record For Wind Power Growth

Another stellar year. Victory is inevitable.

The U.S. wind energy industry installed over 10,000 MW of new wind power generating capacity in 2009, the largest year in U.S. history, and enough to power the equivalent of 2.4 million homes or generate as much electricity as three large nuclear power plants.

At this rate it would take wind about 33 years to equal nuclear power in the total amount of electric power generated. This assumes nuclear power stands still in the mean time.

That 10 GW added capacity is on top of an existing 25 GW of existing wind capacity. So about 40% growth. But since wind grew by 8366 MW in 2008 but 10010 MW in 2009 wind's installation rate grew only 20% from 2008 to 2009. That's partly a reflection of the effects of the financial crisis. In order to become a much bigger player wind needs to grow at a much faster rate.

America’s wind power fleet of 35,000 MW will avoid an estimated 62 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to taking 10.5 million cars off the road.

Wind provided 39% of new generating capacity installed in the United States in 2009 (see page 5). But it is not clear to me whether the comparison was made using nameplate capacity or capacity weighted for average output. Typically wind farms operate an average of 20-35% of nameplate capacity. Also, on page 6 you can see that wind provides 1.8% of total US electric power.

You might think that surely by now given all the press attention for solar power and the number of publically traded solar power companies that solar too has started to show up as a significant electric power source. But no. In 2009 in the United States wind provided 70,761 thousand megawatt hours of electric power versus solar with 808. So wind is about 87 times bigger a power source than solar. One caveat: those figures are for utility-installed wind and solar. A larger portion of solar gets installed on houses and other buildings, bypassing utilities (except when sold to utilities). Some of the solar power does not show up in that table. Anyone have a good source for what percentage of solar panel sales is retail versus utility?

Wind grew by 15,398 thousand megawatt-hours of actual output in 2009 or 28% (as distinct from the capacity numbers that the AWEA reports above). So nameplate capacity grew by more than actual output. You might think that the lower growth in absolute output as compared to potential output was due to installations happening late in the year. But here's what's odd: The absolute amount of electric power generated from wind in December 2009 (6,270 thousand megawatt-hours) is less than the amount for December 2008 (6,616). Was December 2009 a weak month for wind? How can output go down 5% while nameplate capacity goes up 40%? Wind has reliability problems.

So how does that absolute increase in output compare to other power sources? Natural gas electric power output grew from 882,981 thousand megawatt-hours in 2008 to 920,378 thousand megawatt-hours in 2009 for a difference of 37397. So natural gas electric power output grew in absolute terms by almost double wind's absolute power output growth. Hydro grew by 17300 in 2009 and again beat wind's growth. Maybe rains were favorable to higher hydro output? Coal, nuclear, and petroleum all registered declines in production. Cheap natural gas outcompeted coal for electric power generation on the margin. In a weak economy total electric power output declined in the United States in 2009.

We should expect wind's costs to rise as more wind power gets installed at less ideal wind farm sites. But with many states enacting renewable energy mandates where a percentage of all electric power must come from renewable sources wind looks set for continued growth. Solar costs too much and geothermal isn't taking off at the rate that wind is growing.

What I want to know about wind power:

  • How much potential does offshore wind have for cost declines?
  • As wind gets further built out and lower quality sites get used how fast will costs rise?
  • At what rate will innovations in propeller design, turbine design, and other engineering improvements lower the cost of wind power installations?
  • Have propellers maxed out on size for land-based installations? Is there a solution for the problem of how to deliver much larger propellers to land-based wind farms?
  • Does improved reliability have the potential to substantially lower the cost of wind farms?
Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 April 11 03:40 PM  Energy Wind

Mthson said at April 11, 2010 7:51 PM:

Have capitalists learned nothing? They're going to use up all the wind.

Dan said at April 11, 2010 8:39 PM:

Although I am a big fan of wind power, I have been hopelessly stymied when trying to find the "true" economics and duty-cycle of installations across the US. Clearly (with subsidies), it makes financial sense for investors ... but the lack of transparency is stunning. I expect it is probably due to the nature of wind-farm developments: They are primarily private affairs which sell power into the grid; I expect public utilities might be more forthcoming with real numbers once they own wind-farms en-masse.

Regarding coal, I don't expect there will be another major coal plant built in the USA until long-term emissions regulations are clarified. It just doesn't make sense. The counter-argument, of course, is nuclear has done just fine without long-term disposal clarified. Perhaps the same economics work for both: once built, they make sense to opperate, but no one will build in the current ambiguous environment. Of course, for the first time in ages, new nuke plants are now in the planning stages. Energy and politics is enough to give me a headache.


Fat Man said at April 11, 2010 10:10 PM:

The only thing that is blowing is Federal subsidies. The problem is that the Federal government is broke -- out of money -- Buddy, can you spare a dime?

This story cannot have a happy ending.

Randall Parker said at April 11, 2010 11:24 PM:


The production tax credit is about 2 cents or slightly higher. That subsidy is enough to cause explosive growth. So the real cost must not be much higher than natural gas electric power.

Fat Man,

The United States is headed for a big fiscal reckoning to be made much worse by the approach of Peak Oil.

Cartesian said at April 12, 2010 2:09 AM:

About geothermal energy, I think anyway that this is a good point for the USA to have something like Yellowstone.

hong said at April 12, 2010 4:20 AM:

Costly subsidies to ANY industry doesn't seem very smart if we're trying to promote energy efficiency and independence. It hasn't worked so well in Germany. God help us if the Greenies in the Obama adaministration decide to pull the trigger on a full govt takeover here as they've just done elsewhere.


Cartesian said at April 12, 2010 7:34 AM:

For Hong : It is true that these subsidies are not working so well in Europe, but it is as well a problem to leave some realms of intelligence like the development of some energies to the Greens or to the left ; because they will think afterward that they have a right on these, and will impose their immoralities if we need to use some of these energies.

hong said at April 12, 2010 8:14 AM:


I'm not entirely sure what you mean by 'intelligence' given that solar and alternative power has, so far, proven be a mostly wasteful, inefficient, and mediocre enterprise. But if we want to continue pursuing this energy Fountain of Youth let it be without a theft of the public purse. Lets agree on that at least.

Among the cows in Iowa said at April 12, 2010 8:35 AM:

The lower capacity factor for recent wind farms may be due to lack of transmission lines. If wind farms are put next to existing lines instead of the best winds, capacity factor will be lower. This is not just theoretical; T. Boone Pickens changed a lot of his plans due to lack of transmission capacity in Texas. Texas has enough wind to supply 150% of US electric energy consumption, so moving sites out of Texas indicates a very big problem.

A 20% YoY growth rate is a doubling time of slightly less than 4 years. Three and a half doublings would bring wind close to the total energy production of nuclear. That's 14 years.

Demand will affect that curve. If electric demand grows or competing supplies shrink (e.g. coal), the growth rate of wind can remain higher longer. If demand is flat, the growth rate will slow sooner. Under BAU, 20 years to nuclear parity is more likely.

LarryD said at April 12, 2010 2:04 PM:

Wind and solar are variable, not steady, power sources. The larger the percentage they are of the mix, the more this causes problems. And they make nuclear look cheap by comparison. Detail data for American wind production may be hard to get, but it's available for other countries.

Wind doesn't even do a good job of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, so I can't see any rational argument for it.

Nick G said at April 12, 2010 3:47 PM:


I wouldn't rely on the EIA for renewable energy analyses. In this case, they make the following arbitrary assumptions:

"• Proportions of total wind resources in each category vary by EMM region. For all thirteen EMM regions combined, 1.3 percent of windy land is available with no cost increase, 5.4 percent is available with a 20 percent cost increase, 11.2 percent is available with a 50 percent cost increase, 27.3 percent is available with a 100 percent cost increase, and almost 54.8 percent of windy land is assumed to be available with a 200 percent cost increase."

page 162, http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/assumption/pdf/renewable.pdf

That's just silly. There's enough low-cost wind in the central wind-belt of the US to power the whole country, should we choose. They're assuming that Eastern states would prefer to pay for $.24/KWH power within their boundaries, rather than buying $.08/KWH power from Iowa. That makes no sense.

Randall Parker said at April 12, 2010 10:22 PM:


Dubuque is about 1000 miles from Boston. Is it practical to carry electric power that far? What's the rate of loss?

Pay high local costs: What's what Connecticut does now, over 20 cents per kwh.

Among the cows in Iowa said at April 13, 2010 8:20 AM:

Many articles state a figure of 3% loss per 1000 km for HVDC. This article adds that the converters have about 1.5% loss:


A 1000-mile line would have about 5% loss in the line and 1.5% in the converters, for about 93% efficiency end-to-end.

Nick G said at April 13, 2010 9:58 AM:

Pay high local costs: What's what Connecticut does now, over 20 cents per kwh.

True, though of course some of those costs are likely to be transmission, distribution and other overhead costs. I think it's highly unlikely that any utility would succeed in getting wind built at the costs assumed by the EIA report.

The IEA projections are political exercises, not scientific forecasts. Look at the projections for wind power (growth stops in it's tracks in 2015) and coal: no significant reductions in coal consumption for 30 years!!

We don't rely on EIA projections for oil, where they show consumption not falling for the next 30 years!! Why would we believe them on anything else?

Randall Parker said at April 13, 2010 9:05 PM:

Among the cows in Iowa,

If the losses are really that low then I wonder why the US has such big disparities in local electric power rates. I wonder what the costs are of the transmission lines. Or are rights of way and regulatory approvals bigger obstacles for building long range electric power lines?

Among the cows in Iowa said at April 14, 2010 7:53 AM:

Regulatory delays for transmission lines are the stuff of legend.

Nick G said at April 14, 2010 8:12 AM:

I believe that FERC was given the authority in 2005 to over-ride local transmission planning in order to solve this problem, but has rarely used this new power - anyone know more?

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