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Beyond the PTC – Wind Energy's Future

At Wind Power 2013, the big question on many minds in the wind industry is what will the market look like if and when the production tax credit expires? Wind power experts tried to answer that question at the event held in Chicago this week.

New AWEA Chairman Gabriel Alonso, CEO of EDP Renewables North America, set a specific annual installation goal and emphasized that advocacy is crucial to wind market growth, with or without the PTC. AWEA’s annual wind installation goal is to increase wind installation throughout the U.S. by 8,000 MW per year. Where did that number come from? AWEA needed a realistic installed capacity goal that industry could target each year rather than allowing annual installations to fluctuate widely, he said. The number is also intended to level the playing field for the wind industry and encourage developers to construct wind farms in less windy areas.  According to AWEA statistics, the fourth quarter of 2012 saw 8,385 megawatts (MW) of wind power capacity installed, bringing total 2012 installations to 13,131 MW. The U.S. wind industry now totals 60,007 MW of cumulative wind capacity (and more than 45,100 turbines) through the end of December 2012.  During 2012, wind energy became the number one source of new U.S. electricity generating capacity for the first time, providing some 42 percent of all new generating capacity.

To reach the 8,000 MW, AWEA plans to develop an advocacy campaign. “More than 70 percent of Americans want more wind,” Alonso said. We need to create a long-term plan to tap into those Americans that want wind power. We need to make sure people know the facts. Everyone is claiming to be clean these days, but not everyone is ‘clean.’ Some are cleaner, but not clean. We need to get our brand back.”

Despite the emphasis on advocacy, AWEA’s top priority is to extend the PTC this year or next, said AWEA’s new CEO, Tom Kiernan. Strengthening wind advocacy from the supply chain to the average customer is crucial to market growth, he said. Kiernan emphasized key areas needed to ensure a healthy wind market. Wind advocacy needs to get bigger and stronger in the state capitals, the industry needs more diverse and stronger coalitions, it needs to increase its lobbying efforts, and it needs a strong Wind PAC to raise funds for policy advocacy, he said.

The Future Wind Market

Experts weighed in on the future of market growth during Monday’s market growth session called “A New Day and New Rules: Assessment of Supply, Demand, and Future Growth.” Among the presenters were Andy Lubershane, Senior Analyst for IHS Emerging Energy Research; Daniel Shreve, MAKE Consulting; and Justin Wu, Global Head of Wind, Bloomberg New Energy Finance. 

The PTC will affect wind manufacturing of course, but coal plant retirements will be a big driver for near-term market growth, regardless of what happens with PTC, said Bloomberg's Justin Wu. “Natural gas will compete with us, but wind will play a role in offsetting retired coal power plants.”  Renewable portfolio standards will also affect market growth short-term. There are more RFPs being issued now simply because of the low cost of wind right now, he said.

Four regions will greatly affect the wind’s future, said Lubershane. Each has its own unique challenges.

Southwest and California. These areas have similar challenges and opportunities for wind development. There is a huge demand for renewable energy due to the Renewable Portfolio Standards in these regions. However, wind power will have more competition in these regions from solar to meet those standards.

Mid-Atlantic. This area has the highest REC demand, but low wind resources. The power market has also been deregulated in this region. There really is no incentive for long-term power contracts, so this challenge needs to be overcome, he said.

New England.  High RPS targets make up for the low wind resources on land in this area. The challenges are strong local opposition to wind in some areas and limited transmission lines. For example, how will you bring power from Maine to New York? “We don’t see more offshore wind development happening in this area over the next few years.”

New England and the Mid-Atlantic states may roll back their RPS if the renewable targets can’t be met, he said. California and the Southwest can meet their renewable targets, but solar will play a role in meeting those goals. The slow economy is not a major driver in wind market development short-term because of other factors, such as coal plant retirements.  However, if the economy improves, there will be more demand for power from consumers purchasing more electronic products and such, so wind power demand will increase as consumer demand for power increases.

Assuming the PTC does expire, what will drive demand? Three key factors will affect demand according to Wu. Increasing natural gas prices, the need for a secure energy source for military and other applications, and the increased interest in green credentials by consumers and businesses will drive growth from 3.3 GW to 8.6 GW per year for the next five to 10 years, he said. Sustainability is becoming more important to consumers and businesses and wind energy can play a role in helping businesses become greener.

Dan Shreve, MAKE Consulting, said there is a strong case for wind development post PTC, but the industry needs financial solutions to drive it to the next level. Shreve estimates it will take about $25 billion to upgrade our transmission lines today. In addition, technological changes within the industry will be gradual and focused on cost reduction, rather than revolutionary breakthroughs, he said. 

Reducing costs through development of better load controls was the hot topic of discussion for near-term advances in technology, which included a presentation by General Electric on lidar-based load controls. Many of the major OEMs will focus on load controls in the near future to make turbines smarter and because it is the cheapest technology to develop short-term.

Swiss conglomerate ABB, which makes substations and undersea cables for offshore wind projects in Europe, announced a new technology that may challenge Shreve’s assumption. This year, ABB announced a 100-year breakthrough for grid technology: the high voltage DC breaker. If it successfully moves from the pilot stage to commercial production, this powerful new tool could open new possibilities for expanding more power across transmission lines. The new HVDC breaker made MIT Technology Review’s top 10 breakthroughs list. ABB claims 70 percent of all transformers for the grid are made by their company. The company recently opened a manufacturing facility in Huntersville, NC.

Despite the uncertainty about the PTC, whether states can meet their RPS, and competition from solar, Alonso is optimistic about the future of wind energy. “We can compete in the future with other sources of electricity — natural gas prices may rise, for example. We will be a relevant part of the energy market.”

Lead image: Wind turbine via Shutterstock

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