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Winds Steady but Calm for Windpower 2014

The U.S. wind industry has its work cut out for it. That was the message put forth today at the start of Windpower 2014, an annual event taking place in Las Vegas this week. Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) opened the show with a keynote speech that reviewed steps that the industry had taken over the past year in order to reach its goals. In 2013, the industry set goals of doubling the amount of installed wind power capacity by 2020 and increasing it to 20 percent of the U.S. energy mix by 2030. Wind power currently makes up about 4 percent of the U.S. energy mix.

Kiernan explained that there are four pillars the industry works under in order to foster growth: increase demand, cut costs, address implementation issues and educate leaders.  AWEA spearheads all of these pillars but relies on its industry members to move them along. 

Under the “increase demand” pillar, Kiernan said that the wind power industry helped fight off more than 20 attacks on state renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in 2013, defeating all of them and in some states, such as in Colorado, even strengthening the RPS.  An RPS legislates the amount of renewable power that a state seeks to have as part of its energy mix by a certain date and many of these were challenged over the past year. 

Also under the increase demand pillar, Kiernan pointed out that more than 72 percent of Americans say they support wind energy and more than 73 percent support continuing tax incentives, according to a recent study by Navigant.  In addition, Kiernan said that utilities are demanding more wind power capacity and he pointed out that more than 60 PPAs were signed over the past year. Kiernan said that Xcel, the number one utility for wind power for the past ten years, just announced plans to add 2 GW of wind capacity to its system. Better still, the utility claims that the new wind power will save consumers more than $1 billion over the life of the systems.

Under the “cut costs” pillar, Kiernan showed a slide demonstrating that turbine efficiencies are going up and costs are going down.  Over the past four years the cost of wind energy has dropped 43 percent. “This shows how affordable wind energy can be,” he said. The industry has done a good job extending the PTC and changing the language in it, which has lead to the “largest construction boom” ever with 90 projects currently under construction in 20 different states, he said.  

Under the implementation pillar, Kiernan said that the wind industry has been working closely with the wildlife industry as part of the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI) to ensure that wind power is developed responsibly while also protecting eagles and other wildlife.  Advances in safety, said Kiernan, have also been made to protect the health and safety of wind power workers.

On the education pillar, Kiernan threw out an inspirational Abraham Lincoln quote: “’With public sentiment, nothing can fail, without it nothing can succeed,’” he said.  “’Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.’” Kiernan said that it remains important the wind power professionals work to help mold public sentiment around wind energy and said that AWEA has been doing that through meetings with legislators over the course of the past year.

Missing from the presentation today was some of the grandiosity that marked Windpower shows in the past.  In 2011, then-AWEA CEO Denise Bode kicked off the show by riding onto the stage on a giant white Harley-Davidson. Then again, the U.S. wind industry was in a very different place in 2011 than it is in today.  In 2011, the U.S. added almost 7 GW of wind power capacity to the grid.  In 2013, that number slid close to 1 GW.

As Kiernan poignantly pointed out with a personal story, “there is magic in wind,” but perhaps what the American wind energy industry is experiencing today is more subtle.  Maybe today, the U.S. wind industry is more like a sailboat experiencing a warm steady breeze as opposed to the gale-force winds it experienced in the past.  And maybe that will make for a more enjoyable, stable ride in the long run.

Lead image: Sail on a boat via Shutterstock

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