GE is getting back to its industrial roots, but not just at home.
Photograph by Mark Daffey — Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image
By Katie Fehrenbacher
August 11, 2015

It’s cheaper than at any time in history to build big wind farms in gusty areas of the U.S., like Texas, Iowa and South Dakota, according to a new report from the Department of Energy.

Those low prices helped delivered a solid year of new wind farms in 2014, and that growth is expected to continue this year and next. However starting in 2017, thanks to the loss of a federal subsidy, the low price of natural gas, and slow growth in electricity demand, wind farms could have an uncertain future.

Here are 10 things you should know about wind power in the U.S.:

1). Lots of new wind farms last year: There were 4.85 gigawatts of new wind power added in 2014, which was 8% growth from the amount installed in 2013. There were about 7 gigawatts of new solar installed last year. One gigawatt is about the size of a new large natural gas plant.

The total amount of wind farm capacity in the U.S. grew to 65.88 gigawatts. In terms of volume, the U.S. is the second largest wind market in the world (behind China), and wind was the third largest new source of electricity in the U.S. last year after natural gas and solar.

But including the amount of wind farms deployed by the end of 2014, the U.S. only gets 4.9% of its electricity from wind. At the same time Denmark gets almost 40% of its electricity from wind, while Spain and Ireland get about 20% of their electricity from wind.

While 2014 was a solid year for wind, it didn’t compare to the large amounts of wind installed in the U.S. between 2007 and 2012 (more on why below).

A worker adjusts his security cable while doing a maintenance check on a wind turbine at the Comision Federal de Electricidad (CFE) wind farm in La Ventosa, in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, on Tuesday, May 28, 2013. Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg via Getty Images,
Photograph by Susana Gonzalez — Bloomberg via Getty Images

2). Highly regional in the U.S.: Out of those 65.88 total gigawatts of wind, Texas claims 14 gigawatts. Last year the state added 1.82 gigawatts of wind power. Iowa, South Dakota, and Kansas have sizable state industries as well.

3). Wind turbines are just getting bigger and bigger: The average capacity of a new wind turbine in the U.S. last year was 1.9 megawatts, which was up 172% from the early days of the late 90’s. The average height of the hub (which is the distance between the turbine platform and the rotor) was 82.7 meters in 2014, up 48% from the early 90’s. The average rotor diameter last year was 99.4 meters, up 108% since the late 90’s.

4). The big turbine makers are . . .: U.S. firm GE, German conglomerate Siemens, and Danish energy company Vestas dominate the U.S. market for wind turbines. GE holds 60% of the U.S., while Siemens and Vestas have captured 26% and 12% respectively.

5). Ultra cheap wind energy: Wind power is at its cheapest time ever in the U.S. The national average price of wind energy in the U.S. fell to a little over two cents per kilowatt hour. That makes it competitive with natural gas.

The MPI Enterprise off-shore supply vessel stands on support legs in the North Sea as installation and construction continues at Amrumbank West off-shore wind park, operated by E.ON SE, off the coast of the Heligoland archipelago in Germany, on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Kristin Bocsi – Getty Images

6). The looming loss of a federal subsidy: 2013 was a very weak year for new wind farms in the U.S. Why? Because the U.S. has a reoccurring production tax credit for wind farms that was set to expire by the end of 2012. Wind project developers rushed to get their wind farms built in 2012, before the expiration.

However the schizophrenic policy was renewed for projects that were started before the end of 2014. That means wind project developers have now been building out wind farms this year, that were started last year. But with uncertainty around if the tax credits will again be renewed, wind project developers are watching and waiting for what will happen in 2016 and beyond.

The potential loss of that subsidy, combined with abundant low-cost natural gas and a lack of growing electricity demand in the U.S., means the American wind industry could stall in a couple years.

7). New EPA ruling to the rescue? However with President Obama’s support of the new Clean Power Plan, states could look to boost their own industries to try to lower their power plant carbon emissions to meet the new regulation.

8). Wind projects in a queue: The DOE report says that there are currently 96 gigawatts of wind power projects that are waiting to get approved for transmission interconnection. A whopping 30% of all wind generating capability are waiting in these lines to move forward. About 2,000 miles of transmission lines came online in 2014.

9). Wind energy jobs, investments: Wind power in the U.S. has received a cumulative investment total of $135 billion since the 1980’s. It took $8.3 billion in investment to install the close to 5 gigawatts of new wind power last. 2014 also saw the largest tax equity year on record for wind, with $5.8 billion, while debt finance increased slightly to $2.7 billion.

10). Offshore wind is stalled: Despite progress by an offshore wind farm near Rhode Island, the industry is utterly stuck in the U.S. Globally, there are 7.7 gigawatts of offshore wind farms, mostly in Europe.

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