Has Wind Power Blown It?
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Has Wind Power Blown It?

Financial headwinds could be a passing storm or a long-term headache for the carbon-free energy source.
November 24, 2023

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Wind power has had a terrible year. In New Jersey, two gigawatt-scale offshore wind projects collapsed after the developer pulled out. In Germany, one of the largest manufacturers of wind turbines sought 15 billion Euros ($16 billion) from the government to help fix defects in its newest models. And in the UK, an auction for offshore wind farms failed to attract any bidders at all. 

But predictions of its demise might be premature. Extracting carbon-free energy from thin air is safe, well-proven and spinning up faster than its naysayers might admit. 

So is this the beginning of the end for a troubled technology, or the end of the beginning for what could become the mainstay of the electrical grid? 

 

  • • •

Yes. We’ve Hit Peak Wind

1.  A perfect storm of costs. For many wind farms, each new turbine is now a money pit. The UK’s auction for five gigawatts of new capacity failed because the prices set by the government failed to account for a surge in inflation and costs across the industry, reported The Guardian. For example turbines, which account for about half the total price-tag of a wind farm, cost 40% more today than they did two years ago. Developers in the UK, Norway and the US have even pulled out of gigawatts more of projects that were already green-lit, because they couldn’t see a path to profitability.

2.  NIMBY nirvana. Although researchers have debunked myths that wind turbines decimate bird populations (fossil fuel powerplants are over 30 times as deadly) or depress property prices (they actually go up), opposition to wind farms is increasing, fueled by widespread misinformation reports NPR. People just don’t like change. In May, researchers at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law found at least 228 local restrictions to renewable energy across 35 US states, plus nine state-level restrictions, that are “so burdensome that they could have the effect of blocking a project.” Nearly 60 of these were enacted just in the last year.

3.  It’s gridlock out there. A wind farm is useless if you can’t get its electricity to homes and businesses, and America’s grid is woefully outdated. Wind farms are often a long (read: expensive) way from existing transmission lines, and there’s a huge backlog to connect them. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that renewable energy projects can wait four years or more before getting permission to connect to the grid. Over 300 megawatts of wind projects are currently in the interconnection queue, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, with fewer than 20% of solar and wind proposals actually making it through.

 

  • • •

No. We’re in The Doldrums. But The Forecast Is Good

1.  There’s cash on the breeze. Take a look at this chart from insurance company Allianz. Yes, wind companies have taken a $3 billion hit on their assets this year, but it’s still a half-trillion dollar industry. The UK is about to launch a new offshore wind auction with higher subsidies (although nothing like the record $7 trillion that fossil fuels enjoy around the world). And in the US, the Inflation Reduction Act should unlock billions for tax credits, job creation, transmission upgrades, and protecting marginalized communities with offshore wind incentives.

2.  New wind tech spins up. Some of the pushback against today’s wind farms is because of their sheer size – necessary to reach strong winds high above the ground. Wyoming-based startup Airloom Energy aims to fix this, with a startling new onshore design that has blades racing around a track. It will be only about a third as tall as existing turbines to generate just as much power. Because it’s small, light and quick to build, the system should be able to be easier to site and cost around 75% less than current tech, according to the company. Bill Gates is a believer—his venture firm is one of Airloom’s first backers.

AirLoom wind energy

3.  Hurricane-busting turbines. Wind farms generate electricity by taking kinetic energy from the wind, slowing it down slightly. If you could seriously scale up offshore farms, they could extract enough energy not only to power cities but to protect them, thinks Christina Archer, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Delaware. She calculated the effect of putting 33,000 wind turbines in the path of Hurricane Harvey, the category 4 storm that rampaged through Texas in 2017 to the tune of $125 billion. Archer found that the turbines could have reduced rainfall by around 15%. Archer is now looking into whether smaller farms with more effective layouts could have a similar effect. She has a long way to go—the world’s biggest offshore wind farm today comprises just 165 turbines in the UK’s North Sea.

• • •

What to Keep An Eye On

1.  My blade is bigger than yours.  China recently switched on the largest turbine ever – a 16 megawatt turbine whose blades stretch longer than seven Boeing 737s. But US firm GE isn’t far behind. Its Haliade X model is only a few feet shorter and will soon come in an 18 megawatt variant powerful enough that a single rotation could power a UK home for two days.

2.  Wind boosting biodiversity European scientists found that offshore wind farms can protect and nurture a range of marine life, including lobster, cod, crabs, seals and harbor porpoises. A new project in Norway is even experimenting with sustainably farming kelp and mussels at two offshore wind sites.

3.  European shores. In October, the EU launched a Wind Power Action Plan to accelerate permitting, revamp its auctions, finance local factories and sign a landmark Wind Energy Charter by the end of the year. The bloc hopes the move will enable it to double new wind capacity annually, with a target of 420 gigawatts of wind energy by 2030.

Top image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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