Taller Turbines Change the Political Landscape of Which States Benefit from Wind Power

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Improved wind power technologies already widely used in Europe--taller turbine towers of 110 meters and more, and more powerful rotors--can cost-effectively open up huge swaths of the country to wind power development. That's the great news out in a new U.S. Department of Energy report, titled Enabling Wind Power Nationwide. In fact, these new technologies could generate more than eight times our electric needs, the report makes clear. Even tapping into a fraction of that would be huge.

Representatives and Senators should take note as they consider a federal renewable electricity standard, debate reinstating the production tax credit, and review EPA's Clean Power Plan. Less windy regions, once thought of as total or partial write-offs to wind power development, can now reap all the benefits that come with this kind of pollution-free power--no-carbon electricity, good-paying jobs, cleaner air for our kids to breathe, substantial water savings and significant economic growth.

The Ohio River Valley, the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, and large sections of the interior West become great candidates for wind power using technologies that are now widely deployed and road-tested in Europe. (Mitch McConnell should pay attention: With taller turbines, Kentucky could easily use wind power to supply at least 20 percent of its electricity and create hundreds, if not thousands, of new jobs.) Newer technologies, likely to come to market in five to 10 years, will, at last, help even the previously wind-poor Southeast become a real wind power contender.

Wind power's trajectory in the US over the last 10 years has already been pretty mind-boggling. The report shows that with the right policies in place, our wind-power growth can continue to soar.

Smart policies, like the now-expired federal Production Tax Credit for wind power and renewable energy standards in 29 states and D.C., are the most important factor in bringing us to this new technological threshold. That's because smart policies spur demand. And that, in turn, drives investment in new technologies and increases competition in the marketplace. Over the last 10 years, we've seen this play out as wind power has gone from supplying less than half of 1 percent of our nation's electricity to almost 5 percent now. (In some states, like Iowa and South Dakota, wind power supplies more than 25 percent of electricity and there's room for plenty more.) Costs, meanwhile, have plummeted--an average of 7 percent a year. On average, over the last five years, the industry has employed 75,000, with 560 manufacturing and production facilities in at least 43 states. Industry has invested tens of billions.

To help wind power grow even faster and further, to reap all its many benefits, we need to continue these smart policies and promote important new ones. The EPA's Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants is prime among them. As currently proposed, it can jumpstart significant wind power development. An even more ambitious CPP program, as NRDC has recommended in its comments to EPA, can spur significant additional growth. So can a federal renewable electricity standard, like the one introduced this week in Congress, that would require that the country gets a certain percentage of its electricity from clean sources like wind, solar and geothermal power. (For more on this, see the testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee given by my colleague, Franz Matzner.)

National and state policies have already enabled our country to leapfrog over what were previously thought to be reasonable estimates of our cost-effective wind power potential. In fact, using current technology at turbine tower heights of only 80-90 meters, we can get 68 percent more wind power from our turbines than experts thought we would in 2008.

With the taller towers and better rotors currently employed in Europe, the sky's the limit. Using just 5 percent of the potential that DOE has identified, Michigan, for instance, could get 45 percent of its electricity from wind power. Sky-high numbers hold true in Wisconsin, too. There, using 110-meter turbine towers to develop all available resources would generate more than 1400 percent of current electric demand. Five percent of that is 70 percent of Wisconsin's electric needs. Impressive, no? Florida, currently the most wind-poor state in the lower 48, will likely have to wait until 140 meter turbines become common, in five to 10 years. But then, it could supply more than 15 percent of its electricity using the clean wind power.

The Department of Energy has estimated that getting a mere 35 percent of our electricity from wind power in 2050 could lead to 600,000 wind-related jobs and over $4 billion in local tax payments and lease revenues to landowners. We'd save 260 billion gallons of water that year, and reduce non-carbon air pollutants for a cumulative savings of $108 billion between now and 2050. All this would actually save us 2 percent on our electric bills in 2050, the DOE forecasts.

But, as today's report demonstrates, there's no need to stop there. Thanks to new technologies that were themselves spurred by smart energy policies, our country's wind power potential is now almost limitless. The more of it we develop as a nation, the more the benefits will continue grow.