Of all the renewable technologies open to us these days, there’s no doubt that wind is the outright winner in the capacity and cost race, and more specifically, onshore wind, those gleaming white towers some countries are lucky (and tolerant) enough to have dotting their countryside and coastal regions.
Global wind deployment was once again up last year, this time by a relatively humble 6%, equating to just shy of 42GW of energy capacity installed, when compared to the average of 23% for the five years leading up to 2010, but is nonetheless signs of rampant and continued uptake the world over. Asia takes the biggest bite, with 52.1% of the global share, most of that in China, in which a recent study undertaken by multiple parties has concluded that Chinese capacity could reach 300GW by 2020, and 400GW by 2030; they are absolutely HUGE numbers, and if achieved, mark a seriously devoted agenda from the communist-cum-capitalist nation.
Closer to home, Europe has fallen in the rankings, taking just 24.5% of new installations for 2011, with again, a large majority of that down to one country, Germany, whose brilliant FiTs and policies allow for cost-effective and quick deployment of wind turbines throughout the country to the tune of almost a 1/3 of all European cumulative additions.
However, a draft government regulation released a few weeks ago in Germany seems to be stifling this growth just as it gets some real pace, or at least in the offshore department. Offshore has unfortunately been a much less avidly followed form of wind energy, due to its high costs, difficult maintenance and installation issues and generally poor policy and regulation worldwide, but Germany has always been one of the leaders. This new announcement would slash incentives for offshore generation prices, from 1 Euro/MWh to 0.75 Euros; whilst this cuts costs slightly for consumers on the renewable section of their bills, it will ultimately put future projects off and may stunt growth of a crucial area for the industry.
On the plus side, the UK achieved a milestone for wind energy generation recently by producing 4.1GW of electricity, over 10% of the country’s needs, using those spinning blades to boil cups of tea and burn toast, beating the previous 3.8GW record set in May. Some decided to lessen this triumph by stating that 4.1GW roughly equals the output of just one single coal and biomass-fired plant, Drax, which is not only more reliable but not as expensive. Surely they can’t be serious? When Germany produced over half their energy needs via solar and wind earlier this year, I don’t remember seeing any rabid comparisons to numbers of coal or gas plants over there, so why here?
Unfortunately this is part of a rocky future for wind, as people simply cannot bring themselves to trust what is actually an already well established technology. True, Drax may create just as much energy as the wind turbines running on that day produced (let’s not forget this does not mean the ENTIRE capacity), but not only is Drax coal-fired, a dying and dangerous industry, but has no doubt received much government aid and subsidy to get to the point is at today. Renewables aren’t the only ones.
Moving over to the US, a nation placed in 2nd for number of installations last year, beaten only by China, and we see yet another murky horizon for wind. Once again, deployment was up on 2010, but nothing compared to the boom period of 08-09, and would seem to be gradually declining. This is in no small part due to the coming expiration of the crucial PTC, a federal tax, which for years has successfully and cost-effectively financed and built wind farms across North America, feeding the green job market and rapidly maturing the industry. As the deadline nears and both Presidential candidates wrapped up in election nuances, it looks quite likely that it will not be renewed, and this is having catastrophic domino effects down the line.
Many companies, including Siemens and Vestas, the once topdogs of the wind industry, have recently announced layoffs of hundreds of workers, citing the uncertainty of a future without a PTC, grinding projects to a halt and postponing new plans. Of course, cheap Chinese wind turbines are also to blame, but the loss of this federal tax is by far the most important factor. Unless companies are given definite answers on future subsidies, growth will slow and the industry will begin to stagnate.
Heading back to the UK briefly again, I saw an article on the Guardian detailing how wind farms could in the future provide lucrative windfalls for the communities embracing them, and why this would help promote acceptance. The basic premise is that those small villages or towns where wind turbines are being planned to be erected will be given certain incentives or cash-benefits to smooth over any disputes or NIMBY-like behaviour. These could be in the form of discounts on bills, infrastructure investment or getting local business involved in the project-chain.
Personally, I don’t see this as a particularly smart or progressive development. If we have to now effectively reward local communities for allowing the building of wind farms somewhere near their houses, just so that they don’t block, sue or complain strikes me as depressing. I still can’t truly understand how, especially in a so-called developed society as ourselves, we cannot see the benefits of renewable energy over all other things, and therefore have to be given treats to pull the wool over our eyes until it’s all over. Surely the customers would see reductions on their bills either way, as more clean technology on the grid means lower costs down the line? I’m all for involving local business, but that will, if anything, slow the process down even more, and make the whole industry much more reliable on small-scale, possibly inexperienced business to facilitate new projects. If a nice balance is met, then great, but given past ineptness, I doubt that will be the case.
So, unfortunately, it would seem that the wind industry has a tough time ahead, despite a fantastic past several years of growth and investment. An expiring PTC, anti-Chinese trade wars, slashing of government subsidies and bickering in the courts all spell a gloomy future for it, but there are silver linings to be found.
China looks set to show us all how it’s done, whilst Germany continues to install despite reduced investments by the government, and with specific states such as Texas and Iowa in top gear for new deployments, there is some hope the industry will continue to succeed as it has done. However, I fear that wind will have to suffer a period of depressed interest and growth before the real stuff starts happening, and us in the Western world sure won’t like being left behind eating the dust of China and it’s Asian buddies, least not America.
In fact, I hope that very competition drives us to install more, invest more and accept more, and not lead us further down the path to anti-dumping regulations and protectionist policy. I’m looking at you America.