Editor’s Note: This contribution is part of our Sustainability Scavenger Hunt series. Read more here, and download the fun activity book for families and classrooms!
by Eric Udelhofen of OneEnergy Renewables
For thousands of years, civilizations have depended on the wind for power. American colonists used windmills for grinding grain, pumping water and cutting wood at sawmills. Wind turbines have been used to create electricity since the late 1800s, and the first megawatt-scale turbine was installed during World War II in Vermont, but it took until the oil shortages 1970s for the U.S. government, in partnership with industry, to start developing modern-style wind turbines. The industry really didn’t take off until the mid-’90s.
The wind business can be divided into two general categories: small wind turbines, which are installed primarily behind a utility meter and serve a load directly; and large-scale megawatt-plus turbines, which primarily sell power into the wholesale market.
Large-Scale Wind Energy
Over the past decade, large-scale wind energy has become a major source of electricity in the U.S.; as of the third quarter of 2016, there were over 75 gigawatts of installed wind capacity, representing 5% of total U.S. electricity production. Wind turbines are becoming more efficient and can be installed in more areas than they could in years past. In fact, 40 states have utility-scale wind projects installed, and wind is currently the least expensive form of electricity generation in more than half of U.S. energy markets, having declined by 60% over the past 6 years.
Although most large-scale wind farms are owned either by utilities or large independent power producers, many farmers and landowners across the country host wind turbines on their property and collect royalty payments. According to the American Wind Energy Association, over $222 million a year are paid to rural landowners across the country who host wind projects on their land. Wind projects pay millions of dollars annually in property taxes to help support rural schools, hospitals and other services.
What’s more, “wind turbine technician” is currently America’s fastest growing occupation, and the wind industry now employs over 100,000 people in the U.S.—more than coal and gas combined. And veterans are employed in the wind industry at a rate 50% above the national average.
Small-Scale Wind Energy
Small-scale wind turbines include a wide range of designs, including vertical-axis wind turbines, two or three blade designs, upwind (rotor and blades on the upwind side of the tower), downwind (rotor and blades on the downwind side of the tower), and direct drive (no gearbox).
While the large-scale wind industry has grown significantly in the U.S. (nearly 7-fold over the past decade) as turbines have become more efficient and less expensive, the small-scale distributed wind industry has experienced very little growth and remained a very small part of the larger energy picture. As of 2015, there were only 220 megawatts of capacity of small wind turbines across the U.S.—about equivalent to a single utility-scale wind or solar project. Major reasons for this include the high cost of energy produced, relatively significant ongoing maintenance costs and a dramatic decline in the costs of solar photovoltaic systems, which compete with small-scale wind.
As solar prices continue to decline, the scales will likely continue to tip away from small wind due to low ongoing maintenance (no moving parts), easier integration to existing infrastructure (mounting on rooftops etc.), more predictable output, and quiet operation.
Thankfully, there is room for both solar and wind in the complete energy picture—residential/small-scale plus large-scale commercial. It is truly a wonderful feeling to sense a breeze and know that the currents moving air past you are also providing power for your home, business, school or community.
Learn more about wind energy in America at the American Wind Energy Association for an industry picture, and the Distributed Wind Energy Association for more information about wind projects at homes, farms, businesses, public facilities and other small-scale sites.
Eric works on OneEnergy Renewables’ project development team to shepherd projects from inception through construction. Eric manages prospecting and site identification, landowner outreach, permitting and interconnection processes, and customer outreach for utility-scale solar projects across the country.
Eric has worked in renewable energy since 2007, when he started as a financial analyst for EDP Renewables (f.k.a. Horizon Wind Energy), managing financial analysis for a large portfolio of wind and solar projects. He subsequently joined the project development team, working on developing wind and solar projects in diverse markets across the country. While at EDPR, Eric’s proudest accomplishment was completing development of a 100-megawatt phase of the Meadow Lake project in central Indiana. In 2012, Eric joined H&H Solar, a Midwest solar EPC contractor, where he worked on sales, project development and construction management.