Photograph by Medford Taylor, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Germany (above) has led Europe's growth of wind power capacity.

Photograph by Medford Taylor, Nat Geo Image Collection

Wind Power Sets Records As Countries Seek Climate Fixes

A key tool in the U.S. Clean Power Plan, wind gets global lift with lower costs and more offshore farms. But will its growth continue?

As global climate efforts intensify this year, a renewable power source is setting new records. Wind's costs are plummeting in the United States, and offshore farms are soaring in Europe—at least for now.   

Worldwide, wind power expanded more last year than ever before, and new reports show it’s continuing to gain ground. Since it emits no heat-trapping carbon dioxide, wind will be a key tool for countries crafting a new UN-led climate accord this December in Paris.

Europe’s offshore wind farms are producing record amounts of power. They tripled capacity in the first six months of this year compared to the same period of 2014, owing largely to “explosive growth in Germany and the use of higher capacity wind turbines,” according to a recent report by European Wind Energy Association, an industry group.

In the U.S., wind now provides 5 percent of the nation’s electricity, the Department of Energy reported this week. It can produce 66 gigawatts (a gigawatt is a billion watts), enough to power 17.5 million homes. American companies are also joining the move  off land. This year, near the coast of Rhode Island, the first U.S. offshore wind farm broke ground.

Better technology has helped wind's wholesale cost fall to an all-time low—just 2.35 cents per kilowatt hour, a drop of two-thirds from its 2009 peak, the DOE report says. “Wind projects are economically viable in a growing number of locations throughout the U.S.,” says co-author Ryan Wiser, senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, noting turbines are getting taller and their blades are wider.

Wind isn’t just expanding in the world’s top three producers, which include China, the U.S. and Germany. It’s also grown rapidly in India, which had the world’s fifth largest capacity by the end of last year, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. (Read about surprising countries where solar and wind are booming.)

New markets are also emerging in Latin America and Africa, says Stefan Gsaenger of the World Wind Energy Association.

Still, he cautions that there are challenges ahead. “Several of the leading wind markets, especially in Europe, have seen stagnation,” he says.

Indeed, despite France’s plans for floating offshore wind turbine projects and the United Kingdom’s launch of possibly the world’s largest offshore farm, wind’s growth is slowing in parts of Europe. Last year, the number of new installations stalled in Spain, Denmark and Italy.

“The industry needs long-term visibility,” says Kristen Ruby, chief policy officer at the European Wind Energy Association, calling for changes in Europe’s electricity market and upgrades to its infrastructure to boost wind’s integration into the power grid.

Others agree. “We need stable predictable policy,” says Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association. His industry group urges Congress to renew federal tax credits for wind production, which expired at the end of last year. It says the last time these credits lapsed, the industry fell off an “economic cliff.”

Wind is one of several power sources—along with solar, nuclear, and natural gas—that states can increase in order to cut power plant emissions under President Obama’s new Clean Power Plan, released last week. (Read five myths about the plan.)

Yet while wind has fairly broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, Obama’s climate plan does not. Many Republicans and some coal-state Democrats oppose it, and they’ve been loath to renew tax credits for renewables.

Supporters say wind power can significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions. Along with solar, it accounted for nearly two-thirds of emission reductions in the European Union in 2012, according to a report this month by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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