Wind power achieves many milestones this year

The wind farm industry never sits still in any given year, and 2011 was no different, as it forged ahead with a slew of benchmarks, policy progress, and hard data that illustrate wind energy continuing its march forward as a mainstream, reliable and affordable energy source made in America.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has established a tradition of taking a look back in December at the events that shaped the year in wind farm. Here’s a look at just some of the many happenings that made 2011 yet another big year in the continued evolution of the industry.

1 – Iowa, South Dakota reach 20 percent wind farm penetration overall. U.S. wind energy industry observers no longer need look to Europe for examples of huge wind power penetrations. Both Iowa and South Dakota reached the important milestone of 20 percent of their electricity coming from wind power, a first for the U.S. And more projects are coming.

2 – Xcel Energy shatters wind barrier with 50 percent at one time.While Iowa and South Dakota lead the nation with their 20 percent wind penetration overall benchmark, a utility system in Colorado made some noise on the integration front as well. Investor-owned utility Xcel Energy set a wind power world record on the morning of October 6, when subsidiary Public Service Co. of Colorado got 55.6 percent of the electricity on its system at one time from wind power, as reported in the Denver Post. The leading utility for wind power on its wires, Xcel Energy is proving once again that large amounts of wind can be successfully integrated onto the grid.

3 – Cost drop: Wind power gets leaner and meaner. Wind turbine prices have dropped sharply in recent years, and a government report released in 2011 highlights that trend with some telling numbers. According to the latest edition of the U.S. Department of Energy’s "Wind Technologies Market Report," turbine prices decreased by as much as 33 percent or more between late 2008 and 2010. As discussed in AWEA’s most recent industry Annual Report, more efficient U.S.-based manufacturing is saving on transportation, and technology improvements are making turbines better and more efficient.

4 – One-third renewables: California establishes landmark RES. In April, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law legislation that ups the state’s renewable electricity standard from an already strong 20 percent to an historic 33 percent by 2020. The renewables standard includes near-term and incremental targets (20 percent by the end of 2013 and 25 percent by the end of 2016), an approach that the wind industry considers to be an important component of RES legislation because it allows the industry to begin ramping up and generating economic development immediately.

5 – Offshore streamlining and wind farm project progress. The U.S. Departments of Energy and Interior made several important announcements that moved offshore American wind power forward, including: the unveiling of a coordinated strategic plan to pursue the deployment of 10 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind capacity by 2020 and 54 GW by 2030, the creation of high-priority "Wind Energy Areas" off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, the approval of Cape Wind project’s construction and operations plan and the commitment of $43 million over the next five years to help speed technical innovations, drive down costs, and reduce market barriers such as supply chain development, transmission and infrastructure.

6 – WindMade™ label announced. 2011 marked the launch of WindMade™, a new consumer label that will highlight companies getting a large portion of their electricity from wind power. Already 15 companies—including such names as Motorola Mobility, Deutsche Bank, and Bloomberg—have committed to attaining the new label by getting at least 25 percent of their electricity from wind energy.

7 – Momentum builds for PTC extension. The year is wrapping without the all-important extension of the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC), wind power’s primary policy driver, which expires at the end of 2012. But the PTC movement gathered momentum heading into next year, with bipartisan legislation recently introduced by Representatives Dave Reichert (R, WA-08) and Earl Blumenauer (D, OR-03) seeking to grant a four-year PTC extension (H.R. 3307, the "American Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit Extension Act"). This legislation has garnered the support of 36 cosponsors including 11 Republicans as well as a broad, nonpartisan coalition of over 370 members, including manufacturing, farm and business interests and the bipartisan Governors’ Wind Energy Coalition comprised of 23 Republican and Democrat Governors from across the U.S.

8 – Wind power keeps the lights on. When more than 50 power plants totaling 7,000 MW unexpectedly went offline in Texas due to unusually cold weather early in the year, wind power was there to help stabilize the system and keep the lights on. Wind energy played a critical role in limiting the severity of the blackouts, providing enough electricity to keep the power on for about three million typical households. ERCOT, the Texas grid operator, confirmed that wind energy was providing between 3,500 and 4,000 MW of electricity (about 7 percent of ERCOT demand at that time)—roughly what it was forecast and scheduled to provide—during the critical two-hour window when the grid needed power the most. Said ERCOT CEO Trip Doggett, as reported in the Texas Tribune: "I would highlight that we put out a special word of thanks to the wind community because they did contribute significantly through this timeframe."

9- Southeast gets more clean, affordable wind power. Two new southern states will soon be powered by wind: Alabama and Louisiana. When Alabama Power secured a power purchase agreement for TradeWind Energy to provide 202 MW of power from an Oklahoma wind farm, Matt Bowden, the utility’s vice president of environmental affairs said it all: "This agreement not only boosts our use of renewable energy, it also provides real savings for our customers," he said. "It benefits both the environment and the people we serve."

The savings are not unique. Just this month in Louisiana, the state public service commission approved a 20-year contract that utility Southwestern Electric Power Co. of Shreveport signed for power coming from a Kansas wind farm. Commissioner Foster Campbell noted the deal will lower costs for consumers. And more wind power will soon be generated in the South, with North Carolina and Florida both having utility-scale wind farms under development.

10 – Republican candidates literally sign on to wind power, which figures prominently at Iowa Straw Poll. As seen in item No. 1, Iowa gets 20 percent of its electricity from wind power. So when the nation’s eyes turned to the Hawkeye State for the Iowa Republican Presidential Straw Poll in August, they caught a glimpse of what wind power has already done for Iowans and what it can do for America. Candidates for President and Iowa voters had the opportunity to literally touch the economic power of wind energy at the Straw Poll, where wind component manufacturer TPI Composites displayed a 130-foot-long wind turbine blade made right in Iowa, at a factory in Newton. In addition to Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and Iowa Senator Charles Grassley (R), signing the blade were then- and current presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, and Thaddeus McCotter. Candidate Rick Perry signed the very same blade just last week.