Wind economics by the numbers

The upsurge in wind-energy growth is surprising only to those who cannot look at the industry in its wider economic context.

The upsurge in wind-energy growth is surprising only to those who cannot look at the industry in its wider economic context. During the past five years, the price of electricity from fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) increased from $1.54/million Btu in 2005 to $2.22/million Btu as of January 2010. It was within this window  that the price of oil also rode its roller coaster from about $50/barrel in 2005, to $140/barrel in mid-2008, down to about $75/barrel as of this writing, (the drop largely the result of a recession-inspired reduction in oil consumption). This net $25/barrel cost increase, combined with the uncertainty bred by oil’s volatility, reduced the relative cost of wind energy and made it a more viable source of electricity. On top of that, the U.S. government’s annually renewable production tax credit (PTC) for manufacturers of renewable energy systems — including wind turbine makers — has been the impetus for much of wind energy’s growth in the U.S. over the last several years. In 2009, Congress renewed the PTC for a multiple-year run, removing the uncertainties during previous years, while developers awaited a renewal decision. This provides a 2.1¢/kWh benefit for the first 10 years of a renewable-energy facility’s operation. All of these factors combined to give birth to the earnest appeal of — and, ultimately, the Obama Administration’s official U.S. stamp of approval on — renewable-energy resources.

It wasn’t always so. During the time periods that predated the volatility of fossil fuel prices, wind energy in the U.S. was a cottage industry — it was relatively small and growing steadily, but not cost-competitive with oil, gas or coal. The number of wind turbines manufactured and installed in the U.S. was modest, yet was showing steady growth: In 1999, installed wind-energy capacity was 2,472 MW. By 2005, it was 9,147 MW. Then, the U.S. climbed aboard the energy roller coaster for a lengthy ride. The result was a series of dramatic increases in U.S. installed wind-energy capacity: 11,575 MW, 16,907 MW, 25,410 MW and 34,863 MW, during the years 2006  through 2009, respectively.

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