Micro Wind Turbines Still In Play As US Wind Energy Vaults To #1 Worldwide

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The US Energy Department is out with two new reports that underscore how rapidly the domestic wind energy sector has become a job-creating force to be reckoned with, despite the efforts of certain state and federal legislators to thwart its growth. Based on some of the comment threads around here when the topic of micro wind turbines pops up, I’m especially interested in the Energy Department’s findings on the growth of the US distributed wind energy market.

US micro wind turbine report

US Wind Energy Vaults Into The Lead

Leaving aside distributed wind energy and micro wind turbines for the moment, the Energy Department’s new 2014 Wind Technologies Market Report (produced by our friends over at LBNL — Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) finds that the utility-scale wind energy sector supported 73,000 jobs in 2014, a huge jump up from the 22,500 jobs the DOE toted up in 2013.

That’s still with a minimal contribution from the aforementioned US offshore wind energy sector, which is only just starting to crank up with the first “steel in the water” for a new wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island.

While the US is still second in the world in total installed wind capacity at 66 gigawatts, it bested all the others in terms of total wind energy production in 2014. That’s particularly impressive considering that the US has yet to tap its massive offshore wind energy potential.

Corresponding to the growth in wind energy production has been a drop in prices, to the point that wind energy is competitive with conventional sources in many US markets.

According to the report, prices peaked at almost 7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 2009, and the power purchase price in 2014 was only 2.35 cents/kWh.

Contrast that with the employment free-fall in the US fossil fuel sector. The natural gas industry is in an uproar because President Obama’s new Clean Power Plan skips right over it in favor of renewable energy. The coal sector has been bleeding jobs in Appalachia for generations primarily due to mechanization along with a very recent clampdown on destructive mountaintop mining practices, and now other coal regions are in jeopardy due to the Plan’s new carbon pollution rules.

As for oil, according to our friends over at FuelFix.comoil companies are making “the deepest cuts in a generation to reassure investors,” and the employment freefall has continued through last month.


What Is A Micro Wind Turbine?

Where were we? Oh, right, micro wind turbines. Despite the doubters, micro wind turbines have been carving out a niche in the wind energy sector, and the Energy Department’s new 2014 Distributed Wind Energy Market Report hints that this is just the beginning.

To be clear, while the micro wind turbine and distributed wind markets overlap, they are not the same thing. Here’s the definition of “distributed” in the new report:

Distributed wind is defined in terms of technology application based on a wind project’s location relative to end-use and power-distribution infrastructure, rather than turbine or project size. Distributed wind is

1) The use of wind turbines, either off-grid or grid- connected, at homes, farms and ranches, businesses, public and industrial facilities, or other sites to offset all or a portion of the local energy consumption at or near those locations, or

2) Systems connected directly to the local grid to support grid operations and local loads.

To simplify, distributed wind encompasses anything that does not function like a central power plant.

That means a distributed wind site could include gigantic, wind farm–sized turbines as well as “small” wind turbines, defined by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Small Wind Turbine Industry Roadmap as anything from 400 watts (typically used to charge batteries on sailboats) on up through 100 kilowatts.

The new report further defines mid-sized turbines as falling into the range of 101 kilowatts to 1 megawatt. Anything more than 1 megawatt is considered large-scale.

Definitions of “micro” wind turbines vary, but for purposes of comparison, let’s say that they fall squarely within the “small” category.

The Distributed Wind Market Report

The Distributed Wind Market Report (this one comes from our friends at PNNL — Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) covers 74,000 turbines in the US, Puerto Rico, and The Virgin Islands. The total installed capacity hit the 906 MW mark in 2014.

In terms of raw megawatts, micro wind turbines continued to play a small role in the US distributed wind energy picture, compared to larger turbines used in distributed applications.

Large-scale distributed projects in three western states — New Mexico, California, and Texas — pumped up the numbers for turbines greater than 1 megawatt, which accounted for about 90% of overall distributed wind capacity deployed.

Sales of small wind turbines only accounted for 3.7 MW, or roughly 6% of overall distributed wind capacity in 2014. That represents a drop from 5.6 MW in 2013, but I’m thinking that’s not a permanent trend.

The report notes that, while grid-tied applications continued to dominate the distributed wind picture in 2014, off-grid small turbines played an important role:

Off-grid small wind turbine models continue to account for the bulk of wind turbine units deployed in US distributed wind applications. An estimated 83% of turbine units in 2014 distributed wind applications were deployed to power remote homes, oil and gas operations, telecommunications facilities, boats, rural water or electricity supply, and military sites.

The other good news in the report for micro wind turbines — and a hint of future good times — is that the export market for US micro wind/small wind turbines is thriving. Exports accounted for 80% of sales for small wind manufacturers based in the US.

It’s also worth noting that the Energy Department has been pumping more dollars into micro wind turbine R&D designed to push costs down, so it’s possible that the sector could pick up even without the help of proactive state and federal policy.

Though the number of US manufacturers has dropped, it appears that the survivors are in the swim and are primed for an uptick in the domestic market, so stay tuned.

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Image: Courtesy of energy.gov.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3380 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey