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The US wind energy is heading for two major transformational milestones with the nation's first offshore wind farm and major transmission line.

Offshore Wind Energy

US Wind Energy Juggernaut: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (CT Exclusive Interview)

The US wind energy is heading for two major transformational milestones with the nation’s first offshore wind farm and major transmission line.

The American Wind Energy Association will release its much anticipated annual report on April 12, and the group’s CEO Tom Kiernan provided CleanTechnica with some advance insights during a one-on-one phone chat last week. Hint: it’s gonna be big.

Kiernan also discussed two recent major milestone developments in the US wind industry, one being the construction of the nation’s first ever offshore wind farm — which will finally open the floodgates to developing the immense Atlantic Coast wind resources — and the other involving the Energy Department in what will be the biggest ever renewable energy project in the US.

US wind industry

The 2015 American Wind Energy Association Report

AWEA has already teased some info for its 2015 annual wind energy report to the press, underscoring the sector’s reduction in carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen emissions:

Electricity generated by wind in 2015 displaced an estimated 176,000 metric tons of SO2 and 106,000 metric tons of NOx, representing $7.3 billion in avoided health costs last year alone.

AWEA provides third-party statistics that suggest wind sector growth has contributed to a total US power sector emissions drop down to 1995 levels, while average electricity rates dropped — yes, dropped — 5.5 percent below 2009.

The group also states that “wind energy is the most cost-effective energy source to comply with the Clean Power Plan” put forth by President Obama last summer, and in the interview Kiernan emphasized that wind also provides the US with a pathway for honoring its Paris COP21 global climate pledge.

Among other tidbits, AWEA’s 2015 statistics reveal that the US is now #1 in global wind energy production.

During his conversation with CleanTechnica, Kiernan provided this additional teaser for the 2015 report:

There will be some exciting news about jobs growth…for example wind technicians [maintenance, service and repair positions] is now the fastest-growing profession in the country…

The group has also has some big news about private sector, non-utility wind investments and it has scheduled another preview announcement about the report for April 7, so stay tuned for that.

Offshore Wind Ready For Its Closeup

CleanTechnica’s conversation with Kiernan began with a discussion of the soon-to-be-completed Block Island wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island. Offshore wind energy development faces some technological challenges compared to onshore, so getting “steel in the water” is a major development for the industry:

It’s a very important step to prove the opportunities for offshore wind in the US…it’s beginning to build infrastructure and momentum for the industry…

The cost of onshore wind has dropped 66 percent in the last four years according to Kiernan, and he foresees a similar pattern in the offshore sector:

Offshore is a very new industry…some of the early pioneering projects will establish ports and supply chains, and attract workers to the industry…

As Kiernan sees it, Block Island has finally established the US as a serious player in the offshore sector. That will attract serious global investors such as Dong Energy, and access to global technological improvements will also help to drive down costs.

Things won’t happen overnight, but Kiernan does anticipate steady progress for offshore wind in the US, especially after Block Island starts producing clean electricity:

There are many steps in the [offshore development] process. It’s a complicated, multi-tiered effort and it’s important to have federal support…

This project will inspire  even more public support…it’s inspirational and exciting. We’re on the cusp of significant new clean energy development off the East Coast.

Biggest Ever Clean Power Project In The US

The other big development is the Energy Department’s announcement that it will get behind the proposed 700-mile megawatt Clean Line Plains & Eastern transmission line, designed primarily to transport electricity from Oklahoma and Texas wind farms through Arkansas to Tennessee and points east.

At 4,000 megawatts, Plains & Eastern counts as the biggest renewable energy project so far in US history. By way of comparison, the Hoover Dam hydropower plant clocks in at 2,000 megawatts of capacity.

The other striking thing about the project is the Energy Department approval (check out the Tennessee Valley Authority for an idea of the scale and impact of major federally sanctioned energy initiatives).

As described by Kiernan, federal involvement provides wind with the same procedural advantages that other conventional forms of energy have long enjoyed:

It’s important for building momentum for [wind] transmission projects throughout the country…conventional power has long term, proven regulatory processes that are speedier. This is the first one for clean energy…it’s a very important step for the industry. This is a transformational project.

US Wind Energy Rising…

Kiernan also noted that onshore wind energy leases provide farmers and ranchers with a zero-water “cash crop.” That’s a major advantage over conventional power in areas where water resources are stretched thin.

According to AWEA’s statistics, wind leases currently pump $220 million per year into the rural economy, making wind energy a significant source of local income as well as a rural jobs generator — all while contributing to a shrinking carbon footprint for the US economy.

Those are good points to keep in mind when clean energy projects raise eminent domain and good-neighbor issues as well as environmental issues. No form of energy development is impact free, but a legitimate case can be made that the benefits and consequences of clean energy projects outweigh the impacts.

…Despite Roadblocks

Speaking of impacts, the spectacular growth of the US wind energy industry is all the more spectacular considering what happened before and after 2009.

Before 2008, the US wind energy industry was a tiny sector that received strong bi-partisan support for future growth. Beginning in 1992, it was nourished along with a series of routinely passed federal tax breaks, just as other domestic energy sectors — oil, gas, coal and nuclear — were established thanks to supportive federal energy policies.

After President Obama took office in 2009, the production tax credit for wind could still claim Republican support thanks to longtime wind advocate and Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley (yes, this guy), but the renewal of the tax break transformed from a routine transaction to a huge bone of contention thanks partly to a comprehensive state-level campaign against renewable energy spearheaded by the Koch-backed lobbying organization ALEC.

Anti-wind efforts along the Atlantic coast were also aided directly by Koch family members in the case of Cape Wind, which would have been the nation’s first offshore wind farm, and indirectly by East Coast governors within the Koch family sphere of influence.

Wind industry growth took a stumble a couple of years ago while Republican leadership in Congress dithered over approval of the tax credit, but in the latest development a last-minute agreement in December 2015 is keeping it alive through 2016.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s clear sailing for the US wind industry from here on out, but between Block Island and the Plains & Eastern line, it’s going to be very difficult to step backwards from here.

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Image: via AWEA.

 
 
 
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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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