This article is part of our “CleanTechnica Answer Box” collection. In this collection of articles, we respond to dozens of common anti-cleantech myths.
Myth: wind power resources are too limited to be a source of electricity for a large portion of the US population.
Short answer: Wind power resources in America (and elsewhere) are abundant & underdeveloped. There is a tremendous amount of potential to develop wind power in every US state, and wind is often now the cheapest source for new electricity generation — and even becoming cheaper than electricity from existing power plants.
Wind power might seem like a fringe source of electricity to some, and critics certainly have gone after it aggressively at times, but it’s now a large source of electricity in the United States and many other countries. One of the main points of misinformation about wind power is the idea that it couldn’t ever produce enough electricity to be an important source for everyone. This notion is totally untrue — there are plenty of wind resources that can be developed in order to eventually make wind power a primary source of electricity.
Texas has been oil and gas country for such a long time it might be shocking to find out it is also the US state with the most wind power. The state is so big it has its own grid system, and the capacity of wind power there could reach 28,000 MW soon.
Wind power in Texas is not being supported because of favorable local political views. In fact, Texas has been a Republican stronghold for a very long time, so wind power has flourished there despite a general attitude that is not typically “green.” Economics are driving wind power installations in Texas, not environmentalism.
Has Texas wind power already gone mainstream enough that it transcended the “enviro” category? Well, it appears that it has. “Wind power, by one important measure, surpassed coal last month to become the second-largest electricity source in Texas, yet another milestone in the state’s march toward greater reliance on renewable energy.” One source stated that the 20,000 MW of wind power capacity Texas has right now is enough to provide electricity to about 5 million homes.
An Energy.gov page contains an astonishing figure: potential wind power capacity in Texas is over 1.3 million MW. If 20,000 MW can power about 5 million homes, then one million MW would easily provide electricity for everyone in state and well beyond — when there is adequate wind.
This NREL wind resources map shows very good wind resources both onshore and offshore for the Lone Star state at a height of 50 meters.
This one is for 80 meters:
This one is for 100 meters:
Iowa is another leading wind power state and is not nearly as conservative as Texas, but it has been leaning that way recently. By 2020, it could generate about 40% of its electricity from wind power. An Energy.gov source contains an estimate that Iowa’s wind power potential is 279,000 MW, which would be far more than it would need to provide all the state’s electricity.
California is a state which has been a stronghold for Democrats for years. Environmental awareness and state policies supporting renewable energy are common. Wind power is utilized at a large scale in this state and California is also a clear leader in this form of renewable energy.
Reportedly, the state’s wind power potential is 303,00 MW. At the moment, the installed capacity is about 6,000 MW. In other words, California has massive wind power potential, and wind power there could become a leading source of electricity eventually. (California also has considerable solar power potential and has already made a lot of progress installing solar power systems as well.) If we go back to the NREL national map, we see that California’s wind resources are not nearly as good as the ones in the central states, yet California winds could still eventually be tapped from hundreds of thousands of megawatts of capacity (theoretically).
If you look at this other NREL map, you can see California does have outstanding offshore wind resources near the coastline in the most northern part of the state.
A skeptic or critic might be say, “Well, you just cherry picked the states with huge wind power potential to make it seem like the whole country has a ginormous opportunity.” So, let’s examine the states with the least amount of wind resources.
Looking at the NREL map for onshore wind resources, it appears that North Carolina has some of the lowest wind speeds. One might conclude that wind power would not be viable there. In fact, the primary sources of electricity generation are nuclear, natural gas, and coal. Hydro and solar power combined only produce about 5% of the total, and wind power is sort of nowhere relative to the main sources. According to NREL, though, the potential capacity in North Carolina is 77,000 MW!
Almost all of the state has modest wind resources, but there is a very thin band of land along the coastline which has very good wind potential. North Carolina has been a conservative state for quite a while, and the GOP has tried to stop wind power development. “Days before the start of operations, Republican legislative leaders appealed to the incoming Trump administration to block the farm, claiming turbines nearly 500 feet tall would interfere with military radar in Virginia.”
North Carolina does have excellent offshore wind resources. “The winds off North Carolina’s coast powered the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903, and they’ve been going strong ever since. In fact, just over 100 years after the first flight, converting just a fraction of the winds off our shores to energy could provide all of North Carolina’s energy needs.”
Georgia is another conservative state which does not have excellent wind sources to develop, relatively speaking, and yet its wind power potential is over 90,000 MW. Georgia currently does not have a single wind power farm built. “We’ve got more than a power plant worth of wind blowing off our coast and a shallow continental shelf that could make a wind farm easy to install. I hope Gov. Deal and other state leaders heed this wake-up call and start aggressively pursuing offshore wind in Georgia,” explained Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia.
Most of Georgia’s wind power potential may very well be from offshore resources, “A study from Geo-Marine, Inc. indicates that Georgia has about 14.5 gigawatts of feasibly developable offshore wind energy potential–enough to meet about a third of Georgia’s annual electricity needs at today’s consumption rates. Shallow seas and strong breezes help reduce the costs associated with building offshore wind farms in Georgia. According to the Energy Information Association (EIA), Southeastern states (including Georgia) are some of the lowest cost construction sites for offshore wind compared to the rest of the country. Developing our offshore wind potential would mean big economic benefits to the state, including job creation in the construction, manufacturing, transportation, logistics, and shipping industries.”
Though most of Georgia’s onshore wind speeds are not excellent for wind power, using taller turbines might be a suitable option. One source has stated the onshore resources may be better than previously assumed. “In the past five years, wind turbine technology has greatly evolved. Wind turbine towers can reach up to 459 feet (140) meters in height. Taller turbines and longer blades are capable of capturing more wind, thus harnessing more electricity and reducing wind energy prices. As turbines increase in hub height, Georgia contains a much greater area of land viable for development. Approximately 2,500 MW of onshore wind potential currently exist in Georgia.”
Wind power critics could say, “You picked two states with modest onshore wind power potential and high offshore potential to make it seem like there are more wind resources in those states than there are.” The fact is even these two states with very little wind power development have plenty of wind resources to work with.
Let’s look at another state that is lower in wind resources — which is landlocked, meaning no offshore potential. Tennessee currently generates less than 1% of its electricity from wind power. Most electricity there comes coal and nuclear power, with natural gas in a distant third. It’s potential wind power capacity is about 115,000 MW, according to NREL. Looking at NREL’s Tennessee map, we can see that the lowest wind speeds are in the eastern portion of the state, and they pick up as you go west.
Tennessee does have wind resources to develop, but politics has been a big barrier. One of the state’s senators, Lamar Alexander, has been a wind critic (or perhaps misinformer) for a number of years. One of his claims is that wind power is expensive, but actually, its cost has declined to the point that it is more affordable than coal or nuclear power, “Now, a new report from financial firm Lazard Ltd. concludes that solar and wind are so cheap that building new wind and solar farms costs less money than continuing to run current coal or nuclear plants.” (See our own story on how much wind and solar power prices undercut electricity prices from fossil fuels and nuclear.)
Senator Alexander also said something that can be easily proven very misleading. “On top of all that,” Alexander said, “these giant turbines have become a Cuisinart in the sky for birds. … And wind turbines kill over 400,000 birds every year.” A research paper written by Benjamin J. Sovacool stated, “Within the uncertainties of the data used, the estimate means that wind farm-related avian fatalities equated to approximately 46,000 birds in the United States in 2009, but nuclear power plants killed about 460,000 and fossil-fueled power plants 24 million.” I recently wrote a lengthy article on the deceiving anti-wind hype regarding birds.
So, what does Alexander support? Nuclear power! He has been vocal about this affinity. “Build more nuclear reactors – I have proposed that we build 100 new reactors, which may seem excessive…” Yes, it does — especially since he claimed that wind power is killing too many birds, but according to the research paper cited above nuclear kills far more. Also, nuclear power is several times more expensive than wind power.
Alexander criticized wind power subsidies. “We need to end policies that pick winners and losers in the marketplace, the most conspicuous example of which is the wasteful wind production tax credit, which has been in place for 22 years. Extending this wasteful wind subsidy for one year costs taxpayers more than $6 billion.” But he ignored the vast subsidies for other power sources. Oil, gas, and coal receive at least $20 billion in subsidies each year in the US. Nuclear power has also received very large subsidies and for quite a long time, “Government subsidies to the nuclear power industry over the past fifty years have been so large in proportion to the value of the energy produced that in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy kilowatts on the open market and give them away, according to a February 2011 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.”
Tennessee had actually made a little progress with wind power, but a new wind power farm was put on hold in 2017 due to local politics.
So, it must be clear that the US has plenty of wind resources to develop, but one of the major barriers is simply conservative politicians who are either very misinformed or who deliberately hold it back. Notice that this article has mainly been about onshore wind power. However, offshore US wind power offers enormous potential. “U.S. offshore wind has a technical resource potential of more than 2,000 GW of capacity, or 7,200 TWh of generation per year. For context, this is nearly double the nation’s current electricity use.” You would think Republican politicians who support offshore oil & gas drilling would support offshore wind power, but many of them don’t.
The cost of wind power has decreased to the point where it is a viable option for many parts of the country, and wind power costs continue to decline. Wind power already often offers the lowest cost option for new electricity, and its starting to beat electricity from existing dirty energy power plants (not just potential new ones). It’s an obvious choice because of its low price, lack of pollution, and vast availability. Growth is fairly strong, but what is holding back quicker growth is political, not technical or financial.