Last year saw an unprecedented gust of growth in wind energy. In 2007, wind power capacity surged by 45 percent in the United States, injecting more than $9 billion into the economy and marking the third consecutive year of substantial growth, according to a report released earlier this month by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), a national trade association for the wind energy industry. Early estimates show 2008 could equal last year in terms of new wind capacity installed--in fact, wind turbines are already sold out for the year. By the year 2030, wind power could provide 20 percent of US energy needs. AWEA executive director Randall Swisher talked to Plenty about the benefits of wind power and the federal production tax credit that could secure its future as a major energy source.

What is the potential of wind as a source of energy?

Wind is almost a limitless energy resource for this country. We have more wind potential in this country than we have need for energy right now, so it’s not just a marginal resource that could add a little bit. As an organization we’re focused on, “How do we grow the wind energy answer as rapidly as possible?” And we see there’s certainly a path forward, through which wind could provide as much as 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030.

What is the biggest obstacle to that growth continuing?

The biggest obstacle in the near term is the lack of consistent, stable policy in the US. We have the wind production tax credit, which is the major federal policy supporting this technology. But it’s been allowed to expire three times in less than 10 years. When it has been extended, it’s been extended for just a year or two at a time. That hurts wind energy.

For example, if you’re a European company that manufactures wind turbines, you’re looking at a global demand for wind turbines that is growing exponentially. You’re evaluating where to invest billions of dollars in manufacturing capability. Are you going to do that in a country where there’s so much uncertainty about policy stability? Or will you go somewhere else in the world? It’s just amazing that the largest wind turbine manufacturer in the world, which is the Danish company Vestas, has half a dozen manufacturing plants in China and has yet to build their first manufacturing plant in the US. They are working on a plant to build blades in Colorado that I think will be completed this year. But they’ve gone to China first because they view the business climate there as more stable than the climate here in the US given the on-again, off-again nature of the wind production tax credit.

We’re missing a huge opportunity for good green-collar jobs in the US. And the remarkable thing is that the last three years in a row the US has been the largest market for wind turbines in the world. But only one of the top 10 manufacturers in the world is a US-based company because we have not nurtured this industry with any kind of stable policy.

What can the average person do to affect that?

Members of Congress listen to their constituents, believe it or not. Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way based on the results. But if enough people speak out and say “We want to see this country embrace a renewable energy future. We want to see the renewable energy tax credit extended on a long-term basis,” Congress will respond. A good time to speak up is at town meetings held by members of Congress when they come back to their district, as they do every couple months.

Can wind energy benefit the American farmer?

There’s a natural marriage between wind power and rural America. You’re not going to build a wind farm in a suburban subdivision. You need the wide open spaces. And so farmers have been leasing their land for significant amounts of revenue—$5,000 per year per turbine, something like that, based on how much energy is produced. So if you get three or four wind turbines on your farm, bringing in $15,000 or $20,000 or more per year, it could spell the difference between having a farm and making it economically or not. That’s part of the reason some Congressional leaders like Iowa’s Chuck Grassley or North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan have been so supportive of wind. They recognize that it will bring additional revenue to their farmers and additional property tax revenues to rural governments. In some rural counties that don’t have much of a tax base, one large wind farm can bring in maybe 20 percent of the property taxes. And there would be operations and maintenance jobs on the wind farm that would allow people to have good jobs at home and not have to leave the area. So it’s a very significant boost for rural America.

What role can wind power play as an answer to the global climate challenge?

Taking advantage of wind and solar, and pushing energy efficiency in transportation and buildings are all important. You put all those wedges together and you can begin to get on top of the challenge. As far as wind is concerned, it could provide as much as 20 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2030. It’s a big challenge for this industry to grow to that point, but it is something that is technically and economically feasible. If that happens, wind would be responsible for reducing the global warming emissions of the electric sector by as much as 15 percent. That’s a significant bite out of the climate challenge.

Story by Joshua Payne. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in January 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008