A gentle Southern breeze is supposed to be relaxing, but it can also grow frustrating over time. Of the 12 states nationwide that have installed less than 1 megawatt of wind power capacity, for example, 10 are south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Winds in the Southeast are often dismissed as too gentle to economically make electricity.
So why is the American Wind Energy Association holding its annual conference in Atlanta next year? Shouldn't it be somewhere windier, like Texas or Iowa?
Georgia will host the 2012 Windpower Conference & Exhibition partly because the event "has outgrown a lot of facilities, and we were able to find a great venue here in Atlanta," explains Peter Kelley, vice president of public affairs for the AWEA. But the move is also symbolic, he adds, representing his industry's growing interest in the Southeast despite its relatively mild winds.
"The story of wind power in this region is about manufacturing and high technology, and Atlanta is a great place to tell that story," Kelley says over coffee at a downtown Atlanta cafe. He's in town for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Gainesville, Ga., about an hour north of Atlanta, where ZF Wind Power will soon begin building gearboxes for wind turbines. The new factory is expected to create some 250 jobs, and Kelley calls it a "perfect microcosm" for how the Southeast can capitalize on the continued growth of U.S. wind power.
"Atlanta is really known as a center for high technology, and this is going to bring jobs, and it's a way to harness some of the ingenuity here," he says. "There are now over 400 factories in 42 states, including Georgia, that make turbines and parts for turbines. ... It's one of the fastest-growing manufacturing sectors in the country."
The Southeast, in fact, is already emerging as a hub for making turbines and their parts. North and South Carolina have at least 30 wind-related manufacturing plants, according to AWEA data, including a major turbine factory in Greenville, S.C., and fiberglass factories in Shelby and Lexington, N.C. Florida boasts another 14 such facilities, while Arkansas has nine — five in business and four in development — that are forecast to employ 2,900 people once they're all online. Another 34 plants are located in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, where the AWEA says 1,200 to 3,000 jobs are directly or indirectly supported by the wind industry.
The region still has a long way to go before it rivals the Rust Belt, though. As other manufacturing industries have faded in recent years, the Midwest has embraced wind: Ohio has more than 50 wind-related manufacturing plants, followed by Michigan (31), Illinois (28), Wisconsin (22), Pennsylvania (15) and Indiana (14). And states that generate lots of electricity from wind have also gotten a jump on attracting factories, including Texas (35), Colorado (16), California (15) and Iowa (9).
But unlike some U.S. solar-panel makers that have been outpaced by China, U.S. production of wind turbines is healthy enough to expand into latent markets like the Southeast, Kelley says: "It's partly the weight of the components — it doesn't make sense economically to make big, heavy products like turbine blades overseas and then ship them here. But there's also a skilled workforce here, and continued innovation has helped us stay abreast. It's really a success story for American innovation."
While Kelley admits the Southeast lacks the wild winds of Texas or Iowa (see map), he still envisions the region as a producer and user of wind turbines. The best place for the latter may be offshore, where winds are stronger (map), and Kelley predicts "ultimately we will have offshore wind up and down the East Coast." That's decades away, though, so he also points to budding onshore opportunities like West Virginia, which has 431 megawatts of installed wind-power capacity and another 1,045 MW in queue. The state could meet up to 17 percent of its total electricity needs via wind, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Even less windy states can achieve similar results, Kelley adds, thanks to low-wind and community-scale turbines. "We can actually put a low-wind turbine in Tennessee or North Georgia, and it will produce on a commercial scale," he says. "We continue to evolve the technology, and with small community-scale turbines, you don't need as much land, you don't need big transmission lines. There are a wide diversity of products available now, and not all of them are at this big, utility scale."
Another perk for wind energy in the Southeast is its lack of thirst, Kelley adds. While coal, gas and nuclear plants all rely on water for cooling, wind turbines don't. That has "kept the lights on" during the historic drought in Texas this year, he says, and could be a selling point in states like Georgia, which is currently enduring a severe drought of its own. "It's relevant to anywhere that has water," Kelley says.
Critics of wind energy often call it unreliable since winds can be fickle, but Kelley says that's misleading. Modern technology lets turbine operators predict wind shifts 24 hours in advance, he points out, and wind power can be integrated with other energy sources to make the whole electrical grid more stable — even in the Southeast. "That's why you have a grid," he says. "We don't say it's a 100 percent solution. We back them up, they back us up. And that gives you more reliability overall."
It's still too soon to know if the wind industry's Southeastern ambitions will pan out, but the AWEA's gusto — and its 2012 expo — suggest more than a fleeting interest. And for the Southeast, which still relies heavily on fossil fuels, that could mean a big economic and environmental opportunity isn't gone with the wind after all.
The following maps, produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, show: 1) onshore wind-energy potential, 2) offshore wind-energy potential and 3) current installed wind-energy capacity by state. (Click images to enlarge.)