By Paul Vigeant
June 26. 2016 2:01AM
We tend to think of wind power as something the Europeans do, but the United States has a robust and growing sector that leads the world in land-based wind energy.
More than 50,000 turbines stand along ridge lines, prairies and hilltops across the United States. Installed capacity recently surpassed 70 gigawatts — enough to power more than 19 million typical American homes — and is expected to double in the next five years, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
In fact, the wind energy sector installed more electric generating capacity last year than any other energy source in America. The U.S. Department of Energy says wind is on track to supply 10 percent of the country’s electricity by 2020, 20 percent by 2030 and 35 percent by 2050.
While the supply of wind energy goes up, costs to the consumer go down. Today, energy supplied by the wind is as cheap or cheaper per megawatt hour than natural gas. And the cost of wind has shown a steady decline — 66 percent from 2009 to 2014, while volatile natural gas prices have brought consumers painful price spikes.
Europe has indeed demonstrated how offshore wind can supply clean, affordable and plentiful energy, but the United States has been building technology and know-how that can help launch this new sector on this side of the Atlantic.
A typical wind turbine has more than 8,000 components, and those pieces are manufactured in 500 plants in 43 U.S. states, AWEA reports. Manufacturing facilities in this country have the capability of producing about 10,200 megawatts of turbine nacelles, more than 10,000 blades, and more than 3,100 towers annually. Nearly 90 percent of the wind power capacity installed in the United States during 2015 used a turbine manufacturer with at least one United States production site.
As annual wind project installations grow — AWEA reports an average growth of 13 percent a year over the past five years — businesses will find more and more reasons to join the wind energy supply chain. Already, the sector is having an important economic effect.
We look overseas for examples of how wind energy can transform cities. And the examples of Cuxhaven and Bremerhaven in Germany and Hull, England, are impressive. But in the middle of our own country, Newton, Iowa, used wind energy to help reverse a trend of growing unemployment. In 2006, hundreds of workers lost their jobs when a major manufacturer shut its doors. Two years later, Trinity Structural Towers, a Texas wind tower manufacturer, started retrofitting 300,000 square feet of that plant to produce steel and concrete wind towers. Also that year, TPI Composites opened a 316,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Newton, employing 500 workers to produce fiberglass blades for the wind industry.
While workers are needed to produce turbines, others are required to install and maintain them. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that the fastest growing occupation in the next 20 years will be wind turbine technician, a job that requires training, but no college degree, and paid a median annual salary of $51,050 in May 2015.
Offshore wind will benefit coastal populations and struggling port cities as a source of energy and jobs. In New Bedford, dwindling catches and tightening regulations have put fishermen out of work. But fishermen and other members of the region’s maritime workforce have skills that, with some training, could readily serve offshore wind. Similarly, workers in the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico are already working on the DeepWater Wind pilot offshore wind project being installed off of Rhode Island.
We should look to Europe for their experience in offshore wind. We can learn from their mistakes, benefit from their learning curve and see the potential of this renewable energy sector.
Joining that experience with U.S. know-how in onshore wind will create has a powerful framework for a new American energy industry.
Paul Vigeant is executive director of the New Bedford Wind Energy Center and vice president for workforce development for Bristol Community College.