Renewables: The Rise of Wind Power
Author: Katherine Olalla, 2018.
“Wind power plays a significant role for countries working to meet their targets under the Paris Agreement…
Photo from Pixabay under Creative Commons.
Wind power plays a significant role for countries working to meet their targets under the Paris Agreement. Wind power is becoming more attractive for investors, governments and private companies due to its low cost and zero carbon emissions. The deployment of wind power is increasing worldwide as more countries adopt new energy policies to integrate renewables including wind energy into their national energy portfolio. The economic, social and environmental benefits of wind power are encouraging more countries to implement this type of technology as part of their strategies to achieve their climate change and energy goals.
Renewables Global Overview
The global demand for renewable energy has increased over the past decade creating more investment opportunities for the private and public sectors, new jobs, and greater economic and social benefits. As energy demand continues to increase, renewable energy deployment is gaining market share. The global growth for renewable energy has been a result of technological improvements that are driving costs down, multilateral governmental agreements such as the Paris Agreement, support policies favoring renewable energy, access to financing such as tax credits, and awareness about energy security and protection of the environment.
In spite of low prices for fossil fuels since 2014, the use of renewable energy is continually expanding in developed and developing nations, increasing their capacity and energy produced. In 2015, solar and wind power experienced a higher growth rate than the rest of renewables. The total renewable power generated in the same year exceeded 1,811 GW which accounted for more than 28% of global capacity. Globally, the renewable power capacity was generated by hydropower (58%); followed by wind power (23%) and solar power (12%) (IRENA).
Renewable generation capacity increased 9.3% in 2015 over 2014, as result of the power addition from solar and wind, which exceeded hydropower capacity for the first time. (IRENA) In addition, renewable electricity generation accounted for almost 23.5 % of global electricity (IRENA). The share of renewable electricity consists of modern renewables for electricity and heat, a small portion for biofuels, and traditional biomass for heating and cooking in developing countries.
Effective policies have helped to establish renewable energy targets at national and state levels. According to a report by REN21, there are 114 countries that established policies to address the power sector, 66 countries have policies targeting the transportation sector, and 21 countries have policies to support renewable energy use in the heating and cooling sector (IRENA). In 2015, 90% of energy investments were in solar and wind power applied to power sector, transportation and building sector (IRENA).
Energy consumed by major sectors in Europe remain an important market for renewable energy even though in recent years, the deployment has slowed down. Asia and Latin America are slowly continuing to expand the market and deployment of renewable energy technology, but in countries like Mexico and India, renewables are becoming more popular at a faster pace than the rest. China, the largest producer of coal, is now leading the world in renewable energy deployment, especially in solar photovoltaics, accounting for one-third of the $305 billion invested globally in 2015 (IRENA).
Finally, every year there are more jobs in the industry of renewable energy. Specializations in solar PV and biofuels were the largest employers in 2015, followed by hydropower sector. Renewable energy was responsible for the creation of 8.1 million of jobs worldwide in 2015, estimated by IRENA, and it is expected that this rate will keep increasing, not only for solar PV and wind but also for liquid biofuels (REN21). Germany is by far the largest renewable energy employer.
Wind Power Market
The wind power market is becoming more attractive for investors worldwide. In the last fast five years, wind power market share has increased around the world. The largest markets for wind power are in Europe, the United States, and China. In 2015, wind power marked a new record adding 3 GW of the total global power capacity of 433 GW (REN21). Wind is becoming the most affordable option for new power generation plants. China has been the country with a higher number of new wind installations. China produced more wind energy than the entire EU. Despite China’s economic downturn, the national government is still pushing policies to increase energy security and combat air pollution. For example, in 2015, China added 30.8 GW wind capacity raising the total to 145 GW. However, the grid curtailment rate has also risen to 15 % due to difficulties in transmitting the energy from wind turbines to homes or cities’ centers.
The top 10 countries for wind power are China, the United States, Brazil, Germany, India, Canada, France, UK, Poland, and Turkey. The United States ranked second worldwide in 2015 for wind capacity additions (8.6 GW) and ranked first for wind power generation (190.9 TWh (REN21). The state of Texas provided the biggest portion of wind capacity followed by Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa. This growth has been possible due to extensions of Production Tax Credit in 2013 and 2014.
The European Union experienced an annual record for new wind installations due mainly to Germany. Germany accounts for almost half of the region’s wind power production in 2015. Wind power capacity (on-shore and off-shore) increased up to 15.6 % in the total EU power capacity (141.6 GW), and it accounts for 44% of new power capacity, followed by solar PV and new fossil fuels 23% (REN21).
Spain is still ranked second in the EU for generating 23 GW of wind power, but it has not made any new wind installations since 2015. Finland, Poland, and Lithuania had the highestannual growth rate in response to support policies that aim to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in these countries.
In Latin America, there are 9 countries with new wind power installations. The last additions account for almost 4.4 GW reaching a total of 15.3 GW. Brazil is the largest wind power generator in the region despite the political instability, accounting for 57 % of the region’s market. Wind power has helped Brazilian people to reduce electricity rationing and it has boosted the economy in big cities such as Rio de Janeiro. Mexico ranked second in this region reaching 3 GW in total capacity and Uruguay and Panama adding (0.3 GW and 0.2 GW) respectively. (REN21) Uruguay is an exemplary country in South America generating 15 % of its electricity from the wind power.
The African region experienced a drop in wind power demand due to a bad economic situation and corruption, especially in South Africa where more wind power is generated. In 2015, South Africa added 0.5 GW. Egypt and Morocco are launching new wind power projects, Egypt added 200 MW to the region’s capacity, and Ethiopia is operating a large plant. Wind is also gaining market share in developing countries such as Guatemala, Jordan, and Serbia where for the first-time large-scale wind plants were installed. While in Australia, 5% of its electricity comes from the wind. Australia also deployed new installations in the Pacific approaching 4.2 GW over 2015 (REN21).
Wind Turbine Technology
Wind power technology has evolved in the last decade. The latest models are faster and more efficient. There are two types of wind turbines deployed around the world and these are the following:
Onshore wind turbines: These wind turbines come in two different shapes: the horizontal-axis variety that usually has two or three blades operating upwind and the vertical-axis turbine that has the motor placed at the base. The US Department of Energy describes how wind turbines work in the following way: “The energy in the wind turns two or three propeller-like blades around a rotor. The rotor is connected to the main shaft, which spins a generator to create electricity.” (US Department of Energy).
Wind turbines can be found in different sizes, and they range from 100 kilowatts to as large as hundreds of megawatts. Small-medium wind turbines are suitable for homes, small farms, water pumps or telecommunications dishes. Sometimes these wind turbines are interconnected in a mini–grid to solar photovoltaics, batteries or diesel generators. Large wind turbines are placed either on and offshore and they are typically grouped in enormous wind farms.
As the demand for wind power increases the wind power industry is generating high revenues. The Global Report by REN 21 states that in 2016, the top wind turbine manufacturers reported a high volume of orders/sales all year around. The global competition in the industry urges manufacturers to continue improving the technology used in wind turbines driving the costs down. Manufacturers have reached economies of scale and every time more governments of developed nations are providing flexible financing options making wind power competitive with fossil fuels.
The costs vary depending on the location and the environment. The costs for onshore wind turbines are falling, becoming the cheapest option for new grid-based power. The largest manufacturer of wind turbines is a Chinese company called Goldwind surpassing the long-term leader in the industry, Vestas Company from Denmark. Third-largest is US-based GE, followed by the German company Siemens, then Gamesa Company in Spain. The world’s top 10 manufacturers supply 69% of the 2015 markets using the components of wind turbines supplied from different countries (REN21).
The increase of wind farms has led to the construction of new factories across different countries. For example, Vestas has factories in the UK to manufacture 80-meter blades for offshore, the German company Siemens is planning to build a new factory to produce offshore components and other manufacturers are building factories in Brazil to overcome components shortages and meet local demand.
Offshore wind turbines: Offshore wind turbines are expensive compared to onshore wind turbines. They require higher investments to make the proper installations under water. Europe is the region with the highest deployment of offshore wind turbines. Offshore accounts for one-fourth in 2015 wind power additions. The Global Report Ren 21 says that Europe added 3 GW offshore wind power to the grid-connected capacity off the coasts of 11 countries. The report also states the other countries able to add capacity offshore that were “Germany accounting for about two-thirds of global offshore additions (2.2 GW) followed by the United Kingdom (571 MW), China (361 MW), the Netherlands (180 MW) and Japan (3 MW) (REN21). Japan has the world’s largest floating wind turbine and France has launched the world’s first tender for floating turbines.
On the other hand, North America has no offshore wind turbines yet, it is planning its first project offshore, but it is undetermined when it will be the completion of the project. While in Asia, the deployment is also slow, and the few existing offshore projects are still pending due to financing and environmental challenges. Like China, that is falling behind schedule from its 2015 target deployment for offshore wind turbines.
Political and Economic Challenges
The biggest threat to all renewable energy including wind energy is the dependency on fossil fuels. Developing countries, as well as developed countries rely on the production and consumption of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels play a critical role in their economy and despite some of the efforts to increase the share of renewables, governments continue subsidizing fossil fuels. In fact, fossil fuel subsidies are still a priority for most countries. In 2014, USD 490 billion was invested in fossil fuels compared with USD 135 billion for renewable (REN21).
The challenge of renewables integration is also an obstacle to wind power. The lack of political will in many governments and national energy monopolies are making difficult the adoption of wind power. Curtailment is a big obstacle for wind specifically in China. Wind power curtailment in China continues to grow in the past two years. China lost 2.7 billion of dollars in 2015 due to grid-curtailment. The curtailment is happening because of the poor conditions of the current grids that are not equipped to take renewable electricity. Although China can produce a high capacity of wind power, it is not meeting the goal of transmitting and distributing renewable energy, in this case, wind, so they prefer to rely on the reliable, affordable and conventional coal power.
In developing countries, political instability, high poverty rates, and government corruption are eliminating the financing options available for the investors interested in wind energy despite the decreasing costs for this technology.
Offshore wind turbines remain significantly more expensive compared to onshore and fossil fuels. The technology and logistics needed for offshore are completely different from onshore wind turbines. Turbines are larger and every time this industry is going farther out into deep waters making the transmission of electricity to the grids more complex. In 2016, the average of transmission distance from shore to deep waters in Europe was 43.3 Km. (REN21) Other challenges for offshore wind power are monopolies, lack of support policies in key markets, lack of coordination from governments, lack of public acceptance and failure to achieve economies of scale.
Future of Wind Power
Predictions for wind power specifically onshore are very positive. This technology is continually gaining new markets and the costs are expected to keep falling. The demand for wind power is increasing, especially in the private sector. In the last two years, the numbers of private companies purchasing wind power rose significantly. The largest private companies are buying their own wind turbines to lower electricity costs and raise awareness of climate change.
Stock exchange investors, banks, insurance companies and institutions worldwide are and will continue to invest in wind power. US companies are picking wind power over solar power. According to the Guardian news, Google is the largest buyer of renewable energy and is expected to become 100% renewable powered this year, followed by Microsoft. (Vaughan). Different industries from tech to grocery stores are signing long-term wind power contracts contributing to the expansion of the industry and also contributing to sustainable goals such as efficient energy and combatting climate change.
Finally, wind power is becoming a lucrative business for farmers in the US who lease their lands to wind power plants. Not only farmers are making money in the wind industry, companies in the business of Repowering, which means replacing the old turbines for taller, faster and more efficient with smart software, are making billions.
Wind power brings more benefits than conventional fossil fuels. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions, it creates employment, it is cost-effective, it is renewable, reliable and competitive with conventional energy sources. The largest economies of the world are adding more and more wind farm plants as part of their actions to reduce carbon emissions to achieve their Paris climate targets. The commitment to tackling climate change by 2030 will keep calling for governments to adopt more support policies for this industry, while technological improvements will keep reducing wind energy costs making this energy source a more accessible and convenient option not only to generate electricity but to tackle climate change as well.
IRENA. REthinking Energy 2017: Accelerating the global energy transformation. International Reneawable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi. 2017. 3 MAY 2017. .
REN21. Renewables (2016) Global Status Report. 2017. Renewable Energy Policy REN21 Secretariat for the 21st Centruy Network. 4 May 2017. .
US Department of Energy. HOW DO WIND TURBINES WORK. 2017. 4 May 2017. .
Vaughan, Adam. Google to be powered 100% by renewable energy from 2017. 6 December 2016. The Guardian US Edition. May 2017. .