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Wind power—including distributed wind power—has arrived

By David Sandalow

Wind power has arrived.

For many years, widespread wind power was a distant dream. No longer. Today, wind power is shaping energy markets around the world.

Wind power is cheap and getting cheaper. New technologies are opening new frontiers, helping harness the wind for electricity in ways and places out of reach in years past. Wind power is creating jobs, cutting pollution, and spurring innovation. Yet the industry faces important challenges, including competition from cheap natural gas, transmission siting, and stop-and-start policies that frustrate long-term planning.

I recently visited Iowa, where more than 20 percent of the electricity comes from wind power. I toured a factory that makes large wind turbines and one that makes small wind power components—part of a supply chain that employs more than 6,000 people in Iowa and 75,000 people around the United States, according to industry estimates.

In 2011, new wind power investment in the United States exceeded $14 billion, accounting for 32 percent of new electric capacity additions. Over the past three years, the United States has more than doubled the electricity we produce from wind.

The focus of this workshop on distributed wind power is especially timely. Wind power systems at factories, warehouses and other businesses, and in communities, can often provide low-cost electricity at slower wind speeds than utility-scale turbines, without the need for long-distance transmission. One leader in this field is Wal-Mart, which operates 14 stores in Northern Ireland entirely on wind power, has 12 mini-turbines supplying a store in Massachusetts, and recently announced its first on-site industrial scale turbine at a distribution center in California. In the past five years, installed capacity of small wind turbines (capacity <100kW) in the United States has increased 247 percent.

The market for wind turbines in distributed applications has significant growth potential. Industry studies report that distributed wind systems in the U.S. are projected to reach an installed capacity of 3 to 5 GW by 2020.

This growth will be driven by the projected cost reductions due to performance improvements resulting from ongoing research and development activities. In addition, cost reductions can be achieved through innovative manufacturing techniques. The technology continues to be a means for local economic development, while providing energy autonomy.

In recent years, new small wind power products have entered the market without a framework for verifying manufacturer claims about turbine performance, reliability, noise, and safety. As a result, in 2009, the U.S.

Department of Energy supported the development of a technical standard that can now be used voluntarily to test small wind systems to performance and safety criteria.

In 2010, the DOE supported the establishment of four small wind turbine regional test centers and the Small Wind Certification Council, which provides accredited third party verification of test results in accordance with internationally adopted technical standards for testing.

The DOE and U.S. industry view small wind product certification as a way to provide manufacturers with the parameters for communicating transparent and credible information to consumers, utilities, lenders, and policymakers about the safety, performance, and durability of small wind turbines.

Mike Bergey, president of BergeyWindpower and the 2011/12 president of the Distributed Wind Energy Association, said, "This is huge for consumers," describing a new standard as "the most significant milestone in the history of the small wind industry because it provides, for the first time, third-party verification of real world performance and a highly technical review of a turbine's strength and safety."

Wind power has a bright future. Technological progress and manufacturing scale can help further reduce costs. Advances in energy storage can help address the challenge of intermittency. Cheap natural gas, which may compete against wind as an energy source, can also work in combination with wind, providing cheap backup power when the wind doesn't blow. Advances in computer modeling can help optimize power production from large wind farms, driving down costs. With smart policies and top talent working in the field, the potential is enormous. 

David Sandalow is acting Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. For the Record is an excerpt of his remarks at the U.S.-Brazil Wind Workshop in August 2012.

January/February 2013