Wind Power Could Accelerate to Meet Half the World’s Energy Needs in 24 Years

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By Will Driscoll

Increasing global wind power installations by 20 percent each year would yield six terawatts of wind power globally by 2030.  Then, maintaining global wind installations at the 2030 level for 12 more years would yield 18 terawatts of wind installed by 2042.  (This growth trajectory is modeled on an analysis of solar power’s potential trajectory, published in Science magazine* and discussed here.) Eighteen terawatts of wind power in 2042 would be enough to meet half the world’s energy needs for current uses of electricity, plus transportation and heating.**  If solar power provided the other half, we could have 100 percent renewable energy for all energy needs by 2042—twenty-four years from now.

Increasing wind power installations at 20 percent per year through 2030 would be a midway point between a potential 29 percent annual increase in solar installations through 2030, deemed “challenging but feasible” in the Science magazine analysis, and a potential 12 percent annual increase in wind installations through 2030 projected by the Global Wind Energy Council.

The wind industry’s increasing scale (see bar chart) has already yielded cost reductions that buyers find attractive; indeed, low-income China is a major market. And history shows that the wind industry can scale up at a 20 percent rate through 2030.  As related in MIT’s report The Future of Solar Energy, “military aircraft production in the U.S. grew by one-to-two orders of magnitude between 1939 and 1944, highlighting the tremendous level of growth that is possible for commodity-based goods.”  Moreover, the wind industry uses automated manufacturing techniques not available in the 1940s.

The feasibility of a 20 percent annual growth rate also makes intuitive sense.  For every five factories a wind turbine manufacturer owned, next year it would need to build and equip another factory—that would be a 20 percent growth rate.

The wind industry needs more than the technical potential to grow at this rate, however.  It also needs a growing backlog of orders for wind turbines, to give manufacturers confidence that if they build wind turbine factories, the customers will come.  In the solar industry, for example, First Solar pointed to 2017 orders of three times its shipments to justify its plan to double its solar panel manufacturing capacity over the next three years (which represents a compound growth rate of about 29 percent per year).  Conversely Vestas, the world’s largest wind turbine maker, reporteda stable backlog and no plans to increase its manufacturing capacity.

To persuade the wind industry as a whole to plan for ever-increasing additions to manufacturing capacity through 2030, we need to keep modernizing the electric grid so that more and more wind farms may be interconnected, and the electricity they produce can be transmitted to end users.  Indeed, we need to show the wind industry that we are committed to this grid modernization process over the next 24 years.  After all, U.S. military aircraft manufacturers in the 1940s had a ready buyer: the U.S. Government.  Low-cost wind turbines will keep finding ready buyers only if those buyers have a way to connect to the grid, and transmit, distribute and sell their wind-powered electricity.  The extent of grid modernization required represents a major infrastructure transition, and so we will need many more people to become educated, trained, and employed in this field.

Since many electric utilities are dragging their feet on wind power, and are not being guided by their state regulatory agencies to take advantage of wind power’s low and still-falling costs, we need to keep up the pressure on electric utilities and their regulators in order to achieve wind power’s promise.

Here is one possible sequence of overlapping steps:

  • “Unblock” wind power:  Eliminate groundless regulations and pricing structures that prevent or penalize wind generation.
  • Institute variable time-of-day pricing for electricity to encourage the use of electricity when the wind is strongest, to facilitate the use of all wind power generated.
  • Enact energy-efficient building codes so that new buildings use cost-effective energy-conserving construction materials and techniques.
  • Promote distributed storage of electricity, to enable existing transmission lines to deliver power to distribution-level electricity storage when generation is high, and enable the distributed storage to help meet local electricity demand at periods of peak demand.
  • Stop investing in fossil infrastructure.  This includes pipelines, fossil-fired electric generating units, fracking wells, and new gasoline-powered cars, buses, and trucks.  Use the money instead to modernize the electric grid; install wind and solar power; install storage; and buy battery-powered vehicles, as well as electric heat pumps instead of fossil-fired furnaces.
  • Price carbon.  Eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and institute a carbon tax equal to the health and global warming costs of fossil fuels; this would level the playing field between wind power and fossil-generated electricity.
  • Build an electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to accommodate long-distance travel by electric vehicles.
  • Build more transmission lines as needed, possibly along existing rights-of-way, to bring wind and solar power from rural to urban areas.
  • Develop cost-effective means to store heat, e.g., in rocks held in insulated underground structures, for use in winter-time heating.

The Global Wind Energy Council also made policy prescriptions, which are more narrowly focused on removing barriers to corporate purchases of wind power:

  • “Where there are direct prohibitions on third party PPAs [power purchase agreements], or prohibitions from purchasing power from anyone other than the centralized (usually state-owned) utility, they should be removed.
  • Corporate PPAs and direct sourcing should be included in general electricity market regulatory schemes.
  • Transmission system wheeling (and banking, if appropriate) should be facilitated at reasonable prices, rather than being made too difficult and expensive.
  • Governments could/should take an active role and encourage corporate buyers to assist in meeting government RE [renewable energy] and emissions reduction targets.
  • Competition regulators should engage and issue guidance to corporates seeking to enter the market, creating rules which support these efforts, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the market.
  • Some governments have stepped up and created renewable power purchase procurements for themselves, and governments are often significant purchasers of power; more should be encouraged to do so.
  • Finally, as is always the case, policy stability is critical. Power sector investments are long term, and the policies that support them must be as well.”

The Science Magazine article had 21 co-authors: seven from the U.S National Renewable Energy Laboratory, four from the comparable German agency Fraunhofer ISE, three from Japan’s comparable National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, two from solar manufacturers, two from solar certification or research firms, and two from universities.

For those seeking to obtain the article at a university library or by inter-library loan (to avoid the $40 Science Magazine subscription fee), the article is “Terawatt-Scale Photovoltaics: Trajectories and Challenges,” Science 356 (6334), April 14, 2017, pp. 141-143.

** Here’s the calculation:  Wind turbines generated 4 percent of the world’s electricity in 2016.  For wind to provide 50 percent of current electricity needs, we would need (50/4) = 12.5 times as much wind power as we had in 2016.  At year-end 2016, the world had 487 gigawatts of installed wind power. Twelve and a half times that amount is about 6,000 gigawatts, or 6 terawatts.  If the global installed base of wind power grew by 20 percent per year, starting at 487 gigawatts in 2016, we would reach 6 terawatts of wind power by 2030 (you can check that result in Excel, or with a calculator).  That would meet half of current needs for electricity.  To electrify 50 percent of transportation (with electric vehicles) and heating (with heat pumps) would each require about the same amount of electricity—for a total need of about 18 terawatts of wind power, to meet half the world’s total energy needs.

Image: REN 21: Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

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