Renewable energy just got some major investment tailwinds–quite literally. In fact, the biggest breakthrough in wind power generation right now isn’t technological–it’s natural, and it costs nothing.
For three decades, from about 1980 until 2010, wind speeds around the world were slowing down. Now, researchers say that the world is going to keep getting windier for the next 10 years.
According to a new study by Princeton University, this reversal has come about due to changing ocean-atmosphere dynamics–or shifting ocean circulation patterns–that have seen wind energy potential increase by approximately 17% between 2010 and 2017.
In turn, the capacity of wind power in the United States has grown by around 2.5%, just on windier times alone. Furthermore, the study says, “In the longer term, the use of ocean-atmosphere oscillations to anticipate future wind speeds could allow optimization of turbines for expected speeds during their productive life spans.”
This trend, which is expected to continue for another decade, could translate into a nearly 40% increase in the amount of wind power generated between 2010 and 2024.
While about half of our increased wind energy is attributable to technological advancement, the rest is all Mother Nature.
Mapping the Wind Market
The U.S. wind market has just reached 100 GW of capacity. That puts it second only to China.
Wind will be the fastest-growing energy source in the United States in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). In fact, the EIA forecasts that total power produced from wind will have grown 6% this year and another 14% next year, both onshore and offshore.
And Texas, the country’s oil and gas giant, leads the pack in wind power generation, with more than 3GW of wind power capacity added to the state’s energy resources since 2018 alone. By the end of next year, another 7 GW will have been added.
Countrywide, the EIA expects operators to bring another 8.5 GW of capacity online by the end of this year, and another 14.3 GW by the end of 2020. That means Texas is accounting for half of the country’s new capacity all by itself–another record for the Lone Star state.
Wood Mackenzie predicts that the U.S. market will see some 27 GW of capacity coming online from the fourth quarter of this year into 2020.
And when Mother Nature isn’t intervening, progress is tied closely to changes in tax incentives in the form of the production tax credit (PTC), which gives operators a tax credit per kilowatt hour of renewable electricity generated in the first 10 years of a facility’s operations.
That expired at the end of 2012, initially, but was retroactively renewed in 2013. But we’re nearing the phaseout of this tax credit. Any new facilities that begin construction after the end of 2020 cannot claim the PTC. That means that until then there could be a bit of a run on wind power facility construction to get in before the phaseout.
From an investment standpoint, one could expect a slowdown to hit the wind market in the middle of next year if lobbyists fail to get the PTC extended. But that tailwinds on that are fickle, so anything can happen between now and then.
Wood Mackenzie also forecasts some 85GW of new U.S. wind capacity by 2028. Related: Scientific Breakthrough: MIT Solves Two Huge Energy Problems
Globally, according to the bi-annual report on the future of the wind industry by Greenpeace International and the Global Wind Energy Council, wind power could supply up to 12% of global electricity by 2020, while at the same time creating 1.4 million new jobs. By 2030, wind could provide more than 20% of global electricity supply.
Offshore, is an entirely different story than onshore. The first U.S. offshore wind farm came online in 2016, but it’s a global phenomenon that’s spreading rapidly. For now, the UK is the world’s largest offshore wind market, accounting for 36% of installed capacity. Germany gets second place, followed by China, Denmark and the Netherlands.
And investor confidence is growing at a fast clip.
Look no further than New Jersey for the next big offshore wind investments. Last week, the governor of New Jersey signed an executive order upping the targeted capacity from 3,500 megawatts by 2030 to 7,500 megawatts by 2035, saying: “There is no other renewable energy resource that provides us with either the electric-generation or economic-growth potential of offshore wind.”
New Jersey is riding these tailwinds, but one cautionary note: We don’t know what the climate will have in store for wind power a decade from now. Zhenzhong Zeng, the lead author of the Princeton study, noted that those conveniently shifting oceanic patterns that are making the world windier might not last forever.