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On Reflection: Energy revolution in US

Wind power in the US is winning the fight against fossil-fuels on economic and environmental grounds, says Chris Brown of Vestas North America, with growing efficiency and rapidly falling costs.

Chris Brown: wind is an engine for jobs and economic growth
Chris Brown: wind is an engine for jobs and economic growth

A revolution is taking place in the US and world energy markets, and it is being driven by the low cost and power of wind energy. In many markets, wind power is now the lowest cost energy source, not some distant dream. It’s a reality today that customers, including major corporate brands are demanding, and we are delivering.

There are a number of critical factors driving wind’s success — concerns about climate change and the environment, energy security, technology advances and new energy policies. But most important is the increasingly affordable price of wind energy. It has never made less business sense to invest in fossil fuels.

Mind you, wind and other forms of clean energy still have their doubters. Climate-change deniers and fossil fuel supporters seem stuck in an increasingly fossilised defence of the old energy status quo. Yet they are being overwhelmed by the flood of customer demand for renewables, which is washing over the energy debate even faster than troubling reports of rising sea levels caused by carbon-polluting fuels.

That’s because the one thing doubters can’t deny is the power of lower cost in the marketplace. The real cost of wind energy has dropped 58% in the past five years. Today, wind competes on price with all energy sources, even natural gas. It doesn’t matter if you’re a business owner, a power company or residential consumer — you will make the low-cost choice every time.

Wind used to be thought of as just a green energy alternative. Not any more. Today, it is a key contributor to America’s energy grid. US solar and wind power generating capacity is expected to see double-digit growth in 2016. Indeed, "old school" energies are increasingly playing a backup role, and becoming more expensive as their capacity utilisation rates drop with the renewable energy surge. In the past year alone, wind has improved its capacity factor by 14% while natural gas has dropped by about 12%.

The falling price of wind is driving tremendous demand. At current trends, total installed wind capacity could double by 2020. Major companies, like Amazon, Apple, Google, IKEA, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart, are making big investments in wind.

There is close to 70GW of installed wind capacity in the US, supplying nearly 5% of electricity demand annually. While the average cost of coal-fired energy has risen from $66/MWh to $75/MWh in the Americas, the real cost of wind in central US states has dropped to $27-30/MWh. The US Department of Energy (DOE) reports that wind energy could be the cheapest, cleanest form of electricity in all 50 states by 2050.

We’ve come a long way since the world's first large, utility-scale wind farms were installed in California in 1980. Wind power has an even longer history in America, harnessed more than a century ago to pump clean water to farms and communities across the Great Plains.

Today, renewable wind energy produces clean electricity that is renewing and revitalising economies and manufacturing across rural America. Wind energy helps power the grid in 39 of 50 states. It currently supports 70,000 US jobs with 4,000 of those jobs created by Vestas, The total for US jobs in the sector is projected to rise to 375,000 by 2030.

The US is one of the world's most wind-rich countries. Wind is clean, renewable and… it’s free! It would be crazy not to fully utilise it. The wind industry’s goal is to double its share of US energy to 10% by 2020, and again to 20% by 2030.

To get there, we must continue improving technology and service to keep wind the most cost-efficient, economical energy choice for customers. Vestas draws on a global stream of data and diagnostics to innovate and improve performance and reliability. Larger rotors, taller towers and better generators have reduced costs and increased power tenfold since the 1990s.

The future for wind and other renewable energies looks bright, but it is by no means guaranteed. Though the US remains the world's wind power generating leader, China has surpassed it in total wind energy capacity.

Can the US keep up with the accelerating demand and low-cost clean energy benefits in the global switch to wind? My answer is simple. Yes.

Wind and solar power need a level playing field to reach their full potential in the US. Extending the production tax credit, perhaps with a five-year phase out, would help ensure investment stability and continued growth. The Environmental Protection Agency's new Clean Power Plan also gives state policy makers an opportunity to turn to wind to reach their clean power goals.

With the upcoming COP21 summit in Paris, global attention is focusing like never before on climate and energy security. World leaders, including the Pope, have put it front and centre. Wind offers a ready solution, right now. It gives customers the affordable energy choice they demand, and it's an engine for jobs and economic growth.

Chris Brown is president of Vestas-American Wind Technology, Vestas’ North American business unit

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