European wind-energy capacity now exceeds 100GW, while the US and China have each passed the 50GW mark for online capacity, with China still ahead in this latest round of the global wind sprint. Chinese ambition appears to be growing; US progress reflects the need to complete projects before the production tax credit expires at the end of the year. Total global capacity is now 243.7GW, and it is pretty certain that the 250GW milestone will be passed well before the end of the year.
Estimates from various authorities of the total amount of wind-power capacity likely to be installed this year range from 40GW to 51GW. The Windicator is reporting that 24.3GW has been installed so
far. This is more than the amount installed during the same period in 2011, when the 12-month total was 38GW. This suggests greater annual growth that would lift the end-of-year capacity above 260GW.
The present world total of installed capacity, with an average capacity factor of around 20%, means that wind energy now has the potential to provide electricity supplies for the whole of Brazil, or half the requirements of Russia. Assuming that it displaces coal and gas-fired electricity generation in roughly equal amounts, that translates to a yearly saving of 280 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
The star performers so far this year are China, the US and India, all of whom have added over 1GW. Germany and the UK are not far behind India, each adding over 900MW. Germany has recorded a steady yearly increase of about 2GW for several years (see chart, above) and German Wind Energy Association BWE suggests that this might reach as much as 2.4GW this year. They attribute this acceleration to increased enthusiasm among constituent local states. The higher anticipated build this year may also reflect a quickened shift towards renewable energy amid planned closure of nuclear power stations — although environment minister Peter Altmaier is reported to have said the country may have to ease the pace of this shift in a remark thought to be designed to reassure ratepayers worried about costlier energy bills.
Among countries with more than 1GW of wind the UK is again well-placed in terms of growth rate, adding 15%. Poland and Romania added over 30%, China 21%, India 11% and Australia 12%. The global additions, so far, amount to 11% growth since the beginning of the year. The annual addition might surpass 20%.
The competitive position of wind has changed during the past six months. It is now in a much stronger position relative to nuclear, but in a weaker one relative to natural gas in the US. American gas prices are now at their lowest level since 2002, largely due to aggressive development of shale gas. American coal prices are also low and, as a result, wholesale electricity prices across the country are generally below $50/MWh, although they are likely to rise as winter approaches. Wind energy generally needs to be paid nearly double that amount to be economically viable. Across Europe, wholesale electricity prices vary, although in the UK they are around $75/MWh. It seems unlikely that there will be much in the way of shale gas exploration in Europe, at least in the short to medium term. However, cautious assessments are being made of the potential — and of the environmental impacts — in the UK, Poland and elsewhere.
The UK continues to tread a tortuous path on its way to development of new nuclear power stations. As a result, some indications of the likely electricity prices are beginning to emerge. EDF Energy is now suggesting that the price will be around $220/MWh — less than the current level for offshore wind. But it declines to say whether the 2020 offshore wind target of $160/MWh can be matched. As the UK's programme for electricity market reform is turning out to be somewhat complex, it is likely that EDF's estimates for electricity prices include a higher risk premium than was originally foreseen by the government.
Evidence presented to a recent UK parliamentary Select Committee, quoting two respected analysts, suggested that the nuclear electricity price may actually be as high as $260/MWh. Whatever the final cost, it now seems clear that offshore wind and nuclear electricity costs are very similar, with offshore wind likely to become cheaper in the near future. That would reflect lower wind turbine prices, which have fallen since the start of the year. Any increase in steel, copper and concrete prices would push up the cost of both onshore and offshore wind, but also the price of nuclear power stations. So, for the first time, it appears that offshore wind energy is now likely to be competitive with nuclear.