Special report: US election key for wind beyond Covid-19

Another strong year for wind is well under way, but the future of the industry will only become clear after November's election

Ørsted's Sage Draw wind farm in Texas came online this year
Ørsted's Sage Draw wind farm in Texas came online this year

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The impetus provided by the looming expiration of the production tax credit (PTC) at the end of this year appears to have overridden any constraints imposed by Covid-19 as far as new installations in the US are concerned.

According to Windpower Intelligence, the data and research division of Windpower Monthly, 5,456MW of new capacity was installed and connected in the first eight months of the year, more than twice the amount (2,629MW) from the same period in 2019. That suggests the US is well on course to exceeed the nearly 9GW it added last year — after a frantic final-quarter surge to contribute to a nationwide fleet that now comfortably exceeds 100GW in total capacity.  

These figures come with a caution, though. The virus has been most prevalent in states that are not big wind producers. American wind’s major players are focused on the wide-open spaces of Texas, Iowa and Kansas, all relatively unscathed to date.

Whether the current rate of new build can be sustained without the financial incentive of the PTC is an open question, although most industry analysts anticipate something of a slump in 2021-22. But there is no disguising the overall trend in US electricity generation. Wind is steadily replacing coal.

Donald Trump’s presidency has been marked by a complete disregard for climate change science — rolling back environmental legislation while taking the US out of the the Paris climate agreement. It has been punctuated by wild claims for the benefits of "beautiful clean coal", alongside ludicrous accusations directed at "windmills", ranging from causing cancer to stopping people from watching televsion when the wind isn’t blowing.

But Trump’s rhetoric has fallen on deaf ears in the US energy industry. In the first three years of his tenure, more than 23GW of new wind was installed across the country, much of it in traditional Republican-voting states. At the same time 45GW of coal-generating capacity was retired.

The direction of travel is clear, whoever is occupying the White House, but if US wind is going to ride through the post-PTC slump and start delivering on its ambitious offshore plans, it would certainly help to have a more environmentally aware federal administration directing energy strategy.   

The Democratic Party’s presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged a $2 trillion package of clean energy and sustainable measures with the aim of decarbonising the US power sector by 2035.

The package remains light on details, particularly with regard to the electrification of transport, but Biden has promised to spur the installation of "millions of solar panels and tens of thousands of wind turbines" with the whole $2 trillion sum to be spent in the four years of his first term, if elected.  

And therein lies the rub… None of this will amount to anything unless Biden wins the presidential election in November, and the Democratic Party holds working majorities in the Senate and the House. The Republicans cannot stop the steady growth of renewables in the US, or the decline of coal, but the huge potential of wind power in the US is not being realised by the current administration.

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