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United States

Assessing a federal initiative two years on

This article looks for the results of the much-hyped renewable energy initiative, Windpowering America, introduced two years previously. The program's achievements are as hard to pin down as the initiative's purpose in life, however. Still, US wind developers are making the Windpowering America goal of 5000 MW by 2005 look totally out of touch; more than 4600 MW of wind is destined to be on-line by the end of 2001.

Introduced with much fanfare and many fine words, the achievements of Windpowering America are as hard to pin down as the initiative's purpose in life

Exactly two years ago former US Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson announced a new renewable energy initiative for the nation, which the Clinton Administration named Wind Powering America. True to form, the administration timed the announcement to make the biggest splash possible, sending Richardson to make it at the annual conference of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) in Burlington, Vermont.

According to Richardson, Wind Powering America was to spur a dramatic increase of wind energy. The goals were ambitious: the initiative was to be judged successful if by 2020 wind supplies at least 5% of the nation's power, the number of states with more than 20 MW of wind doubles to 16 by 2005 and triples to 24 by 2010, and the federal government has increased its use of electricity generated by wind to 5% by 2010.

Today the US is governed by a different president with a different energy philosophy and the Department of Energy (DOE) has a different boss. While President George Bush's proposed energy policy is long on developing fossil fuels, it does not endorse any kind of goals for US wind power. Meantime, the wind industry is well on its way to meeting the goals set out by the former federal government. The influence of Wind Powering America, however, is decidedly unclear. AWEA's Christine Real de Azua, says it has had some impact by simply raising wind's visibility within federal government agencies and in the states where it has hosted conferences and funded small wind related projects.

Indeed, Phil Dougherty, head of Wind Powering America at DOE, says a measure of its success can be seen in these regional activities. He believes DOE-sponsored gatherings have encouraged wind activity where before there was none. He points to states like Kansas where UtiliCorp announced a 110 MW project and North Dakota, a coal state, that recently passed pro-wind legislation. "In Oklahoma we had 400 ranchers and farmers that showed up to one of our meetings," he adds. "These were real people with real interests in wind power."

Federal disappointment

Perhaps where Wind Powering America is not meeting its goals is in its federal energy management program that encourages federal agencies to invest in wind energy. "The groundwork has been laid, but there have been no purchases," Dougherty admits.

Still, US wind developers are having a good year, to the extent they are making the Windpowering America goal of 5000 MW by 2005 look totally out of touch. About 2000 MW more wind is destined to be on-line by December 31, bringing the national total to more than 4600 MW. That leaves less than 500 MW to find over four years. Activity in two regions alone can score the goal. Texas, which is calling for 2000 MW of wind by 2009, will have 1300 MW of that to develop after this year. And in the Northwest, the Bonneville Power Administration is asking for 1000 MW of wind by 2003.

Whether Richardson's second interim goal, 10,000 MW by 2010, will be reached largely depends on an extension of wind's Production Tax Credit, the need for new power resources, a further fall in the cost of wind power, and the cost of competing fuels -- will wholesale natural gas prices stay high? It will also depend on the public's support of renewables, which is growing as utilities across the country offer green energy to customers in order to keep their loyalty. The higher profile that Wind Powering America has helped provide for wind could play a part.

When Richardson spoke at the 1999 AWEA conference, only eight states had 20 MW or more of wind. He wanted the number to double by 2005. By the end of 2001, it will rise to 14. The list includes California, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. By 2010 Richardson wanted to triple that number to 24 states. That may be difficult. Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, New Mexico and Nevada are all candidates, with projects or beneficial policies being discussed in all of them, but that pushes the total to just 19.

Dougherty declines to comment on the initiative's future. The DOE is still without a budget and leadership. AWEA, though, is worried. "As for the future, that hangs on DOE's budget," Real de Azua says. "Renewables are in a precarious position right now. It's clear that the new Secretary of Energy is not seeing wind in the same way as Richardson did. He saw wind's potential."

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