April 12, 2021

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Wind energy had a ‘banner year’ in 2020. Here’s what that means for Joe Biden’s climate plan.

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The wind energy sector in the U.S. blew away records in 2020. 

A study from the American Clean Power Association released this month reports that 2020 was a record year for the industry, with developers adding enough megawatts of capacity to provide power for millions of homes and inching the U.S. closer to the Biden administration’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2035.

In all, 16,913 megawatts of new wind power capacity was installed in the U.S. last year – an 85% increase over 2019. That’s the equivalent of the power generated from 11 large coal plants, and enough to serve nearly 6 million homes, Jonathan Naughton, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Wind Energy Research Center at the University of Wyoming, told USA TODAY.

Texas hosted the most activity with 13% of energy output, followed by Wyoming (10%), Oklahoma (7%), Kansas (5%) and New Mexico (4%).

“2020 was a banner year for the wind industry,” Heather Zichal, president/CEO of American Clean Power, formerly the American Wind Energy Association, said in a statement. “Despite all the challenges COVID-19 placed on our businesses, we still shattered nearly every record for capacity and growth.”

Here’s how states stack up, and how the industry’s current capacity figures into the country’s goal for carbon neutrality. 

Texas: Wind power ‘driving significant economic growth’

Wind power produced up to two thirds of Texas’s energy output in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration. In total, the Lone Star State generated about 29,407 MWs of wind power, installing 2,197 MWs in 2020 – meaning that if Texas were a country, it would rank fifth in the world for wind power capacity, some estimates say.

“Texas is the number one energy consumer in the country. Our economy and continued growth are dependent on reliable power, and how we meet this massive demand has tremendous implications,” Powering Texas writes on its website. “Renewable energy is helping Texas meet this growing demand for energy, while also providing jobs, bolstering rural economies and supporting communities all across the state.”

A vehicle drives past wind turbines on a rural road near Sweetwater, Texas, in this July 29, 2020, file photo.

Why is Texas such a windy state? It sits right in the wind belt, a swath of land blessed with an excellent wind resource. The wind resource continues straight up the middle of the country to Canada and includes Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. There’s also significant wind in portions of Minnesota, Iowa, Wyoming and Montana. 

It also has less restrictive zoning, taxation systems that encourage building and robust transmission lines that together have allowed it to jump ahead of the rest. 

Wyoming: An improving political climate for wind energy?

Wyoming is an interesting place for wind energy – it’s the No. 1 producer for coal in the country, said Naughton.

“Wind energy is always looked at as a threat to the coal industry,” he said. 

But in 2020, the state nearly doubled its wind capacity for power, adding nearly 900 MWs over the past year. That signals to Naughton that the political climate for wind power is improving in the Cowboy State.

Biden’s climate crusade: How his plan to cut carbon emissions, create jobs could impact U.S.

“People are understanding that wind is likely to develop here and it produces some jobs and some tax money, and it does some good things,” he said.

Part of that is due to a tax on wind power, which brings in about $4.2 million a year, reported the Casper Star-Tribune. 

But Naughton and other energy experts cautioned that people shouldn’t take the burst in Wyoming’s wind development as a trend from year to year. The Industrial Siting Council, the regulatory board charged with reviewing big wind project applications in the state, hasn’t received a new proposal for a wind project since 2019, the Star-Tribune reported.

How close is US to carbon neutrality?

Despite the wind energy industry’s gains in 2020, the U.S. remains far from carbon neutrality by 2035, a main goal in the Biden administration’s climate plan.

“We’re in the single digits still. But we’re in the high single digits,” Naughton said. Compared to 2000, when the U.S. was stuck in the sub-single digits, he added, “We’ve come an amazing way.”

Still, Naughton said the U.S. would need to accelerate its pace of installation to achieve President Joe Biden’s goal, which he described as doable with a recommitment to offshore wind energy farms and to those areas impacted by the loss of old energy outputs.

“We have a policy push to do it. And we also have an economic push to do it. So the pieces are in place,” he said.  “We’ve just got to make sure it actually happens.”

Contributing: Elizabeth Weise and Rick Jervis, USA TODAY

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