From Scott Carlberg

The Carolinas electric generation profile is changing. Coal is decreasing its share of electric generation. Renewables are gaining, and one renewable is getting more press. Wind energy gains attention as its costs go down.

Financial news website, Bloomberg, even calls it, “A coming-of-age moment,” for the U.S. wind power industry. That is because some energy experts say the decades-old incentives for wind energy, which expire next year, should be allowed to expire. The industry is robust enough to go it alone.

The energy industry – across the source of fuels – has had subsidies of various kinds, such as direct grants, taxes or loans. In the U.S. alone in 2016, there were $18 billion spent on energy subsidies; $11 billion of that went to renewable energy and $3 billion to energy efficiency, according to the Energy Department. To see even a portion of industry experts say that this segment of the generation industry can operate without additional help is good news for consumers.

Wind technicians uptower. Great Plains. (Image courtesy Duke Energy Media Galley)

A financial benchmark has been crossed: “The cost of building a new utility-scale solar or wind farm has now dropped below the cost of operating an existing coal plant … Accounting for government tax credits and other energy incentives would bring the cost even lower.” That report from CBS News.

Rapidly advancing wind generation technology is one reason. Bigger towers and rotor blades, a network of suppliers that is dependable, and new data analytics drive down the cost of wind energy. Larger diameter rotors allow them to capture more wind overall, and higher hub heights allow them to capture the steadier winds available at higher altitudes, according to  Scientific American

Check these maps which show how strong the wind can be in the Carolinas at 80 meters.

The wind resource map shows the predicted mean annual wind speeds at an 80-m height, presented at a spatial resolution of about 2 kilometers that is interpolated to a finer scale for display. Areas with annual average wind speeds around 6.5 meters per second and greater at 80-m height are generally considered to have a resource suitable for wind development. Utility-scale, land-based wind turbines are typically installed between 80- and 100-m high although tower heights for new installations are increasing—up to 140 m—to gain access to better wind resources higher aloft. Check the various wind energy maps that the Energy Department has. North Carolina is here.

South Carolina’s maps are here.

The pieces come together when finances are considered. Duke Energy has issued $1 billion in green bonds. It is one of the of the biggest green bond transactions in the industry. (source) These bonds are not just for one kind of electric source, the funds can be used for wind, solar, or even storage, for instance. The November 9 news release about the green bonds is here.

Economic development is a newsworthy extra in projects like this. In one case in northeast NC, “Amazon Wind Farm paid $640,000 to the two counties it calls home (Perquimans and Pasquotank), making it the largest taxpayer for both counties. Area landowners also receive more than $600,000 a year in lease payments from the wind farm developers, and county residents also saw economic benefits during project construction. The energy generated supplies an Amazon Web Services Cloud data center.” (source) Just to provide a sense of the immensity of the system, the specifications of the Amazon Web Services site are:

  • 114 meter rotor diameter = 374 feet
  • 55.5 meter blade = 182 feet
  • 93 meter tower = 305 feet
  • With a blade pointing straight up, total height is 492 feet

So these are big changes in the electric industry. Energy Consumers of the Carolinas will look at wind energy more. This intersection of money, technology and policy is a terrific place to start our ongoing look at this electric generation source.