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What Are We Missing? Day Three at WindPower 2011

Alex Trembath's picture
The Breakthrough Instititute

Alex Trembath is a policy associate in the Energy and Climate Program at Breakthrough. He is the lead or co-author of several Breakthrough publications, including the 2012 report "Beyond...

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WindPower 2011 is finishing up today in Anaheim, but I had to cut loose early and get back to the Bay Area. My coverage of Sunday and Monday are available here at The Energy Collective. After being only slightly overwhelmed with the technology and brainpower surging through the convention show floor, I thought it worth reflecting on the elements of the wind power industry that were conspicuously absent. 

There were a couple things I expected to see more of. Google, for instance, made only a brief appearance despite recent, frequent, and well-publicized investment in wind farms around the country. I was also surprised not to discover more attention paid to competition from natural gas; much hoopla was made of wind power being second only to natural gas in new installed capacity over the last five years, but with recent projections of the fossil fuel’s cheapness crowding wind out of new project development, I wondered if the wind cheerleaders weren’t skirting the issue just a little bit. Finally, though perhaps not surprising unfortunately, there were far fewer women at WindPower than men. Upwards of 75% of conference attendees every year are men, according to data compiled by AWEA, and this imbalance is representative of the wind industry at large. On the bright side, Women of Wind Energy (WoWE) was there to combat the trend.

Misrepresented though those they may have been, these elements were 100% more available (to me, at least) compared with some other, more noticeable absences. For better or for worse, these were the parts of the wind industry that, for whatever reason, didn’t show up in Anaheim this week.

Climate Change

As I noted on Sunday, only passing reference was made to climate change and carbon emissions all week, and exactly zero programming was dedicated to anthropogenic global warming. I had expected this, as most of the exhibitors were technologists, mechanical engineers, and distributors, who are not in the business of scaring potential clients and partners into investing by decrying the coming climate-apocalypse. When climate change was mentioned, it was taken as granted—this was no denier’s conference. But the seemingly intentional eschewing of a large discussion on global warming, in a setting whose ostensible purpose is to combat its effects, was interesting nonetheless.

Cap-and-Trade

This will become less and less surprising as the cap-less years go on, but it seemed notable that unlike many environmentalists and academics, the wind industry is entirely aware of the demise of cap-and-trade. This is not to say that most everybody there took every opportunity to scold the federal government for not doing more to benefit the wind power, and for doing too much to subsidize dirty energy. The Production Tax Credit (PTC) was the celebrity this weekend, with virtually every policy discussion I attended calling for its long-term extension after 2012. Wishing doesn’t make it so, however, and folks at WindPower 2011 seem to feel that no amount of wishing will bring cap-and-trade back into the policy arena.

Innovation/R&D

Despite the enthusiastic refrain around government partnership with the wind industry, there was shockingly little attention paid to the role of government-funded R&D for energy technology innovation. Indeed, experts seemed generally pleased with the technological level wind power has achieved, noting its marginal-cost competitiveness with coal/natural gas and that a turbine today produces 15x as much energy as a 1990 turbine with the same nameplate capacity. These are not illegitimate accomplishments. But the the regular boasting of 41,000 MW of domestic capacity and celebration of providing electricity equivalent to ten nuclear power plants were contextless figures that ignored wind’s chronic problems of intermittency, geographic/transmission difficulties, and its inability to provide baseload power. Breakthroughs will be needed to address these challenges, and experts agree that the R&D funding gap necessary to achieve those breakthroughs will come from governments, not private industry.

This column might make it sound like there was nothing to celebrate at WindPower 2011, or that I didn’t encounter brilliant professionals doing outstanding work to deploy more wind technology to market. That is not the case. For a rosier picture of the conference, refer to my previous coverage. But it’s worth reflecting on the shortcomings of our accomplishments, especially when we all come together on a convention room floor to make connections and share ideas.

Photo by ATimbers.

 

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Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on May 26, 2011

Hey Alex- interesting that you mention the production tax credit. I have always been proud that cleantech is a scrappy industry, able to essentially “make it” without the large dollars that fossil gets.

However, it’s also true that wind and solar project frequency directly relates to whether PTC (and ITC) are in place or not. I worked at internship drafting a large PPA once, and we had two versions of this giant contract- one that accounted for the tax credits getting approved, and a plan B for if it didn’t. Having the tax credits in place or not radically effects wind, and solar’s, business case.

Thanks again for going!

Cheers, Amelia

Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on May 26, 2011

Willem, I tend to agree with you about efficiency needing to be primary and first. Cheers, Amelia

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