Environment America Research & Policy Center
Coal- and natural gas-fired power plants pollute our air, are major contributors to global warming, and consume vast amounts of water—harming our rivers and lakes and leaving less water for other uses. Wind energy has none of these problems. It produces no air pollution, makes no contribution to global warming, and uses no water.
America has more than doubled its use of wind power since the beginning of 2008 and we are starting to reap the environmental rewards. Wind energy now displaces about 68 million metric tons of global warming pollution each year—as much as is produced by 13 million cars. And wind energy now saves more than enough water nationwide to meet the needs of a city the size of Boston.
There is still plenty of room for growth in wind energy. But the pending expiration of the production tax credit threatens the future expansion of wind power. To protect the environment, federal and state governments should continue and expand policies that support wind energy.
Burning fossil fuels for electricity generation has widespread environmental and public health consequences.
• Combustion of coal and natural gas exacerbates global warming, the effects of which are already being felt across the nation. The average annual temperature in the U.S. has already risen 2° F in the past 50 years, and the number of heat waves has increased. Extreme rain and snowfall events have become 30 percent more common. Sea level has risen eight inches or more along parts of our coasts.
• Coal- and natural gas-fired power plants require vast amounts of water for cooling, reducing the amount of water available for irrigation, wildlife, recreation or domestic use, now and in the future. More water is withdrawn from U.S. lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers for the purpose of cooling power plants than for any other purpose.
• Air pollution from power plants threatens the health of millions of Americans.
Wind energy avoids about 68 million metric tons of global warming pollution annually—equivalent to taking 13 million of today’s passenger vehicles off the road—and saves more than enough water to supply the annual water needs of a city the size of Boston. Wind energy also avoids 137,000 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions and 91,000 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions, important contributors to ozone smog and soot pollution.
• Texas, Iowa and California lead the nation in wind energy capacity, delivering the greatest reductions in global warming pollution, water consumption, and health-threatening air pollution. (See Figure ES-1 and appendices.)
Figure ES-1. Top 10 States for Global Warming Emission Reductions from Wind Energy in 2011
If construction of new wind energy projects continues from 2013 to 2016 at a pace comparable to that of recent years, the United States could reduce global warming pollution by an additional 56 million metric tons in 2016—equivalent to the amount produced by 11 million passenger vehicles. These projects would also save enough water to meet the annual water needs of 600,000 people, and reduce air pollution by an additional 108,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 79,000 tons of sulfur dioxide.
America has abundant wind energy potential. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 20 percent of the nation’s electricity could be supplied by wind power in 2030, up from 3 percent in 2011. To achieve that level of generation, construction of new generating capacity would need continue at levels comparable to that of recent years.
Wind energy’s success in reducing air pollution and saving water will continue to grow if policies such as tax incentives and renewable electricity standards are continued and expanded at the state and federal level:
• The production tax credit: The federal renewable electricity production tax credit (PTC) has been one of the most important tools to help grow the wind industry in the United States, but it is set to expire at the end of 2012. The loss of the tax credit could cause new construction to drop by 75 percent—and allow global warming pollution and water consumption to continue unabated.
• The offshore wind investment tax credit: The offshore wind investment tax credit (ITC) is designed to address the longer timelines for development and construction of offshore wind energy facilities. It covers up to 30 percent of the cost of new wind investments and grants offshore wind developers eligibility for the credit at the point that construction begins. The offshore wind ITC also expires on December 31, 2012.
• Strong renewable electricity standards: A strong renewable electricity standard (RES) helps support wind energy development by requiring utilities to obtain a percentage of the electricity they provide to consumers from renewable sources. These standards help ensure that wind energy producers have a market for the electricity they generate and protect consumers from the sharp swings in energy prices that accompany over-reliance on fossil fuels. Today, 29 states have renewable electricity standards—other states and the federal government should follow their lead.
• Tax policies for renewable energy. Changes to the federal tax code could make more private investment available to wind energy nationwide by expanding two tax provisions that have benefited investors in non-renewable sources for decades.
• Transmission policies. Upgrading and expanding existing electricity transmission infrastructure can connect areas with high electricity demand to areas of high wind energy output. Transmission upgrades should occur only where clearly necessary and where environmental impacts will be minimal.