Burning fossil fuels to generate electricity pollutes our air, contributes to global warming, and consumes vast amounts of water—harming our rivers and lakes and leaving less water for other uses. In contrast, wind energy produces no air pollution, makes no contribution to global warming, and uses no water.
America’s wind power capacity has quadrupled in the last five years and wind energy now generates as much electricity as is used every year in Georgia. Thanks to wind energy, America uses less water for power plants and produces less climate-altering carbon pollution.
Wind energy displaced about 84.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2012—more global warming-inducing carbon dioxide than is produced annually in Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina or Washington state. Wind energy also saves enough water nationwide to meet the domestic water needs of more than a million people.
America has vast wind energy resources, and there is still plenty of room for growth. But the pending expiration of the federal renewable energy production tax credit and investment 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.
Wind energy is on the rise in the United States.
- Electricity generated with wind power quadrupled in the last five years, from about 34,500 gigawatt-hours (GWh) in 2007 to more than 140,000 GWh at the end of 2012—or as much electricity as is used each year in Georgia. (See Figure ES-1.)
- Wind energy was the largest source of new electricity capacity added to the grid in 2012.
- Nine states now have enough wind turbines to supply 12 percent or more of their annual electricity needs in an average year, with Iowa, South Dakota and Kansas now possessing enough wind turbines to supply more than 20 percent of their annual electricity needs.
By displacing dirty electricity from fossil fuel-fired power plants, wind energy saves water and reduces pollution. In 2012, wind energy helped the United States:
- Avoid 84.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution—or as much pollution as is produced by more than 17 million of today’s passenger vehicles in a year. Fossil fuel-fired power plants are the nation’s largest source of carbon dioxide pollution, the leading global warming pollutant. In the United States, warmer temperatures caused by global warming have already increased the frequency and severity of heat waves and heavy downpours, resulting in more intense wildfires, floods, droughts, and tropical storms and hurricanes.
- Save enough water to supply the annual domestic water needs of more than a million people. Power plants use water for cooling, reducing the amount of water available for irrigation, wildlife, recreation or domestic use. More water is withdrawn from U.S. lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers for the purpose of cooling power plants than for any other purpose.
- Avoid 79,600 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOX) and 98,400 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions. Nitrogen oxides are a key ingredient of smog, which contributes to asthma and other respiratory problems; power plants are responsible for about 15 percent of the nation’s total nitrogen oxide (NOX) pollution each year. Power plants also produce about 60 percent of all sulfur dioxide pollution, which contributes to acid rain. Finally, coal-fired power plants emit heavy metals such as mercury, a potent neurotoxicant that can cause developmental and neurological disorders in babies and children. Nearly two-thirds of all airborne mercury pollution in the United States in 2010 came from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants.
If America were to continue to add onshore wind capacity at the rate it did from 2007 to 2012, and take the first steps toward development of its massive potential for offshore wind, by 2018 wind energy will be delivering the following benefits:
- Averting a total of 157 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution annually—or more carbon dioxide than was produced by Georgia, Michigan or New York in 2011.
- Saving enough water to supply the annual domestic water needs of 2.1 million people—roughly as many people as live in the city of Houston and more than live in Philadelphia, Phoenix or San Diego.
- Averting more than 121,000 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxide pollution and 194,000 tons of sulfur dioxide pollution each year.
Wind energy’s success in reducing air pollution and saving water will continue to grow if America makes a stable, long-term commitment to clean energy at the local, state and national levels. Specific policies that are essential to the development of wind energy include:
- The federal renewable energy production tax credit (PTC) and investment tax credit (ITC). The PTC provides an income tax credit of 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for utility-scale wind energy producers for 10 years, while the ITC covers up to 30 percent of the capital cost of new renewable energy investments. Wind energy developers can take one of the two credits, which help reduce the financial risk of renewable energy investments and create new financing opportunities for wind energy. Both the ITC and the PTC, however, are scheduled to expire at the end of 2013.
- 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.
- Continued coordination and collaboration between state and federal agencies to expedite siting of offshore wind facilities in areas that avoid environmental harm.
[i] U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Annual with Data for 2011, 30 January 2013.