2019 saw over 60 gigawatts of wind power installed

Proposed Taiwan Wind Farm, Formosa 2
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Slower growth likely as attention shifts and pandemic adds uncertainty.

On Wednesday, the Global Wind Energy Council, an industry trade organization, released its review of the market in 2019. During the past year, wind power saw its second-largest amount of new installed capacity ever, with over 60GW going in. But the news going forward is a bit more uncertain, with the report predicting that after years of double-digit growth, the industry would see things tail off into steady-but-unspectacular territory. And that prediction was made before many key markets started dealing with the coronavirus.

A very good year

Wind power is now one of the cheapest options for generating electricity. In many areas of the globe, building and maintaining wind power is cheaper per unit of power than it is to fuel a previously constructed fossil fuel plant. While offshore wind remains more expensive, its prices have dropped dramatically over the last several years, and it is rapidly approaching price parity with fossil fuels.

But cost isn’t the only thing at issue. Renewables may require new transmission lines to feed their power to where people actually live, and managing wind’s intermittent nature may require grid upgrades once its percentage gets high enough. And due to the past successes of wind, a significant number of the best sites are now already in use in some regions. Given those issues, it can be difficult to justify shutting down power plants that may have decades of service left in their expected lifespan. This is especially true in fully industrialized countries, where total electricity use has been trending downward, largely due to gains in energy efficiency.

Despite these potential headwinds, wind saw its second highest total of installs in 2019, at 60.4GW, which represents a 19 percent growth compared to the year before. (The only year with a higher total was 2017.)

This was primarily driven by policy changes in the two wind giants, the US and China. China added about 24GW of new capacity last year, which places its total at 230GW. There, starting next year, all new wind projects will be required to be competitive with the rest of the sources on the grid, which is largely driven by the price of coal power. In the US, a tax credit was expected to expire at the end of this year (it has been extended for an additional year), leading to a large number of plants that were installed to take advantage of this credit. Because of that, the US saw an additional 9.1GW of capacity, bringing its total to over 100GW for the first time.

2019 did see a new landmark: for the first time, more than 10 percent of the newly installed capacity was in the form of offshore wind, at 6.1GW. This places offshore wind at nearly five percent of the total global capacity, at over 29GW total.

On and off

Regionally, there were some rather dramatic differences in what’s going on with the two types of wind power. Onshore wind, the more mature market, started seeing some significant shifts. For example, Germany fell from its place as the largest builder of onshore wind in Europe, with new projects dropping by more than half. But Europe saw significant growth last year, driven by countries like Spain, Sweden, and Greece. India held down fourth place in both installed capacity and new capacity added, but other developing markets saw no change.

But offshore wind is experiencing a surge of interest. China led all countries last year with 2.3GW of offshore wind installed, a record. The country had set a goal of having 5GW of offshore wind by 2020 but reached that goal last year. The UK came in second with its own record of 1.8GW, enough to allow it to retain its spot on top of the list in terms of overall capacity. Germany, where onshore building had slowed considerably, installed over a gigawatt of offshore capacity. And things are starting to move outside the traditional wind powers, with Taiwan connecting its first offshore wind farm last year.

And the growth of offshore wind is unlikely to slow down. China has approved plans for over 40GW of additional capacity, a fact that has induced GE to develop a factory there for its massive 12MW Halide series of turbines. In Europe, pricing is driving a boom. The UK saw prices for offshore wind drop by 30 percent in the last two years alone, and the Netherlands has now gotten its second subsidy-free offshore wind farm.

The big actor that’s missing in action here is the US. It’s not due to a lack of intent; states along the US East Coast have set goals that target 25GW of offshore development, with Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Connecticut, and New Jersey all having announced major projects. Over 10GW is slotted for completion before 2026, and both New York and New Jersey are expected to announce additional projects this year.

But estimates are that these projects will require nearly 2,000km (1,200mi) of transmission capacity to function. In addition, almost all of the contracts are being awarded to European companies, which will need to build up the infrastructure for construction of these wind farms. All of this suggests that there is a serious gap between intentions and the ability of the US to follow through on them.

About that pandemic

The report also makes projections for what the coming years look like for wind. Unfortunately, those were made before the coronavirus pandemic hit. At the moment, it’s nearly impossible to tell how disruptions in the major wind-power-building countries, as well as disruptions in the supply chains that feed them, will alter our ability to expand capacity, or how long these issues will affect the industry.

So the report’s projections for future growth are extremely uncertain. With that caveat out of the way, the report suggests that the upcoming policy changes in the US and China will drive a huge binge of wind installations this year, driving the sector to a new record. From there, things will be stable for the next four years, with about 70GW a year of newly installed capacity. This represents a drop to single-digit growth for the first extended period since the development of modern wind turbines.

To an extent, this would be expected as a market matures, but it’s unfortunate in that we need to be expanding renewable power generation as rapidly as possible. But there are still positives here. For one, a growing percentage of the newly installed capacity is offshore, where a larger percentage of that capacity will end up being productive. And rather than competing only with fossil fuels, one of wind’s challenges is the steadily plunging price of photovoltaics, as solar power has started to become competitive with coal in some regions.