Wind Declines in U.S. Roars in UK

In the wake of the dissolution of the Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) from the energy bill currently wheezing through the Congress, came a report that wind power installations in the U.S to date this year have dropped by 71% from last year’s level.

According to the latest quarterly report issued by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), 700 MW of wind turbines were added in the second quarter of 2010, down 57% from comparable 2008 levels and down 71% from 2009. Manufacturing investment also continued to lag below 2008 and 2009 levels. As the largest producer of renewable energy, the wind power industry, and those who support it, must find these figures troubling indeed.

After a promising start by the Obama administration to address climate change, the foul winds of American politics have once again managed to cloud the skies over Washington. How did this happen? With a new and dynamic president in the White House the political will to take on climate change as a policy priority seemed finally in place. After years of bickering with the Bush administration over extending the production tax credit (PTC) for renewable energy, windpower merchants – and their counterparts in solar, geothermal, and biomass production – finally achieved meaningful government support when Mr. Obama agreed to include the PTC and investment tax credits (ITC) as part of last year’s stimulus package.

These tax incentive measures have proven themselves to be critical for initial and ongoing investment in renewable energy technologies. The PTC for wind energy had been allowed to expire three times under the Bush administration. In each case, new investment in wind dropped by more than 70 percent.

The RES would commit utilities to obtain a percentage of their power from renewable sources by a designated date. The loss of the RES language from the proposed Senate energy bill came a few weeks after Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he was giving up on trying to get a provision into the legislation that would cap carbon emissions. With the abandonment of the RES came a clear message that Democratic leadership had all but abandoned comprehensive climate legislation.

Why was the RES so important to the sustenance of the wind energy industry? Tom Udall of New Mexico spelled it out in a letter that he drafted to leader Reid: “A strong RES will give certainty to clean energy companies that are looking to invest billions of dollars in the U.S. to manufacture wind turbines, solar panels and other renewable energy components.”

If the Democrats were looking for certainty all they had to do, as usual, was look across the aisle where they could be certain of no support. “We don’t have a single Republican to work with us,” was the way Senator Reid put it at a news conference. “We don’t have the votes.”

Indeed, by the end of the discussion in the Democratic caucus, Senate Dems announced they had given up on passing a comprehensive energy bill this summer and would instead pursue more limited legislation focused on the gulf oil spill and on energy efficiency standards. Americans who seemed to have reason to hope that the United States would finally demonstrate global leadership in addressing climate change, woke up to find their hopes being whittled away just as they did one year ago when substantive healthcare reform dissolved in the bitterness of Washington political gridlock.

Across the pond, however, things were looking quite different. Energy data released by the Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES) indicated that wind power generation increased 31 percent in 2009 and now represents 2.5 percent of all UK electricity production. Wind is now generating power to more than two million homes in the United Kingdom.

British advocacy groups hailed the news, and called for even faster growth in renewables. Unlike the United States, European countries have RES structures in place. The United Kingdom’s RES mandates electricity generation from renewable sources at 15 percent by 2020. The European Union as a whole has set a combined RES target of obtaining 20 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020. The UK holds wind generation from offshore installations in particularly high esteem. It plans to power the majority of the country with offshore turbines and expects to become a wind energy exporter by 2050.

Earlier this year, a report issued by the European Wind Energy Association indicated that most of Europe is on track to meet or exceed its RES targets.

As summer begins to wind down, Americans who thought the nation’s climate policy was heading in the right direction should not underestimate the gravity of these developments. With the likelihood of Democratic losses in mid-term Congressional elections on the horizon, the vision of bold U.S. leadership on climate change is quickly vanishing like a mirage on the beach.

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