In the global transition from fossil fuels to wind and solar energy, wind has taken the early lead. Wind is abundant, carbon-free, and inexhaustible. It uses no water, no fuel, and little land. It also scales up easily and can be brought online quickly. Little wonder that wind power is expanding so fast.
Over the past decade, world wind power capacity grew more than 20 percent a year, its increase driven by its many attractive features, by public policies supporting its expansion, and by falling costs. By early 2014, global wind generating capacity totaled 318,000 megawatts, enough to power more than 80 million U.S. homes. Wind currently has a big lead on solar PV, which has enough worldwide capacity to power more than 20 million U.S. homes.
The leaders in wind generating capacity are China and the United States. At the start of 2014, China had 91,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, followed by the United States with 61,000 megawatts. Germany ranked third, with 34,000 megawatts, followed by Spain and India with around 20,000 megawatts each. The United Kingdom, Italy, France, and Canada were clustered together in the 8,000–10,000 megawatt range.
With some impressive wind power achievements in several countries, it is becoming easier to visualize the new energy economy. In 2013, wind farms generated 34 percent of Denmark’s electricity. Portugal’s wind share was 25 percent. Spain and Ireland came in at around one fifth each. In fact, Spain’s wind farms overtook coal plants as that country’s number two electricity source in 2013 and narrowly missed overtaking nuclear power for the lead.
Within Germany, four states in the north are leading the world into the wind century: Mecklenburg-Vorpommern gets 65 percent of its electricity from wind, Schleswig-Holstein gets 53 percent, and Sachsen-Anhalt and Brandenburg each get 51 percent. Each of these states has passed the halfway mark in the transition to the new energy economy.
The year 2013 ended with a bang for wind energy in Europe. In the United Kingdom, strong winds in late November 2013 greatly boosted wind generation and allowed utilities to power down 7,900 megawatts of high-cost gas-fired generators, dramatically cutting their gas expenditures. Wind power met 13 percent of U.K. electricity needs during the week before Christmas. For the year, wind farms generated close to 8 percent of all U.K. electricity.
In December 2013, wind supplied 28 percent of Ireland’s electricity. At times during the year, wind was responsible for half of the country’s electricity. Denmark, however, won the wind sweepstakes: wind supplied 55 percent of its electricity during December. The next month, Denmark broke its own record, getting an incredible 62 percent of its electricity from wind.
Denmark—a country of fewer than 6 million people that is about one third the size of New York State—embarked on its path toward such impressive wind generation as a result of the 1970s oil crises. Realizing that being more than 90 percent dependent on oil to satisfy its energy needs was no longer viable, Denmark initially turned to coal and to the prospect of building nuclear power plants. (Anti-nuclear public sentiment led to the abandonment of the latter idea.) The Danish government also used electricity taxes to fund research and development of renewable energy, helping nurture a fledgling wind power industry. The Danish wind company Vestas, which installed its first turbine in 1979, was the leading installer worldwide in 2013.
Wind turbine orders in the early 1980s from California—also spooked by the unpredictability of oil markets—were key in getting Denmark’s wind industry going. Now, after nearly 40 years of Danish policies promoting renewable energy—including environmental taxation favoring efficiency and renewables over polluting energy sources—Denmark is well on its way to meeting a goal it set in 2012: getting 50 percent of its electricity from wind by 2020. Energinet.dk, Denmark’s state-owned grid operator, reports that the share reached 39 percent in 2014.
Countries are adding wind power to their energy mix for a host of reasons. One of wind’s attractions is its small footprint. Although a wind farm can cover many square miles, turbines occupy little land. Coupled with access roads and other permanent features, a wind farm’s footprint typically comes to just over 1 percent of the total land area covered by the project.