Winds Across America: Powering the Nation

Once a pipe dream, U.S. wind power is now a $13 billion business, cost-competitive with natural gas, and expected to deliver a third of the nation’s energy by 2050.

Video and photography by Bas Berkhout

In the summer of 1887, Professor James Blyth, of Anderson’s College in Glasgow, built a wind turbine, the world’s first, and installed it in his holiday cottage in Marykirk.

Ten meters high with a cloth sail, the device produced power enough to illuminate his little house for the next 25 years. Since he had more than enough, he offered the surplus to locals so they could light the main street of town.

Professor Blyth couldn’t have dreamed what wind power would look like today. According to the latest figures from the American Wind Energy Association, construction of new wind farms has added an average of $13 billion to the U.S. economy over the past five years, more than the annual revenue generated by Major League Baseball. “The market is very dynamic,” says David Littell, energy consultant with the Regulatory Assistance Project in Vermont. “The learning curves are fast and the costs are coming down tremendously.”

Fortune magazine reports that the price of this renewable has fallen to just over two cents per kilowatt-hour, making it competitive with natural gas. With use surging, the Department of Energy has set targets for wind to furnish 10% of the country’s energy needs by 2020, 20% by 2030 and 35% by 2050. The DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab estimates that wind power alone could theoretically produce nine times the electricity being consumed in this country today.

What it takes to capture the wind: A video series on the people, processes, and essential attributes of wind power. Part 1 of 3 (0:47)

Touch: the detail, the care, the precision

In December 2015, the industry secured important long-term policy certainty with a five-year extension of the federal Production Tax Credit. “Since then there’s been a noticeable boost in morale,” says Kristen Graf, Executive Director of WoWE (Women of Wind Energy). “It’s providing the certainty the industry has been hungry for for a long time.”

At the plant in Fort Madison, Iowa, an inspector goes over every inch of the blade before it is spray-painted (top), and as one of the final steps of the production process (above), workers check exact placement of the blades’ sound-reducing tiles.

Make that a very long time. Ever since its debut in the mid-1970s, the U.S. wind-power business has had to struggle with the fickleness of government favor. At the beginning it seemed success might never come. Following the Arab oil embargo, California offered the industry its first tax credit, and energy analyst Daniel Yergin later described the results: “Committed wind advocates, serious developers, skilled engineers, and practical visionaries were joined by flimflam promoters, tax shelter salesmen, and quick-buck artists. Thus was the modern wind industry born.” It didn’t help that the wind was too strong for the technology of the time.

Since then, technical know-how has grown exponentially. Innovations by Siemens and other industrial giants have made wind a mainstream energy source. One sign they’re doing something right: Facebook, Microsoft, and Google have all established wind-powered data centers in the Midwest.

As wind energy continues to mature, the industry has some specific challenges to confront. Building up-to-the-minute turbines, though a mighty undertaking, is only part of the job. “The great limiting factor right now,” says Beth Soholt, CEO of the advocacy group Wind in the Wires, “is transmission lines, getting the electricity from one place to another.” Seventeen new ones, she says, are now being laid across the Midwest. Others have begun running between the West Coast and Mountain States. All to the good but not enough, as one former analyst with the MIT Energy Initiative puts it: “You can make electricity out of potatoes. The challenge is getting it onto the grid, and right now it’s like a Rube Goldberg machine. There is no national grid. Sooner or later all these smaller ones are going to have to be integrated.”

Photo Gallery

Fort Madison, Iowa: The team that smooths the blades
Fort Madison: The final inspector
Hutchinson, Kansas: The engineers
Fort Madison: Fitting the fiberglass and balsa-wood layers
Hutchinson: Workers in the nacelle yard
Hutchinson: Portrait of the rotor-hub team, framed by its rim

Meanwhile, the technology races ahead very visibly: The big parts are getting steadily bigger. Since wind speed increases with altitude, the latest wind towers are shooting up to meet it. According to the DOE, increasing the height of a tower from about 98 meters, the current standard, to 137 meters can bring energy gains of 20 to 45 percent. Blades are getting longer in concert. Siemens, for example, will introduce a 59-meter blade in the U.S. market, up from 53 meters, beginning in 2017. With all of this, of course, comes the need to boost and refine underlying technologies to make it all work.

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Success also means keeping a lively eye open for special pockets of opportunity. Sherman County, Oregon, for example, has been generally regarded as 831 square miles unremarkable in every respect but one: the occasional sight of residents running a rope between house and barn so they can get from one to the other without being blown away. Where residents experienced trial and vexation, the wind-power industry saw another opening. Turbines went up—some 550 at last count—and so did the local economy. Today there’s a new $2-million library adjoining the high school. In the words of one resident, wind power has given the community all that comes with a “fabulous, happy pile of money.”

Not everyone is so welcoming to wind. The power of NIMBY – not in my backyard – is a continuing obstacle to finding sites for wind farms. Installing wind turbines offshore in the U.S., despite its vast potential as an energy producer, is one example. Take the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod, set to launch years ago and still stalled. “That war has been fought in the trenches,” the MIT analyst says. “It’s provoked extremely strong feelings, visceral reactions. They’ve done visual simulations. These turbines will be so far out they’ll look about ¼” high. They have to be out that far because in-shore wind is so much more fickle. So the resistance in this case is really just a state of mind.”

What it takes to capture the wind, Part 2 of 3 (0:44)

Strength: the people, the material, the power

One challenge no one denies is the potential impact of wind farms on wildlife, especially birds and bats. “I think the wind industry has gone above and beyond in engaging concerns about wildlife,” says Kristin Graf of WoWE. Perhaps the greatest proof of that is an organization called the American Wind Wildlife Institute. Led by Executive Director Abby Arnold, it’s a unique collaboration of 22 wind-power companies, nine national conservation groups, and government agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, all with the common goal of “minimizing and mitigating” the effects of wind power on the natural world. “We don’t take positions on specific projects. We’re a resource,” Arnold says. “It’s a very exciting time for us. One thing we’re looking at right now is the development of technology to detect and deter raptors and bats, verifying the effectiveness of these technologies. We’re just beginning to see the benefits of it, but there’s interest from around the world on this.”

What’s important to remember about wind power in the long run is that it doesn’t have to work alone. “The pairing of wind and solar,” says Beth Soholt, “that’s the future. That will be the game-changer.”

David Littell agrees: “On the East Coast the wind blows onshore most of the day. Then the sun goes down, and it blows offshore. Wind falls off in the summer doldrums, but that's when the sun is strongest. So with something like 70% wind and 30% solar and advanced storage and customer-side management, there’s the potential to get nearly everything you need with renewables.”

By the time that’s happening, maybe the sight of wind towers will be looking better to some who resist them now. “I think they’re iconic,” says Kristen Graf. “I would love to have one in my backyard. I live in Brooklyn, so that’s not really practical. But I think they’re amazing.”

What it takes to capture the wind, Part 3 of 3 (0:49)

Vision: the idea, the design, the personality