The explosive growth of the U.S. wind power industry ranks among the most important energy developments of this young century. From a nascent industry just a decade ago, it has made the U.S. the global leader in wind capacity.
More than 20,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs are tied directly to wind energy with another 65,000 renewable energy related jobs spread across the economy. In the past two years alone, nearly $3 billion in 100-plus manufacturing facilities in the U.S. have been added, announced or expanded.
But the U.S. risks losing its lead – and, with it, tens of thousands of critical new green jobs. Several countries abroad – the European Union members, China and India, are striving to expand their wind capacity substantially by setting mandatory targets for how much electricity must be generated from alternative energy sources by 2020. If that happens, the American Wind Energy Association estimates three-of-four new wind-related manufacturing projects could go outside the U.S., along with their jobs.
Only Congress can keep thousands of clean jobs from going abroad at a time when America’s economic recovery demands the creation of millions of new jobs. Lawmakers must pass a renewable-electricity standard that, like those abroad, would require utilities to obtain 15 percent to 20 percent of their electricity from wind, solar and other alternative power sources by 2020.
In the last session of Congress, the House approved such a national RES but the Senate never took up the issue. Now a bipartisan group of influential senators including Sens. John Kerry (D., Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.) remain committed to passing a comprehensive climate and energy bill that, hopefully, would include a national RES. One global energy consultancy, Navigant Consulting, estimates that if a 20% percent U.S. standard was in place, 191,000 more new green jobs would be created by 2020.
The national standard is critical because, without it, utilities are unwilling to clear long-term deals for renewable energy. While banks have begun again to do some project financing and the Energy Department is awarding grants for renewable-energy companies, those efforts aren’t sufficient to jump start the alternative-energy sector hit badly during the recession and the aftermath of the financial-markets crisis.
Still, wind is one of the most cost-competitive energy resources. The cost of electricity from the wind has dropped to near 4 cents per kilowatt hour in 2008 from 25 cents in 1981, the Energy Department reports. And analysis by the department’s Lawrence Berkeley Lab found that wind prices have been competitive with wholesale power since 2003.
In survey after survey, Americans overwhelmingly favor the development of renewable-energy sources to create jobs and to help eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. Fifty-eight percent of U.S. voters surveyed in January by Rasmussen Reports say that renewable sources such as wind and solar power are the best long-term financial investment to discover new energy.
Federal lawmakers should heed their constituents’ views and act quickly to pass a national RES. For his part, President Obama in his State of the Union address backed the bipartisan effort in the Senate. And he reiterated his support for a bill with incentives “that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.”
There’s reason for optimism. Americans favor a green way forward. Congress has a history of doing the right thing, especially when America’s spirit of innovation is involved. And a renewable electricity standard would spark that strength of purpose – breakthrough alternative-energy projects, plenty of new green jobs, help to our recovering economy and a catalyst to enhance efforts to gain independence from foreign oil.
Andris (Andy) E. Cukurs is chief executive of the U.S. operations of India-based Suzlon Energy Ltd., the world’s third-largest wind turbine manufacturer.