For the wind energy industry, 2012 has been filled with both exciting milestones and crushing policy uncertainty. Here are the NAW editors' picks for the top 10 wind energy stories of the year: 1. The looming expiration of the production tax credit (PTC). Perhaps no issue was of greater importance to the U.S. wind energy industry than the fate of the production tax credit (PTC) and its Dec. 31 expiration date. The $0.022/kWh incentive has been credited with spurring the growth of the wind energy industry over the past 20 years. Several PTC-extension proposals have been put forward – including a multiyear phase-out – but partisan gridlock has stalled their passage. A one-year extension of the PTC is currently included in a tax-extenders package passed by the Senate Finance Committee, but fiscal-cliff talks have taken precedence in Congress, and it is unclear whether the PTC and other tax extenders will be included in the wider discussion of the nation's broader economic issues.
2. Widespread industry layoffs. A widely cited Navigant Consulting study notes that 37,000 jobs will be lost if the PTC is not extended. However, the effects of the tax credit's looming expiration and the resulting market uncertainty have already reverberated throughout the U.S. wind energy supply chain. Doubts about policy have brought future wind development plans to a standstill and, in turn, snapped demand for wind turbine components. With the downturn in revenue came over 1,500 layoffs throughout the industry, including from big names like Vestas, Siemens, Gamesa and Iberdrola, but also from many smaller manufacturers and component suppliers that were forced to shut down production facilities and cut many of their staff.
3. November election. The tight race between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney was top of mind for the wind energy industry, as hopes were high that the winner would support favorable renewable energy policy and federal incentives for wind power. Obama made his support for wind energy and the PTC clear early on, while Romney was more equivocal about his stance. Meanwhile, several congressional races were also critical for renewable energy, including in Michigan, Iowa and Colorado. All in all, the election results bode well for wind energy, but many political challenges remain.
4. Record year for installations. With the PTC's uncertain future, wind developers moved heaven and earth to complete wind projects, such as Oregon's 845 MW Shepherds Flat wind farm and the Bishop Hill 1 wind farm, a 200 MW project located in Henry County, Ill. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), approximately 6 GW of new wind energy installations came online through October, and another 6 GW of projects were expected to be brought into service before the PTC's Dec. 31 expiration date. If that happens, EIA notes, 2012 would surpass the 2009 wind energy installation record, when 9.9 GW of wind capacity was installed.
5. Industry consolidation. Fueled by policy uncertainty, lowered demand led to several mergers and acquisitions in the wind power manufacturing and component sectors. In the tower space, reduced demand forced Otter Tail Power to sell Fargo, N.D.-based DMI Industries to Dallas-based rival Trinity Structural Towers, and in September, Katana Summit – also citing reduced demand caused by PTC uncertainty -Â said it would shutter operations if a buyer was not found. In November, Valmont Industries purchased the struggling manufacturer.
Consolidation was not limited to wind towers, however. Infrastructure and Energy Alternatives, the parent company of construction services provider White Construction, itself an acquisition in 2011, bought out the assets of rival RMT. In addition, troubled turbine maker Clipper Windpower was divested by parent United Technologies Corp. and was sold to Los Angeles-based Platinum Equity Capital in August.
6. Federal agencies' investment in renewables. This year, the federal government was one of the biggest investors in renewable energy, including wind power. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) said that each of its military branches would deploy 1 GW of renewable energy at or near its branches by 2025, and in August, the U.S. Army issued a $7 billion request for proposals for renewable energy projects. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to clean energy initiatives, including a $180 million allotment to offshore wind projects.
7. Offshore wind milestones. Whereas offshore wind development in the U.S. once seemed like a distant mirage, several achievements this year pushed it closer to reality. In March, the DOE announced it was spending $180 million on offshore wind power over the next six years and, in December, said it was investing $47 million in six offshore wind projects. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was also very active in the early stages of offshore wind energy development. In December, BOEM announced it would hold the first-ever competitive sales for offshore wind development on the Outer Continental Shelf. The agency also issued several decisions of no competitive interest, including for the Atlantic Wind Connection, an offshore transmission system proposed for the Mid-Atlantic coast that would allow the integration of up to 7 GW of offshore wind energy onto the power grid; a transmission project proposed by Deepwater Wind that would deliver power from the developer's proposed Block Island Wind Farm; and a floating offshore wind project that Statoil is planning for an area off Maine's coast. The DOI also awarded NRG Bluewater an offshore wind lease in an area off the Delaware coast, and Cape Wind secured a second power purchase agreement for another 234 MW of the offshore wind project's output.
8. Attempts to weaken RPS mandates. Over the past year, several important wind energy states saw their renewable portfolio standard (RPS) programs come under increased scrutiny from legislators. States such as Kansas, Washington, Minnesota, Ohio and Maine witnessed attempts to ease, mitigate or weaken their RPS programs. In addition, on Election Day, Michigan voters roundly defeated a proposal to increase the state's RPS. And in Vermont, lawmakers plan to introduce a measure halting ridgeline development of wind farms for three years when the new legislative session begins Jan. 9.
9. Responsible siting. After nearly five years of collaboration, wildlife conservation organizations, Native American tribes, federal and state regulators, the wind industry, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) finalized voluntary land-based Wind Energy Guidelines in March 2012.
The program balances the responsible development of wind farms with mitigation of the impacts on wildlife. Data from more than 80 post-construction mortality studies puts the impact of wind energy at three birds per megawatt per year on average, which, at current installed levels, equates to roughly 140,000 birds per year – far below the hundreds of millions of avian fatalities resulting from collisions with buildings, domestic cats, and other human structures and activities, the FWS notes.
10. AWEA CEO's resignation. Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), unexpectedly resigned from the post on Dec. 17, effective at the end of the year. Her resignation came at a time of great uncertainty for the wind energy sector: two weeks before the expiration date of industry's key tax incentive. Bode, who took over for longtime AWEA President Randall Swisher on Jan. 1, 2009, presided over the industry during a period of extreme highs and lows. While the Sierra Club painted her as a ‘skilled and fearless’ leader, Bode often rankled the association's membership with her penchant for accentuating the positive, rather than addressing the challenges facing the industry.
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