U.S. Wind Power: Cutting Pollution, Saving Water


Burning fossil fuels to generate electricity pollutes our air, contributes to global warming, and consumes vast amounts of water – harming our rivers and lakes and leaving less water for other uses. In contrast, wind energy produces no air pollution, makes no contribution to global warming and uses no water.

The U.S.' wind power capacity has quadrupled in the last five years, and wind energy now generates as much electricity as is used every year in Georgia. Thanks to wind energy, the U.S. uses less water for power plants and produces less carbon pollution.

The nation has vast wind energy resources, and there is still plenty of room for growth. But the pending expiration of federal tax incentives threatens the future expansion of wind power. To protect the environment, federal and state governments should continue and expand policies that support wind energy.

Wind energy is on the rise in the U.S.:

– Electricity generated with wind power quadrupled in the last five years, from about 34,500 GWh in 2007 to more than 140,000 GWh at the end of 2012.

– Wind energy was the largest source of new electricity capacity added to the grid in 2012.

– Nine states now have enough wind turbines to supply 12% or more of their annual electricity needs in an average year, with Iowa, South Dakota and Kansas now possessing enough wind turbines to supply more than 20% of their annual electricity needs.

By displacing electricity from fossil-fuel-fired power plants, wind energy saves water and reduces pollution. In 2012, wind energy helped the U.S. do the following:

– Avoid 84.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution – or as much pollution as is produced by more than 17 million of today's passenger vehicles in a year. Fossil-fuel-fired power plants are the nation's largest source of CO2.

– Save enough water to supply the annual domestic water needs of more than 1 million people. Power plants use water for cooling, reducing the amount of water available for irrigation, wildlife, recreation or domestic use. More water is withdrawn from U.S. lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers for the purpose of cooling power plants than for any other purpose.

– Avoid 79,600 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOX) and 98,400 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions. Power plants are responsible for about 15% of the nation's total NOX pollution each year and about 60% of all sulfur dioxide pollution. In addition, nearly two-thirds of all airborne mercury pollution in the U.S. in 2010 came from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants.

If the U.S. were to continue to add onshore wind capacity at the rate it did from 2007 to 2012, and take the first steps toward development of its massive potential for offshore wind, by 2018 wind energy will be delivering the following benefits:

– Averting a total of 157 million metric tons of CO2 pollution annually – or more CO2 pollution than was produced by Georgia, Michigan or New York in 2011.

– Saving enough water to supply the annual domestic water needs of 2.1 million people – roughly as many people who live in the city of Houston and more than who live in Philadelphia, Phoenix or San Diego.

– Averting more than 121,000 tons of smog-forming NOX pollution and 194,000 tons of sulfur dioxide pollution each year.

Wind energy's success in reducing air pollution and saving water will continue to grow if the U.S. makes a stable, long-term commitment to clean energy at the local, state and national levels. Specific policies that are essential to the development of wind energy include the following:

– The federal renewable energy production tax credit (PTC) and investment tax credit (ITC). The PTC provides an income tax credit of $0.023/kWh for utility-scale wind energy producers for 10 years, while the ITC covers up to 30% of the capital cost of new renewable energy investments. Wind energy developers can take one of the two credits, which help reduce the financial risk of renewable energy investments and create new financing opportunities for wind energy. Both the ITC and the PTC, however, are scheduled to expire at the end of 2013.

– Strong renewable portfolio standards (RPS). A strong RPS helps support wind energy development by requiring utilities to obtain a percentage of the electricity they provide to consumers from renewable sources. These standards help ensure that wind energy producers have a market for the electricity they generate and protect consumers from the sharp swings in energy prices that accompany over-reliance on fossil fuels. Today, 29 states and Washington, D.C., have such standards – other states and the federal government should follow their lead.

– Continued coordination and collaboration between state and federal agencies to expedite siting of offshore wind facilities in areas that avoid environmental harm.

Rob Sargent is the energy program director at Environment America, a federation of 29 state-based environmental advocacy organizations. Tony Dutzik is the senior policy analyst at think tank Frontier Group.

This article was adapted from the executive summary of a report titled "Wind Energy For A Cleaner America II: Wind Energy's Growing Benefits for Our Environment and Our Health." The full report is available here.

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