Solar power and fracking get all the press, but wind has quietly become a major force in the U.S. power grid.
According to a new report from the Department of Energy, wind accounted for about a third of all new electricity capacity installed in the country in 2011. That’s not too far behind natural gas, which accounted for 49 percent of new capacity amid an ongoing boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Overall, it still amounts to just 3.3 percent of the nation’s electricity demand—coal and natural gas dominate, followed by nuclear. But it has now been the second-fastest-growing electricity source in six of the past seven years, thanks in part to a renewable electricity production tax credit originally signed into law by George H. W. Bush in 1992.
Wind’s wild ride may soon come to an end, though. The tax credit is set to expire at the end of this year, and while the Senate has passed an extension, the Republican-controlled House has not.
Now the fate of the wind industry is becoming an issue in the presidential campaign. Mitt Romney on Tuesday toured a coal plant in Ohio to slam Obama for environmental policies that prioritize renewable energy sources over fossil fuels.
“If you don't believe in coal, if you don't believe in energy independence for America, just say it,” Romney said, according to the Columbus Dispatch. "If you believe the whole answer for our energy needs is wind and solar, then say that."
Obama hit back on campaign stops in Iowa, arguing that ending the wind credit would cost the country 37,000 jobs. He included a dig at Romney over the old anecdote that he once strapped the family dog to his car roof on a road trip. From the Des Moines Register:
“Governor Romney even explained his energy policy this way: I’m quoting here: ‘You can’t drive a car with a windmill on it.’ That’s what he said about wind power,” Obama told about 800 Iowans at a campaign rally in rural Oskaloosa. “Now I don’t know if he’s actually tried that. I know he’s had other things on his car."
Despite its huge growth of late, the U.S. wind industry remains far behind that of several other countries in terms of its contribution to the nation's overall energy supply. Denmark's wind capacity is about 29 percent of its annual demand, and that figure is also above 10 percent in Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and Germany.
In the United States, Texas is by far the largest wind power producer, followed distantly by Iowa, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, and, of course, Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.