Wind Energy and the Environment

Wind is clean, renewable, and free.

Did you know that in 2017 wind energy accounted for more of the U.S. electricity supply than solar? I discovered this during Energy Awareness Month this October because I decided to learn about wind power.

After stumbling across Energy Awareness Month a few years ago, I resolved that each October I would tackle an energy project or learn more about an energy-related topic and share what I learned with readers. Some of the topics I have covered include Energy Action Month history, the Clean Air Act, energy savings tips, rooftop solar tax incentives, and a review of the book Reinventing Fire.

This year wind energy is on my mind because the federal government and at least two wind companies are eying the ocean waters off San Luis Obispo County where I live on the California Central Coast.

Just last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it is ramping up efforts to bring more offshore wind farms to federal waters off the United States’ coastlines. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal agency that manages the development of U.S. outer continental shelf energy and mineral resources, published some of their plans in the Federal Register.

Reading these announcements and news articles made me realize that I did not know much about wind energy so I set out to educate myself and share what I learned. You may not think that wind energy is pertinent to your community, but it is when you expand your vision to a society powered by clean renewable energy like the wind.

The intent of this post is to provide you with an overview of wind energy including its environmental advantages and disadvantages and to offer you some ideas for actions you can take to support wind energy if you choose to do so.

Wind Energy Basics

Even if you have never seen a modern wind turbine in action, you have probably seen wind filling the sail of a sailboat or turning the blades of a windmill.

All three are harnessing the motion (kinetic energy) of the wind. The wind turbine uses the wind to produce electricity, the sailboat uses it to propel the boat forward and the windmill uses it to pump water.

If you only have 60 seconds, I think the video below gives a good overview of how an offshore wind turbine works. There are more video links in the resources section at the end of the post.

Like solar, wind can supply electricity for homes, businesses, farms, communities, and power plants.

Solar panels on a home rooftop or wind turbines on a family farm are referred to as distributed energy meaning the electricity is consumed close to where it is produced. If distributed sources send their electricity to the electric grid, an entire community can share the power.

Large groups of wind turbines constitute a wind farm and can supply electricity for an industrial complex or to a utility-scale power plant, which then distributes it to their customers via the electric grid.

Most of the wind turbines producing electricity in the U.S. are land-based. A few have been around since the 1980s like the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm you see as you drive down Interstate 10 on the way to Palm Springs, CA.

Offshore Wind Farm in Ocean Waters off Block Island, Rhode Island
Offshore Wind Farm in Ocean Waters off Block Island, Rhode Island – Photo AWEA

An offshore wind farm is one that has wind turbines in the ocean or a large lake. The first U.S. offshore wind farm did not come online until just two years ago. Rhode Island made history when the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Block Island began sending electricity to the grid in December 2016.

Wind Industry 2017 Highlights

In 2017, wind accounted for 6% of utility-scale electricity produced by renewable energy sources, hydropower was 7%, biomass 2%, solar 1%, and geothermal less than 1%. 1

Wind blowing across the U.S. in 2017 provided more than 10% of the total electricity generation for 14 states, and more than 30% in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Texas had the highest wind electricity generation capacity of any state. 2

2017 Wind Share of Electricity by State Map - Source AWEA
Source AWEA

Unlike coal, natural gas, or petroleum, the wind is a domestic energy source that cannot be exported. The wind industry provides jobs, lease payments for landowners, and property, local, and state tax revenue.

The U.S. wind industry employed 105,500 people in 2017. 2

Workers in a Wind Turbine Manufacturing Plant
Workers in a Wind Turbine Manufacturing Plant – Photo AWEA

Most of the components of wind turbines installed in the United States are made in the U.S. by 500 wind-related manufacturing facilities across 41 states. In 2017, U.S. based General Electric was ranked second in U.S. market share for wind turbine manufacturers. 2, 3

During 2017, over $11 billion was invested in new U.S. wind projects. 2

Next, we will explore some of the environmental advantages and disadvantages associated with producing electricity from wind.

Environmental Advantages of Wind Energy

Burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to generate electricity emits a whopping 34% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. 4 We could bring that figure to zero by transitioning to clean renewable energy, like the wind.

Wind energy is clean (does not produce emissions) and renewable (replenishes itself).

Wind blowing across Earth’s land and waters is free for everyone. Of course, capturing wind and converting it into electricity is not free but once a wind turbine or wind farm is installed, it operates on free energy for 20 to 25 years.

Wind turbines do not spew greenhouse gases and pollution into the air, which is good for your health and the environment.

Another major benefit of wind energy is that wind turbines do not deplete or pollute groundwater basins, rivers, or lakes that tens of millions of people rely on for drinking water and they do not pollute the ocean.

Wind Turbines on a Sheep Farm in Rio Vista, CA
Wind Turbines on a Sheep Farm in Rio Vista, CA – Photo AWEA

Land use for wind turbines and wind farms has pros and cons.

On the plus side, a wind turbine only occupies a small piece of land so other activities like agriculture, ranching, and recreation can go around them.

On the downside, the best place for wind turbines is in wide-open spaces and on ridge tops, which can be in remote places that do not have roads or transmission lines. Building infrastructure disrupts ecosystems and causes pollution and erosion. In the ocean, installing platforms (on the seabed or floating) and undersea cables can cause similar environmental issues.

Environmental Disadvantages of Wind Energy

A drawback of wind energy is that it fluctuates so it may not produce a continuous supply of electricity all the time.

Americans expect electricity to be instantly available 24/7/365 so wind power needs to be backed up with storage or an additional electricity supply source. Battery storage systems add to the environmental footprint of wind systems. If backup electricity is provided by a power plant that burns fossil fuels, it reduces the environmental benefit of wind.

Mining for rare earth metals and making steel and concrete to build wind turbines and platforms has a negative environmental impact including greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and high energy use. The thing is that this can be said about anything that uses these materials so it is not unique to wind energy.

Wind turbines can present a hazard to birds, bats, and marine animals.  Careful placement of wind turbines can alleviate this issue.

Noise might be a problem if you live or work very close to a wind turbine or wind farm.  Noise may also affect nearby wildlife both on land and in the ocean.

Some people have an aesthetic concern about seeing a wind turbine or wind farm in their viewshed, a term I first saw while reading an article about our potential local offshore wind farms.

Yes, wind does have some drawbacks, but they are insignificant when you consider the widespread danger and damage associated with every aspect of the fossil fuel industry.

Wind energy capacity has skyrocketed since 2001 and continues to grow.

U.S. Annual and Cumulative Wind Capacity Growth Since 2001 Bar Chart - Source AWEA
U.S. Annual and Cumulative Wind Capacity Growth Since 2001 – Source AWEA

What Can You Do to Support Wind Energy?

You may not have a wind farm project going on where you live, but you can still support wind energy. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

  • Install a residential-scale wind turbine in your yard.
  • Learn more about wind energy and talk about it with your family, neighbors, and coworkers.
  • If you do have a wind project pending in or near your community, get involved by attending town hall meetings and other events that give you an opportunity to learn about the project and to voice your concerns and/or support.
  • Tell your local and state elected representatives that you are in favor of wind energy and ask them what they are doing to support it.
  • Request that your U.S. senator and congressperson author and/or support a bill extending renewable energy tax incentives.

What am I doing? I am going to find out what I can about the two potential projects off our coastline and get involved in some way.

Featured Image at Top: Wind Turbines with a Rainbow in the Background – Photo AWEA

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References

  1. Electricity Explained: Electricity in the United States – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  2. 2017 Wind Technologies Market Report – U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
  3. AWEA U.S. Wind Industry 2017 Annual Market Report – American Wind Energy Association
  4. How much of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are associated with electricity generation? – U.S. Energy Information Administration

Resources

Rooftop Solar Panels are Worth It and this is Why

Sunlight is clean, renewable, and free.

Homeowners when you install solar panels on your roof, you are making the world a better place, saving money on electricity, and increasing your home’s value. What could be better?

I know. That may sound like a grandiose statement but think about it.

You already know that burning fossil fuels is causing global warming and endangering our planet and the people living on it. You probably also know that the majority of electricity generated in the United States is produced by burning fossil fuels (63% in 2017). Hopefully, you agree that switching to clean renewable energy sources like the sun is a good idea and that we need to accomplish it sooner rather than later.

Every time a homeowner installs solar panels on their roof (or anyone installs solar panels on any roof), our society moves that much closer to getting off fossil fuels and that makes the world a better place for you, the people you love, and everyone else.

Unlike fossil fuel companies, the sun shares its energy free to everyone and it will continue to do so for another four or five billion years. To capture the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity you need a solar panel system and that is not free. Fortunately, nowadays, there are numerous options available to you, from paying cash for solar panels to renting your roof and paying a discounted rate for electricity.

In 2017, the California Regional Multiple Listing Service added fields to its system so realtors can enter solar power information for their listings in a consistent manner making it easier for homebuyers to compare homes. You can read more about this in the post You Can Increase Your Home’s Value with Owned Solar Panels.

I am grateful for the people who had the foresight to install rooftop solar panels decades ago. These early adopters created a demand for solar panels and along with early manufacturers and installers, they got the solar industry off the ground and worked through the technical and operational issues that often accompany a new product.

Five years ago, my spouse and I decided to join the rooftop solar revolution made possible by these solar pioneers.

Owning a Rooftop Solar Panel System

On March 8, 2018, the mini wall calendar that hangs by my desk informed me that on this day five years ago our new rooftop solar system generated its first kWh of electricity from the sun.

Since I am a data-loving kind of gal, the five-year mark seemed an ideal time to do a review of our system and electric bills. I thought it would be fun to attempt to answer the question, “Is solar worth it?” from a financial perspective because there seems to be a fixation on “Show me the money.” by the media, solar installers, and potential customers.

Solar Panel Character Grasping 100 Dollar Bills
Photo Credit – iStock/Talaj

At the time, I was working on our 2017 income taxes and thinking that a tax refund would make an excellent down payment for a rooftop solar system (hint, hint). In preparation for this post, I emailed Glen at A.M. Sun Solar (the company that did our installation) to ask him what our system would cost today.

Background

We moved to the Central California Coast from Southern California in 2007. The climate here is cool and sunny with average temperatures ranging from 55° in the winter to 65° in the summer although, in the last couple of years, days over 80° have increased.

Other than opening windows, we do not have air conditioning and our heating system runs on natural gas (ugh, another future project) so our electricity use is not as high as it would be in a hotter climate where more people have window air conditioners or central air conditioning. My spouse and I both work from home so we are home all day using electricity.

Before we installed solar panels, our average annual electricity cost was $1,742.

Purchasing Solar Panels versus Leasing

Our children, your children, and everyone else’s was our main motivation for installing solar panels on our roof. It was a way for us to be for something, to do our part in building a nationwide clean renewable energy network. Free electricity in the future was a bonus.

After deciding to install solar panels, we needed to figure out how we were going to pay for them.

Buying solar panels would require a significant cash outlay upfront; however, we knew that at some point we would recoup the system’s cost and that electricity would be virtually free indefinitely (at the end of the 20-30 year warranty period, solar panels may be less efficient but they do not stop working). On the other hand, a lease would have little or no initial cost and we would immediately be paying less for electricity.

We intend to live in our home for many years to come and we did have some money saved in our rainy day fund so we determined that purchasing a rooftop solar system was the right choice for us. The 30% federal tax incentive for renewable energy projects probably influenced us (a little bit). If we had not had the money, we likely would have pursued a home equity or solar loan.

Solar Panel System Cost and Electric Bills

We selected a locally owned solar installation company so we could support a small business in our community and we purchased equipment made in the United States to support American workers.

Danny from A.M. Sun Solar Beginning Our Rooftop Solar Installation
Danny from A.M. Sun Solar Beginning Our Rooftop Solar Installation in 2013.

Our system started out with 16 solar panels in 2013 and we added 6 more panels in 2014 after receiving a tax refund as a result of claiming the 30% federal tax incentive on our 2013 income tax return. We reported our second purchase on our 2014 income tax return lowering our tax liability.

The net cost of our 22-panel 5.34 kW solar system was $14,767.

Our system ties into PG&E’s electric grid so during the day when our solar panels are generating more electricity than we are using we send the excess to the grid to share with the community and we pull electricity from the grid at night or on exceedingly cloudy days.

We pay PG&E a monthly minimum fee of about $10.00 (it started out at $4.50). If we draw more electricity from the grid over a 12-month period than we send to it, we pay extra money to PG&E. If we send more electricity to the grid than we use, PG&E issues us a credit that we can use to pay our monthly fee until it runs out.

Twice a year (April and October), California residents receive a California Climate Credit on their electric bill funded by fees paid by power plants and other large industries that emit greenhouse gases. In 2018, the credit is $39.42 times two.

From March 2013 through March 2018, we paid PG&E a total of $644.

If you are interested in learning about our solar panel installation experience and how to make your own installation go smoothly, or how solar net energy metering works, I covered these topics in the posts Go Solar with Home Rooftop Photovoltaics – We Did and Rooftop Solar Costs Less than You Think.

Payback Period

A payback period is the length of time it takes an investment to recover its initial cost either in profits or savings. For a homeowner with owned rooftop solar panels, the payback period is however long it takes electricity savings to equal the cost of the system.

If you did not take into account rising electricity rates or any of the many variables that affect electric bills, and assuming that we did not pay another dime to PG&E our payback period would have been: $14,767 system cost divided $1,742 average annual electricity cost before solar = 8 years and 6 months.

After looking at five years of net energy metering bills, 21 PG&E rate schedules, and our system’s energy production data, I realized I would need a supercomputer to calculate accurately what we would have paid for electricity if we did not have solar panels.

Undaunted I decided to take a stab at a payback period anyway. Electricity price increases, a torrential downpour, and additional work-at-home occupants affected our payback period, which at this point, I estimate to be about 7 years so we are already 71% of the way there.

More details about how I estimated our payback timeframe are available by clicking on Rooftop Solar Payback Period Example.

Tax Incentives and Tariffs

Earlier in the post, I mentioned asking Glen from A.M. Sun Solar what a system similar to ours would cost now. His response was $17,586 a reduction of $3,510 (a whopping 16.6%). With the 30% tax incentive of $5,276, the net cost for the system would decrease even more to $12,310.

After December 31, 2019, the tax incentive decreases and then phases out at the end of 2021. Visit the DSIRE (Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy) website to learn more.

Oh, but wait. Have you seen in the news that the Trump Administration implemented a tariff on solar components in February this year? It starts at 30% for 2018. This could affect the cost of your installation, but even if it does, the tax incentive would probably cover it and then some.

Homes with Rooftop Solar Panels in Austin, TX Neighborhood
Homes with Rooftop Solar Panels in Austin, TX Neighborhood – Photo Credit iStock/Roschetzky

Electricity prices continue to rise (along with greenhouse gases) and solar panel prices have come down even with tariffs so now is a good time for you to seriously consider rooftop solar panels for your home.

Solar Panels Add Value to Your Life

While I was looking at data and doing calculations for the payback period, it occurred to me, that many if not most home improvements do not even have an expectation of a payback period.

For instance, what is the payback period on a $15,000 bathroom remodel or a $50,000 kitchen renovation? At what point do you recover the cost of a $10,000 roof replacement? There is no answer. Even when you sell your home, it is unlikely that you will recoup anywhere near the cost (if you doubt me, google it).

I can hear you saying, “But, I enjoy taking showers in my remodeled bathroom, I love cooking dinner in my renovated kitchen, or I am thankful my new roof is keeping the elements outside where they belong.” What you are really saying is “This adds value to my life.”

Let us return to the question, “Is solar worth it?” You know where I am going with this, right.

Solar panels add value to my life. To me, they are worth it.

Every time I look at the solar panels on our roof or pay my PG&E bill, I feel happy knowing that by generating renewable energy to run our home we are doing something positive that is good for the planet and the people we love. I admit contemplating free electricity in less than two years brings a smile to my face, too.

Perhaps rooftop solar panels could add value to your life.

If you call a solar installer today, you could have a solar panel system installed before the hottest part of the summer. What could be better?

Featured Image at Top: Pair of Hands Catching Sunbeams – Photo Credit iStock/ipopba

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