Wind turbine technology could have a central role to play in the transition to renewable energy. However, its ability to help the world meet Paris Agreement goals may depend on continued investment to fuel the field’s rapid growth.
Wind Power Basics
Wind turbines create electricity as the wind turns their blades around a rotor, which in turn spins a generator. While small wind turbines with 50 kilowatts (KW) of capacity or less can power residential and commercial buildings, much larger wind turbines with power ratings of 6 megawatts (MW) or more are deployed en masse in wind farms to provide utility-scale electricity for thousands of homes and other buildings.
Wind farms fall into two broad categories—onshore or offshore. From 2000 to 2019, global onshore wind power generation grew from 31 terawatt hours (TWh) to reach 1,323 TWh. Offshore wind power generation only truly got its start in 2008 and stood at 67 TWh in 2018. Onshore wind farms have traditionally been cheaper to construct, though technology improvements have made offshore wind farms an increasingly feasible option. Offshore wind farms generate electricity at a steadier rate, as they tend to benefit from higher and less variable wind speeds.
In 2019, wind power accounted for 7.1% of US electricity generation, compared with 1.7% for solar power. As with solar, wind’s main downside is that it is not a constant energy source: electricity generation varies with weather conditions, which can make it challenging to match power supply with demand. However, new technology makes variable renewables look more attractive as the cost of storing excess electricity continues to fall.
Setting the Stage for Record Growth
Despite the COVID-19 crisis, the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) projects record growth for wind power, forecasting a 54% increase in total wind generation capacity from 2019 to 2024. The GWEC estimates that among global onshore wind capacity to be added by 2024, more than 50% will be in the US and China, in part due to firms rushing to meet subsidy deadlines. The United States already has some of the world’s largest wind farms, but the election of Joe Biden to the presidency has raised hopes that the US will pivot toward increased investment in renewable energy such as wind power.
The GWEC makes special note of recent carbon neutrality pledges in Asia. For instance, China aims to be carbon neutral by 2060. This could require China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, to step up its investment in wind power even more from 2026 onward, the GWEC says. Meanwhile, Europe is increasingly adopting offshore wind power; the European Union is targeting an increase in offshore wind capacity from 12 GW to 300 GW by 2050.
Wind power can be an extremely efficient renewable energy source, especially in areas with high and regular winds. With new technological developments, wind turbines and electricity storage are positioned to make wind power even more cost effective.