Friday, November 05, 2010

A Wind Bubble?

New US wind turbine installations have slowed significantly this year, compared to 2009, and the decline is having consequences. Among other fallout, Suzlon is mothballing a four-year-old wind turbine factory in Minnesota and laying off the remaining 110 workers, due to a lack of new orders. While the industry pins most of the blame for the slowdown on insufficiently aggressive federal energy policies, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder whether wind power, like housing, might have been caught up in an investment bubble that has finally popped, somewhat belatedly.

The idea of a wind bubble goes against all conventional wisdom, including the importance of expanding electricity generation from low-emission sources in order to mitigate climate change; the desire to build a vibrant "new energy" economy in the US for energy security and competitive reasons; and the persistent mantra of the green jobs that are supposed to turn the economy around. Yet every bubble must have a compelling, plausible narrative, or it would never take off.

When you examine the charts of annual and quarterly US wind turbine installations on pages 2 and 3 of the "Third Quarter 2010 Market Report" from the American Wind Energy Association, there are at least two ways to look at them. The customary perspective would attribute the dramatic increase in wind installations beginning in 2006, which set records in each of the next three years, to the rapid scaling up of an industry that many envision supplying 20% of US electricity generation within two decades, up from its current level of around 2%. This growth has been supported by a variety of incentives and mandates, including the federal renewable production tax credit (PTC), the stimulus grants, and state renewable portfolio standards. But in this scenario it's hard to explain why installations would have fallen off so much this year, when all of these benefits are still in place, other than the imminent expiration of eligibility for the stimulus grants--which in another year might have been expected to trigger a mad rush for projects to get in under the wire, as we saw in 2008 when the PTC was due to expire at year end. How can we attribute this year's drop in installations to the absence of a policy--either a national renewable electricity standard or a comprehensive climate bill--that we've never had?

So turn this picture around and ask why wind might have been in a bubble, and why that bubble might have only popped now, roughly two years after the other bubbles for stocks, housing and possibly oil prices. Aside from the policies promoting wind and other renewables, which have not changed, wind power developers would have looked at two other indicators: credit and demand. Wind projects are capital intensive, and in the run-up to the financial crisis they benefited from the same kind of cheap and readily available credit as other businesses and homeowners did. At the same time, between 2000 and 2007 US demand for electricity was growing at about 1.3% per year. That might not seem like much, but at the scale of the US power sector, that translated into the need to add around 7,000 MW of new generating capacity each year. If all of that was from wind turbines, the required nameplate capacity would approach 20,000 MW, because of wind's lower average output per MW. Wind was also becoming a preferred technology, despite its intermittency, because coal was falling out of favor for environmental reasons and the price of natural gas, the fuel for the dominant incremental generation technology for the last 20 years, had spiked and become very volatile.

If wind was indeed being carried along either by its own bubble or by the froth from the other bubbles fueling the economy in the middle of the decade, why has it only now run out of steam, rather than popping in 2008 or 2009? After all, electricity demand growth evaporated when the financial crisis and recession hit, and demand has not yet recovered to its 2007 peak. For 2008, perhaps the dash to complete projects before the expected expiration of the PTC--it wasn't extended until October of that year--provides sufficient explanation. As for 2009, the charts show that installations did fall dramatically until the implementation of the Treasury stimulus grant program, which injected $1.7 B into wind projects last year and another $2.9 B this year. Moreover, the stimulus grants were more valuable to wind developers than the PTC they formerly received. That isn't just because developers got the money up front, rather than having to wait until a project started up and produced electricity, but also because the grants were based on the 30% investment tax credit (ITC). Using NREL's simplified calculator for the levelized cost of electricity, at a typical cost of around $2,200/kW of capacity the ITC could be worth at least 20% more than the 2.2¢/kWh PTC. In other words, just as the wind market was collapsing last year, the government increased its incentives and accelerated them into up-front cash. That might have been enough to keep a bubble going for a while longer.

Of course there's no way to know whether this scenario is more accurate than the standard explanation for what has happened to the US wind market this year. Nor does it doom wind power to the doldrums even after the economy resumes growing and creating jobs at a healthier rate, and electricity demand picks up. However, if there is a grain of truth in this view, then it might alter our perspective on providing more aggressive support for the wind industry based on the notion that installations should still be running at 10,000 MW per year or more, as they were in 2009, rather than at the lower rate of around 5,000 MW we see today.

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