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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As solar power surges in the United States, wind struggles

Solar power projects are taking off, even as new wind power projects decline. Chart compares capacity additions in each sector since 2000.

By Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich

When President Joe Biden signed the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, it was expected to set off a boom in renewable energy, with hefty tax breaks that would make solar and wind power cheaper than fossil fuels.

So far, however, that dream has only come partly true. Solar panel installations are indeed soaring to record highs in the United States, as are batteries that can store energy for later. But wind power has struggled, both on land and in the ocean.

The country is now adding less wind capacity each year than before the law was passed.

Some factors behind the wind industry’s recent slowdown may be temporary, such as snarled supply chains. But wind power is also more vulnerable than solar power to many of the biggest logistical hurdles that hinder energy projects today: a lack of transmission lines, a lengthy permitting process and a growing backlash against new projects in many communities.

If wind power continues to stagnate, that could make the fight against global warming much harder, experts say. Many plans for quickly shifting the country away from fossil fuels envision a large expansion of both solar and wind, because the two sources generate electricity at different hours and can complement each other. A boom in solar power alone, which runs only in daytime, isn’t enough.

Some of the early predictions that the Inflation Reduction Act would help slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions roughly 40% below 2005 levels by 2030 depended on a rapid acceleration of both solar and wind power this decade. But it is now far less certain that will happen.

“Right now, solar is pretty much in line” with what experts projected, said Trevor Houser, a partner at the Rhodium Group, a research firm that has tried to model the effects of the climate law. “But wind really needs to grow by quite a bit. Going forward, we’re definitely much more concerned about wind.”

Why wind power is struggling

Wind and solar power are often lumped together, but they have important differences that partly explain why one is slowing and the other is thriving right now.

For one, wind power is much more sensitive to location. Wind turbines in a gusty area can generate eight times as much electricity as turbines in an area with just half the breeze. For solar power, the difference between sunny spots and less sunny spots is considerably smaller. That means developers can’t just build wind farms anywhere.

In the United States, the best places for wind tend to be in the blustery Midwest and Great Plains. But many areas are now crowded with turbines and existing electric grids are clogged, making it difficult to add more projects. Energy companies want to expand the grid’s capacity to transport even more wind power to population centers, but getting permits for transmission lines and building them has become a brutal slog that can take more than a decade.

“Getting wind projects built is getting a lot harder,” said Sandhya Ganapathy, CEO of EDP Renewables North America, a leading wind and solar developer. “The low-hanging fruit, the easier access places are gone.”

Across the country, hundreds of local governments have restricted or banned wind or solar projects. If a county blocks a solar array, a developer might be able to move next door. But it’s not always as easy to find a new location for wind farms.

The wind industry has also been hampered by soaring equipment costs after the pandemic wrecked supply chains and inflation spiked. While those factors initially hurt solar, too, the solar industry has adjusted much faster, with China nearly doubling its manufacturing capacity for panels over the past two years. Wind supply chains, which are dominated by a few manufacturers in China, Europe and the United States, have yet to fully recover.

The cost increases have been devastating for offshore wind projects in the Northeast, where developers have canceled more than half the projects they planned to build this decade.

Wind isn’t languishing only in the United States. While a record 117 gigawatts of new wind capacity came online last year globally, virtually all of that growth was in China. In the rest of the world, developers weren’t installing wind turbines any faster than they were in 2020.

The case for wind power

Wind power can be incredibly useful for cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that are rapidly heating the planet, experts say.

That may surprise some: After all, the wind doesn’t always blow when it’s needed, and the average turbine only runs at maximum power about one-third of the time.

But when energy modelers have studied the lowest-cost ways to eliminate U.S. emissions, they have often concluded that it would be invaluable to get about one-third or more of the nation’s electricity from wind, up from about 10% today, alongside a mix of other technologies like solar, batteries, nuclear power, hydrogen and gas plants that can capture and bury their carbon.

That’s because wind turbines provide very cheap electricity, and they often ramp up at night, when solar power is unavailable. (As energy writer Michael Thomas recently showed, this is readily apparent in Texas, where wind and solar power complement each other.)

If wind power can’t expand as quickly as many proponents hope, the United States would need to rely much more heavily on other technologies that can supply carbon-free power throughout the day, such as new nuclear reactors or advanced geothermal power. But those technologies are still in earlier stages of development and are currently more expensive than wind.

“Limiting wind is the worst possible thing you could tell me we have to overcome” in trying to cut emissions to zero, said Ben Haley, a co-founder of Evolved Energy Research, an energy modeling firm.

Can wind make a comeback?

It’s still possible that wind power could rebound. In fact, some experts argue that the recent slowdown is only a temporary artifact of tax policy.

It can take years to develop a wind farm and most companies had raced to finish projects by the end of 2021, which is when the last big federal tax credit for wind power was set to expire. The following year, Congress approved new subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act, but it will take time for companies to refill the pipeline of wind projects in response.

“There are signs that wind is starting to turn the corner,” said John Hensley, vice president for markets and policy analysis at the American Clean Power Association, a renewable industry trade group.

Hensley said that U.S. wind manufacturing was beginning to ramp up thanks to new tax incentives, while costs were starting to come down. Last year, orders for new turbines increased by 130%, although many of them won’t be delivered until 2025 or later.

Even if the economics improve, wind power still faces political hurdles. Many experts say federal legislation is still needed to ease the process of building high-voltage transmission lines. But that’s unlikely to happen in a sharply divided Congress. And the November election looms, with former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, promising to obstruct offshore wind farms if he returns to the White House.

The fate of the wind industry could be a test for whether the country can build large energy projects more generally, said Ryan Jones, a co-founder of Evolved Energy Research. “If we can’t,” he said, “getting to zero emissions is pretty darn challenging.”

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