In 2014, wind farms produced nearly 43 percent of the electricity generated in Denmark. The huge increase over 2013—when the share was an already impressive 34 percent—occurred in large part because it was the first full year of operation for the 400-megawatt Anholt wind farm in the Kattegat Sea, one of the world’s largest offshore wind installations. In January 2014, Denmark’s wind electricity output was enough to meet an astonishing 62 percent of its electricity demand. By 2016, wind will be Denmark’s cheapest source of electricity, according to a government report, costing half as much as new coal- or natural gas-fired generation. This is part of a larger energy transition under way: the falling costs of renewables worldwide—wind and solar in particular—are positioning them as the energy sources of the twenty-first century.
Portugal and Spain both generate at least 20 percent of their electricity from the wind. In Portugal, the output from wind farms is second only to that from hydroelectric facilities. Wind generation exceeds coal-fired electricity by 7 percent and is nearly double what natural gas power plants send to the grid.
In Spain, nuclear power generation still holds a slight lead over wind on an annual basis, but wind power did edge nuclear during the months of January, February, and November in 2014. A harsh law mandating painful cuts to wind farm incentives—applicable to existing projects as well as new ones—was enforced beginning in mid-2014, however, throwing the future of Spanish wind power expansion into doubt.
Another country closing in on 20 percent wind generation is Ireland, where wind farms produced 19 percent of all electricity in 2014, up from 17 percent the year before. The tech giant Apple has taken notice of the wind wealth in both Ireland and Denmark, announcing in February 2015 plans to build and operate data centers in those countries powered entirely by renewable energy—mostly inexpensive wind power—by 2017.
The much larger economies of Germany and the United Kingdom now exceed 9 percent electricity generation from wind power. Germany’s massive wind and solar power capacity is allowing the country to back away from coal even as it phases out nuclear power. Wind farm output there rose 8 percent in 2014, while that from coal plants fell 6 percent. The difference between wind and coal was even more pronounced in the United Kingdom, which in 2014 generated 11 percent more electricity from the wind and 25 percent less from coal than in 2013.
Next on the wind share list is Romania, at close to 9 percent. This country is home to one of the world’s largest wind farms, a 600-megawatt installation owned by Czech utility CEZ. Although recent cutbacks in renewable energy support have created an uncertain policy environment in Romania, comments in February 2015 by the country’s energy minister indicate his desire to restore wind power incentives.
What about the world’s leading emitters of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas destabilizing the earth’s climate system? Wind farms in the United States produce more electricity than those in any other country: 182 terawatt-hours in 2014. This translated into 4.4 percent of annual U.S. generation. At the state level, Iowa’s 28 percent wind power share tops a group of nine states in the double digits.
And in China, the world’s leader in installed wind power capacity with 115,000 megawatts, wind still accounts for less than 3 percent of electricity generation. Yet China’s wind-generated electricity has more than doubled since 2011, leaving nuclear power behind. Wind power is now the country’s third leading electricity source behind coal and hydropower. Endowed with enough wind potential to power their economies several times over, China and the United States can certainly achieve or even surpass the shares of wind-generated electricity seen in Europe. The resource is there to be harnessed.
This article is published in collaboration with The Energy Collective. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Matt Roney is a Research Associate with the Earth Policy Institute.
Image: A windmill rises over farmland on the Danish island of Samso. REUTERS/Bob Strong