Why isn’t wind as sexy as solar?

Why isn’t wind as sexy as solar?

When employees begin to move into Apple Park, Apple’s new 175-acre campus in Cupertino, California, next month, they’ll be walking into one of the largest on-site solar energy installations in the world. The park will be powered by 100% renewable energy; a 17-megawatt rooftop solar installation is its crowning jewel.

Take a low-flying aerial tour of Silicon Valley, and you’ll see no shortage of solar panels glinting on roofs: Microsoft installed what was then Silicon Valley’s largest solar panel system in 2006, and since then companies like Oracle and Facebook have followed suit, spending millions of dollars to add rooftop solar to their sprawling campus sites.

What you will not see a lot of: wind turbines. Even though wind power accounts for 5% of the U.S.’s power supply versus solar power’s contribution of less than 1%, solar, much more so than wind, has captured the imagination of Silicon Valley-type innovators. Compared to the roughly 82 wind-power startups in the U.S., there are around 709 focused on solar power. The difference, says Stephen Comello, the director of the Sustainable Energy Initiative at the Stanford School of Business, is a matter of scalability: Because solar can scale down to the residential level, it’s both more visible and more personal, and more primed for innovation.

“There’s a difference when it comes to the salience of wind and solar,” Comello says. “Wind is really a technology that has been around for hundreds of years–people don’t really think about it, and we tend to keep it out of view.” Solar, however, “is something that’s fairly new, and still esoteric,” Comello says. As such, it’s seen a lot of momentum in recent years: Since 2008, solar installations in the U.S. have grown 17-fold, increasing from 1.2 gigawatts (GW) to an estimated 30 GW–enough to power 5.7 million homes. Wind’s growth over the same time frame has been less dramatic, but more substantial: Wind capacity has tripled to over 82 GW, enough to power 24 million homes.

Despite irrefutable growth in the renewable industries, President Donald Trump has made no secret of his preference for fossil fuels; in an interview with Herman Cain last October, he said wind and solar are not able to work at a large scale, adding “solar is very, very expensive. Wind is very, very expensive, and it only works when it’s windy.” Trump, instead, extols the virtues of coal, which, in 2015, was used for 33% of the approximately 4 trillion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity generated in the U.S. But the coal industry is dying: in West Virginia, Appalachia’s biggest coal producer, coal production declined 45% between 2000 and 2015; in that time, the whole region lost over 9,300 coal jobs. Coal is also getting expensive: According to an analysis from Lazard, the cost of coal in 2015 ranged from $60 to $143 per kWh.

Contrary to Trump’s claims, the cost of wind is plummeting: The same Lazard analysis estimated that the levelized cost of wind in 2015 ranged from $14 to $48 per kWh—the cheapest source of energy in some parts of the country. Solar, while cheaper than coal, is still more expensive, at $36 to $49 per kWh.

Suspended between Trump’s disdain and Silicon Valley’s innovation-fueled enthusiasm for solar, wind could be seen as stranded in something of an impasse. But Mark Barteau, the director of the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute, says that’s not the case. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, if the wind industry continues to see the steady growth its experienced over the last decade, it could provide over a third of the U.S.’s energy by 2050. More so than the environmental argument in favor of this development, which, under the current administration, is not faring well, the economics of the wind industry are driving this trend, Barteau says. It’s hard to argue with an industry that is economically competitive with other forms of energy, and provides massive opportunity for onshore manufacturing and job creation. And both because of its large-capacity potential and exciting new offshore developments, wind appears poised to keep renewables growing throughout the next four years.

Source: Fastcompany

Date: May 2017

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