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Can huge Mojave wind farm boost faltering wind power industry?

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Just over a year ago the financial meltdown made the biggest concern of wind developers merely finding financing. Wind power was cheap enough to sell itself on the open energy markets of the Northeast and west coast where it competes with natural gas-fired generators and nuclear energy generators. Now flip that picture, Mr. Kaplan says.

Federal financing is in place, Wall Street is loosening a bit, but wind power is suddenly being undercut by cheap electricity generated by natural-gas fired turbines. The gas is cheap because the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing in shale formations across the country has unleashed a torrent of fuel and torpedoed natural gas prices. Add to that an economy that's using less energy because it's just not revving that fast.

"Last year the story was how do we get financing for wind power," Kaplan says. "This year the story changed."

A new Department of Energy report released Wednesday outlined some of the issues behind wind power's lagging competitiveness. Driven by higher turbine and other component costs, the sale price of bundled power rose about $61 per megawatt hour – about double the level of just eight years ago. At the same time, however, wholesale electricity prices – driven by cheap natural gas – have fallen.

To be sure, a number of powerful trends are in wind power's favor. Notable among them:

  • Wind manufacturing and job growth. Seven of 10 wind-turbine manufacturers with the biggest share of the US market now have US manufacturing plants, the DOE study notes. Two of the remaining three have specific plans to open facilities.
  • US is making more, importing less. Wind turbines and other equipment imports were about $4.2 billion last year, down from $5.4 billion in 2008. As imports fell, the proportion of made-in-America wind-power content grew from 50 percent in 2008 to 60 percent last year.
  • Wind Power dominated new power installations. Last year wind made up 39 percent of all new US electric generating capacity last year with nearly 10,000 megawatts of new capacity added – ahead of all other forms of power generation in both categories.
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